"Putin hints at presidential bid." This was the headline on an opinion piece by Russia veteran and the BBC's diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall. In widely reported comments, the press was picking up on a question posed to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during the Valdai Club meeting over the weekend - an annual gabfest when the leading political analysts meet with the Kremlin's leaders behind closed doors.
Kendall went on to lead the piece: "Russian PM Vladimir Putin has given the clearest indication yet that he might run again for the Russian presidency. Mr Putin did not commit himself, but hinted that he is thinking of coming back in 2012 when President Dmitry Medvedev's current term expires."
Typically, this piece gets hold of the wrong end of the stick. What Putin actually said was that he hasn't made up his mind and what he actually hinted at was that if things continue to pan out well, then he probably would not stand for president, leaving things as they are with Dmitry Medvedev as president.
Kendall's piece reflects the bias in the international press that assumes Putin is power hungry and wants to stay on the throne forever. She highlights this by pointing out at the end of her piece that if Putin did retake the presidency in 2012 (when the next elections are due), his two (recently extended) six-year terms mean he would be in power for a quarter of a century.
Also, typically, the piece passes over the point that Putin is the only president in the CIS to refuse to change the constitution to grant him presidency for life and remains the only leader in the region to voluntarily step down when his term expired. The journalistic tradecraft of balanced reporting demands that this point be at least mentioned.
We have said all this before, but the question of what will happen in 2012 is a very important one and, to be honest, it is not at all clear what will happen then. However, Putin shed a little more light on this topic.
The thing with Putin is you can usually take his comments at face value; the golden rule of Russia-watching under Boris Yeltsin was to ignore everything everyone said and look closely at what they did. Putin was the first politician in Russia's modern history that actually said exactly what he intended to do (and managed to do it most of the time).
Looking carefully at Putin's comments and a different story emerges. The first thing he said was that he has not decided if he will run again in 2012, but will see how things stand then. "When it comes to 2012, we'll work it out together, taking into account the current reality, our own plans, the shape of the political landscape, and the state of United Russia, the ruling party," Putin said.
The implication is that if things are going well, he will leave things as they are, remaining in the job of prime minister. Specifically, he said he would not compete with Medvedev: "Did we compete against each other in 2007 [before the last presidential election]?... No, we didn't. And so we won't in 2012 either. We'll reach an agreement," he said.
Everything depends on how the reform process in Russia is going, but the political climate will play an important role. Putin's reference to the role of United Russia is very illuminative. Putin is the nominal head of the party (although he is not a member) and the fact that the party has a constitutional majority means the power of president and prime minister is finely balanced: Medvedev can sack Putin at any time, but Putin can change the constitution to nix the job of president at any time.
Putin's plan seems to be to introduce political reforms gradually and move Russia over to a parliamentary democracy in small steps, in the same way the economy has to be reformed gradually over a period of years. Putin himself has said nothing to back this up, but Medvedev has made the need to diversify the political base explicit on several occasions (most recently in a surprisingly frank open letter last week) - and he was appointed by the Putin: something Putin made explicit in these comments by referring to the succession in the UK after former prime minister Tony Blair stepped down in favour of Gordon Brown. "Russia's democratic institutions have been generally formed, but their quality is quite far from ideal. Civil society is weak and the level of self-organization and self-government is not high," Medvedev said in an article, published by the online newspaper Gazeta.ru, in what is becoming typical for him.
Pointedly, however, the letter omitted any proposal on how to strengthen civil society and instead talks about a new national strategy to fight alcoholism - specific solutions to specific problems, that don't touch on general political reform. Indeed, Medvedev made the go-slow approach explicit. "Not everyone is happy about the pace of our advancement in this direction. Some argue that the change in the political system must be accelerated and even that we should return to the 'democratic 1990s'. However, a return to a paralyzed state is unacceptable. So I will have to upset the advocates of permanent revolution. No more haste," Medvedev said. "Hastiness and inconsideration in matters of political reform led to tragic consequences more than once in this country, pushing Russia to the brink of a break-up. We have no right to put social stability at risk and threaten life even for the sake of the loftiest of the goals."
Clearly both Putin and Medvedev associate a more rapid move towards an open society with the chaos of perestroika that ran out of control and brought the Soviet Union down. This is the first time that the Kremlin has linked the problems faced by the Communist authorities during perestroika with democratic reform. "Change will come. Yes, it will be gradual and well thought out, and go step-by-step. But it will be steady and consistent," Medvedev said.
How can the Kremlin lay out its plans any clearer than that?
At this point in the narrative, Kendal says: "And now, [Putin] seemed to be hinting the time might come when President Medvedev would be asked to return the favour." It is entirely possible that Putin may ask Medvedev to return the favour, but what he has actually suggested here is that he will only do so if things are going badly.
Putin's reason for not remaining president is that he wasn't allowed to by the constitution. He is a lawyer (as is Medvedev) and by stepping down, Putin has set the constitution in stone, making it much more difficult for successive leader to blithely change the constitution as they have done in places like Belarus and Kazakhstan.
That same constitution vests most of the power in the Duma and mentions the presidential apparatus only in passing. The Duma is supposed to be the seat of power, which is why, given Putin's respect for the constitution, he would rather stay on as PM. However, if things are going badly and you need to fight a dirty fight, the power of the presidential apparatus is much easier to wield.
So what is the cut-off point that will make Putin decide to go back to the job of the president? Big problems in the economy would be one trigger. However, it seems pretty clear now that Russia will be growing strongly again by 2012, although many big reforms have been delayed by the crisis and will only just get going then. But the Prime Minister's office is a better place to be to organise the work on the ground, so we expect Putin will only return to the presidency if there is a second wave to the Russian crisis.
A lot less clear is Putin's need for United Russia to have a constitutional majority to balance his power with that of the president. The working hypothesis has to be that Putin will want to maintain the constitutional majority in the Duma for at least one more presidential term as a prerequisite for him staying on as prime minister after which Russia's recovery should be set.
There are several pieces of evidence that suggest this is the plan. First is that most of the economic programmes that Putin has put in place in recent years are tied to 2020, which suggests he expects to be heavily involved in the process until this date. Second is that in Medvedev's call for a more pluralistic political scene the reforms he has suggested are all pigeon steps and won't have much of an impact in the near term.
However, it could well happen that even if Putin was ready to stay on as prime minister, if United Russia doesn't look like it will win enough seats, Putin could decide to come back as president. This means that, ironically, the key event in the 2012 will be the Duma, not the presidential, elections.
Bottom line is that it looks as though Putin and Medvedev are doing the groundwork for increasing political pluralism, but they won't actually unleash it until after the 2012 elections.
In his article, Medvedev also called for strengthening the judiciary: "Democracy is in need of protection as much as the fundamental rights and liberties of our citizens are. First of all, protection from corruption, which breeds lawlessness, lack of freedom and injustice. We are just beginning to build such a protection mechanism. The judiciary must be its nucleus," Medvedev writes in the article.
He also made explicit that Russia needs foreign investment, not because it needs the money, but because it needs the know-how: "Our internal financial and technological capabilities are insufficient today to give a real boost to the quality of life. We need money and technologies from countries of Europe, America and Asia," Medvedev wrote.
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