The cost of a Putin presidency 2.0 in Russia

When Putin returns to the presidency next year, it will mean stability in Russia. But that comes at a cost – stagnation, as Russia groans under autocracy, corruption, cronyism, and social ills. The US must be realistic about Russia's strengths and weaknesses.

Vladimir Putin’s expected return to the presidency next year means stability – and stagnation – for Russians. And neighboring nations, as well as the United States, should prepare for a tough counterpart.

Unflinching understanding of Mr. Putin’s – and Russia’s – strengths and weaknesses is the necessary condition for a realistic American policy.

With last weekend’s announcement that Putin will be the ruling party’s nominee for the 2012 elections, he may become the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, who ruled for almost 30 years.

Putin has held the reins of power – first as president and now as prime minister – since 2000. Another two-term presidency, totaling 12 years, would keep him in charge until 2024. Putin’s protégé, current President Dmitry Medvedev, is heading for the job of prime minister, but were he to later resettle into the presidency – with Putin possibly switching back to prime minister – the “tandem” could conceivably rule until 2036.

With more Putin, however, Russia faces a trade-off of stagnation for stability. Yes, Mr. Medvedev talks about broad modernization. He vocally supports direct elections for the Council of the Federation, the upper house of parliament. He also talks of building up the nation’s “knowledge economy.” Yet during his presidential term he has accomplished little.

Putin talks about selectively importing Western technologies necessary to strengthen Russia’s defense and energy industries. Far from breaking ground, this is a traditional Russian catch-up model for modernization. It has been in place at least since Peter the Great, the stern and westernizing monarch who brought European fashions – and military tactics – to Russia. This founder of St. Petersburg, the home town of Putin and Medvedev, is Putin’s hero.

Political modernization, including the return to the cacophonous multi-party democracy of the Yeltsin era, will be tough to pull off in Putin’s third term. This is regrettable, but not surprising. For over three centuries, western institutions that were imported to Russia underwent such degradation that they became mere contraptions.

Under the czars, after the 1905 revolution, political parties were tiny and impotent. Parliaments (Dumas) have almost never had a true lawmaking function. In the best case, they became talking clubs. At their worst, the Supreme Soviet rubber stamped the most egregious legislation.

The evolution of the post-communist Duma and presidency is a sad testimony to the same process. As before, the all-powerful executive branch – be it the czar, the secretary general, president, or prime minister – more often than not rules by an ukaz, a fiat.

In fact, Russia’s western-sounding pseudo-institutions – such as courts, political parties, and the bicameral parliament – have made Putin’s “managed democracy” just another term for autocracy. The power system today is more stagnant than the long rule of cold-war leader Leonid Brezhnev, and is barely capable of deceiving Russians and foreigners alike. The outcomes of upcoming Duma and presidential elections are of course known in advance.

As the late Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, famously quipped, “Whichever party we build, the outcome is always the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

Russia has been a conundrum for Western policymakers for centuries. Yet the Obama administration claimed great progress in a “reset” policy based on chummy relations between President Obama and Mr. Medvedev. The reset would, they insisted, usher in a new era of cooperation and friendship between the two nations.

As the Heritage Foundation think tank has continuously warned, these policies will be challenged once Putin returns. The administration claims “reset” has already borne fruit. It points to many accomplishments, including Russia’s assistance in building a transport network to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan; cooperation on UN sanctions against Iran; and pursuit of arms control agreements.

Yet on other key issues, such as NATO enlargement and missile defense, the chasm remains deep. And Russian cooperation has come at a cost. For example, the administration has considerably toned down its support for Russian neighbors seeking Western orientation and alliances, effectively recognizing the Russian “sphere of privileged interests” in the former Soviet space.

With the geopolitical macho Putin returning to a more internationally prominent role (and Medvedev shunted to the diminished prime ministry, essentially, an economic management slot), Mr. Obama and other Western leaders will have to deal with the longest-serving leader among the G-8. Putin will command the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world. And he will have Russia’s massive economic resources, including a $400 billion cash cushion, oil and gas reserves, and a cornucopia of raw materials, at his beck and call.

Most importantly, Putin simply doesn’t trust the United States, calling it a “parasite” on the world economic body. He accuses it of bringing about the Arab Spring and “velvet revolutions” by expanding hard-to-control social media. He resents the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency. And he alleges that US foreign policy disregards international law.

Yet Russia’s internal ills (such as pervasive corruption, rampant alcoholism, drug use, and the spread of HIV/AIDS) and its miserably low birth rates, coupled with the rise of radical Islam and ongoing terrorism, are likely to breed opposition. Putin’s opponents come in many stripes, from the liberal center, to nationalists and leftists. They’re weak today, but they predict the regime’s eventual collapse as malaise and ennui spread.

The business community, sick of extortion by siloviki – the inner circle of corrupt police and secret service officers – is likely to vote with their feet, taking billions of dollars abroad. Hundreds of thousands of them already populate New York, London, and the Côte d'Azur. The best and the brightest may leave the country, as millions did under the czars and communists.

Without reforms, Putin’s Russia is unlikely to be a happy place for anyone not enamored of its natural resources. Nor is it known how Putin is planning to handle the rise of the giant neighbor to the east – China. By turning Russia into Beijing’s gas station and supply depot?

Yet one thing is clear: For the US and the West, as well as for Russia’s neighbors, the future lengthy Putin rule is going to be a tough challenge – and a rocky ride.

Ariel Cohen is the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy policy. A version of this recently appeared on his blog on the Heritage website, The Foundry.

Editor's note: A previous version incorrectly identified the destination of hundreds of thousands of today's emigrating Russians.

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