Russia's presidential election is still months away, but Russians are already avidly discussing what's in store for them given the prospect of six, and quite probably 12 more years of Vladimir Putin at the helm of the country.
For many, Mr. Putin's decision to shunt aside the incumbent president Dmitry Medvedev and take the ruling United Russia party's presidential nomination for himself was a welcome one – even if it was made by a tiny circle of people, in secret, and simply announced to a roomful of surprised party faithful on Saturday.
Putin, who rebuilt Russian state power after the disastrous decade of the 1990s and presided over one of the most stable and prosperous eras in Russian history during his first two terms in the Kremlin, still commands a nearly 70 percent approval rating in most public opinion polls.
The return of Putin, after four years of uneasy "tandem" rule, in which no one could be entirely sure who was in charge, signals the the restoration of stability, predictability, and the assurance that one strong leader is holding the reins of power.
"We regularly ask people why they support Putin," says Denis Volkov, a researcher with the Levada Center, an independent Moscow-based public opinion agency. "Roughly a third say it's because he solves problems, a third say they hope he'll solve problems, and another third say there's no alternative. This artificially created lack of alternative in our political system and media zone basically ensures constant support for the one person who's on top."
But for Russia's beleaguered democrats, many of whom had invested their hopes in the more youthful and liberal-sounding Mr. Medvedev, another term for the leader who enforced that previous era of "stability" by curbing elections, muzzling the media, and stifling civil society seems almost too much to bear.
Thanks to constitutional amendments passed under Medvedev, Putin's protégé, the next president will enjoy up to two terms of six years each, which means that Putin could remain in the Kremlin until 2024. The front-page headline Monday in the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta summed up that despairing sense that Russia now faces an interminable period of stagnation: "Stepping into Eternity," it read.
"We can assume that there will be no movement forward if there are not serious changes along the lines of a replacement of the entire system," former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in a lead article for the paper, which he partly owns. "Without this we could lose six years. I think that the future president needs to think about this very seriously."
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'A certain traditional political culture'
However, few Russians express surprise that their political system, which invests so many resources into maintaining a semblance of multiparty elections and parliamentary democracy, should turn so completely on backroom decisions made by a tight circle of powerful men.
There shall be presidential elections early next year, with Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky playing their well-worn roles as opponents, but no one doubts that the winner will be Putin in a landslide.
"There is a certain traditional political culture here in Russia. Some call it absolutism, or autocracy. I use the term mono-centric," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of Russia's leading political sociologists. "All attempts by democrats to change this situation have led to failure. There is a deep-seated fear in this country that if the system (of strong one-man rule) should stop working, it will be followed by chaos."
Given this reality Putin seems, for many, the best choice.
"No matter whether you like him or not, Putin is a convincingly strong personality, while Medvedev has not shown such characteristics to this day," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "This image enables Putin to ride the wave of public popularity. But that can't last forever, and it's quite possible that things can change in ways that make reforms necessary."
Russia's worsening economic environment
Experts say the next six years are unlikely to resemble the past decade, when Putin built the current system on the foundation of soaring global oil prices; Russia is the world's largest energy exporter, and those exports account for more than 60 percent of state revenues. With oil prices currently plunging on fears of a renewed world recession, the Russian government may find it impossible to maintain the high pensions, generous social benefits, and heavy level of state investment in industry that ensured social peace during the first Putin era.
"The economic environment is worsening, prices are rising, and protest moods are beginning to stir the population," says Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister and co-chair of the banned liberal People's Freedom Party. "Falling oil prices mean the government won't be able to balance its budget. Even six months at $70 per barrel oil, and we will see deficits. Putin may need to introduce some tough liberal reforms to keep the economy functioning, though he will avoid any political changes that threaten the power arrangements."
Many experts say the reforms, already planned, will result in sharp tax hikes, a rise in the age of pension eligibility, and cuts to social benefits.
Mr. Kasyanov says that Putin's popularity could evaporate quickly if economic pain sets in, and the system will not be able to cope with mass unrest.
"It's a very fragile system, it can't withstand shocks from outside," he says. "Putin is making it even more rigid, and this is where the main danger to stability comes from."
Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy with the ruling United Russia party, says that Putin will try to head off a new economic crisis with large-scale stimulus spending.
"Putin has already announced a new industrialization, to step up the rate of economic growth," Mr. Markov says.
"The last economic crisis [in 2008] hit Russia harder than many other countries, and the conclusion made by Putin was that our economy is too small. Putin will change the policy, and authorize strategic state investment in key sectors," including auto, aviation, road construction, and other infrastructure projects, he says.
The abrupt resignation on Monday of Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who is associated with the tough fiscal restraint that kept the Russian government solvent through the last crisis, was due to his strong objection to more stimulus spending, Markov says. [Editor's note: The original version misstated when Mr. Kudrin resigned.]
But Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the state coffers are bare, and there will be no alternative but to go ahead with harsh cuts to social spending and other austerity measures next year.
Unlike most other experts, Mr. Petrov believes that Putin could surprise everybody by using his new lease on power to introduce sweeping political reforms as well as a measure of economic liberalization.
"Putin himself fears stagnation very much, and he will try to change direction," once he assumes the presidency early next year, Petrov says.
"I'm positive that Putin will bring in reforms, and this will necessitate changes to the political system. It will simply have to become more sophisticated than it is now, more flexible, and there will have to be a measure of genuine political competition," he says.
"The political system must be modernized or it will not survive. I think Putin understands this perfectly well, and he will use his authority to make those changes."