Opinion: Russia's Dangerous Double Act

By Christian Neef

After Sunday's elections in Russia, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin are expected to form a governing duo. But why assume that a czar duo can ensure stability? Shared leadership has never worked in Russia.

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev: Stepping into new territory
AP

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev: Stepping into new territory

On Sunday, roughly 109 million Russians will vote on who they want to see in the Kremlin as the country's next president in May. Of course, if voting means selecting, then voting isn't exactly what Russian citizens will be doing. Russia has no televised debates, Clinton tears or Obama hype. And while Europeans may find the American election circus amusing, it unquestionably reflects a fundamentally democratic system. What we are experiencing in Russia, on the other hand, is a one-man play. The outcome of the vote has been clear ever since President Vladimir Putin anointed his confidant Dmitry Medvedev to be his successor. And it has only one function: to legitimize the Kremlin leader's decision. In other words, only one Russian will be voting on March 2: Vladimir Putin.

Muscovites are calling it a historic vote. "Medvedev -- this is the most stable, quietest and least surprising option" to succeed the president, says Mikhail Leontyev, a journalist closely aligned with the Kremlin. According to Leontyev, Russia's future duo of leaders -- Medvedev as president and Putin as prime minister -- represents an "absolutely organic" solution. The historic aspect of what Putin aims to achieve with this procedure, writes Leontyev, is the attempt to break out of a vicious circle: namely to finally settle the power issue without triggering some sort of violence, and without allowing Russia to descend into a new era of confusion.

The question remains whether this solution is truly a guarantee of stability. If there were a genetic code for each nation, say the Russians, theirs would be characterized by the yearning for absolute power. Whether it was Ivan the Terrible, Czar Alexander or Josef Stalin, Russia has always been fixated on a single person, the "vozhd," or leader. And it has never been terribly important to Russians that the man running the Kremlin came to power by legal means or was voted into office. In the mid-1930s, Stalin had no official title whatsoever, and yet he was the country's strongman. He was a man the people worshipped, even those whose fathers might have lost their lives in Stalin's torture chambers. Indeed, there is only one thing that the Russians don't like to see in their leaders: weakness.

Transfers of power have always been difficult. Almost all Russian national crises arose because the country never had an effective mechanism for a smooth transition from one administration to the next. The 15-year "smuta," or "period of confusion," was filled with bloodshed and false czars, new administrations and counter-administrations. It was triggered in 1598 when the dynasty in power at the time suddenly died out and Russia had no one to serve in its place.

The February revolution in 1917 also led to the abrupt end of a dynasty. Weakened by the events of the war, the last of the Romanovs abdicated the throne. The Bolsheviks took advantage of the ensuing vacuum to seize power. Finally, in 1991, the task of dissolving the Soviet Union was made all the more complicated by the fact that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, his legal successor, were mortal enemies.

At other times, the transfer of power was often little more than a classic palace revolt. Voluntary resignations of the country's highest office were practically non-existent. Even Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, the ailing general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, failed to make good on their announced intentions to resign (Stalin in 1941, after the beginning of the war, and Brezhnev in the 1970s). Only Yeltsin gave up his office without a fight, in 1999, to his secretly chosen heir: Vladimir Putin.

Of course, things are more civilized at the Kremlin today, and they have been moving in this direction since the days of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He began his career with a traditional-style murder of his main rival. In 1953, after Stalin's death, Khrushchev had Interior Minister Lavrentiy Beria shot to death in a Moscow basement. Other rivals, however, were merely downgraded -- a choice that eventually saved Khrushchev's life when he himself fell out of favor.

Putin is leaving the Kremlin voluntarily, which is truly a first in Russian history. The fact that Gorbachev and Yeltsin also cleared their desks voluntarily doesn't really count. Both men were politically washed up, and Yeltsin was also in poor health. Putin, on the other hand, is at the height of his popularity. He is so popular, in fact, that the Russians wouldn't have held it against him if he had amended the constitution so that he could remain president. The majority of the people see him as the prototype of the good czar, a man perfectly in tune with the Russian spirit.

But he isn't resigning. He is merely becoming prime minister, a solution that suddenly seems ideal all over the country. The West is also breathing a sigh of relief. Even German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier calls the shift at the Kremlin a sign of stability. "We can assume," Steinmeier said, "that Putin will not lose his power with the change in his responsibilities."

But what exactly does it mean, this promise of double leadership? The tandem, in Russia's case, is a product of fear, designed to ensure that the transfer of power occurs as smoothly as possible. Putin's abrupt departure would jeopardize the delicate balance established in recent years among the various groups within the Russian elite. Behind the scenes, money is the deciding factor. Almost nowhere else in the world are politics and business so tightly interwoven as in the new Russia.

Putin's biggest concern during the last four years has been to preserve his power. Partly for this reason, the country is not nearly as stable as the scenario of a harmonious transfer of power is meant to convey. Yes, Russia has acquired international authority once again, and its economy is growing. But the same economic boom is also taking place in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, countries with even more impressive growth figures. What we see in Russia is pseudo-stability, a Moscow newspaper wrote, likening the country to a house that someone has cleaned up, all the while sweeping the dirt under the sofa.

The reforms Putin announced, such as reforms of the pension system, social welfare and the residential construction industry, never quite made it off the ground. One in two military officers has to work a second job to keep his family afloat, one in five Russians between the ages of 25 and 54 will die of alcoholism, judges are still dependent on support from the public prosecutor's office and the executive branch, and corruption is rampant. Oil and gas production are declining, industrial enterprises have increased their debt tenfold and inflation is at 12 percent, prompting the Kremlin to impose a price freeze on staple foods. The Caucasus region is as unstable as ever. The next major security breakdown, a significant decline in the price of oil, any weakening of growth and every protest against mounting social inequality could trigger a major upset.

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