Father Russia Putin and the Presidency

Vladimir Putin is amending the constitution and promising benefits for "democracy" and the Russian people. The falling price of oil and the global financial crisis may threaten his position in Moscow, but Putin intends to stay.


A harsh wind sweeps in from the Baltic Sea, bringing snow and stormy weather to Kaliningrad, in the westernmost corner of Russia. Prominent guests have arrived from Moscow to attend a premiere at Awtotor, a local car company. A new assembly line is about to go into operation at a plant where American Lacetti-Chevrolets will be assembled in the future -- 30,000 a year, as the company claims. Of course, envoys from Awtotor's joint venture partner, General Motors, have also flown in for the dedication ceremony.

The man in charge, and his deputy.

The man in charge, and his deputy.

But things do not bode well for Awtotor, a company in an ailing industry plagued by plummeting sales worldwide. The partnership with an almost-bankrupt General Motors doesn't help. A Deutsche Bank analyst in the United States cut his target price for GM shares to zero recently, and the Detroit-based company threatens to go bankrupt unless the government comes to its aid. But in Kaliningrad, it is as if none of this were happening. "Russia is handling the world financial crisis more effectively than anyone else," the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote triumphantly.

Meanwhile, government officials in Moscow last week seemed almost comically oblivious to fears that anxiety in world markets could rub off on the Russian people. Prices are on the rise from Kaliningrad in the west to Vladivostok in Russia's far east. Unemployment is growing rapidly, and even management at Lukoil, Russia's largest oil company, is slashing its own salaries by 60 percent. There has been no official acknowledgement of any of these problems.

Kremlin officials are worried, to be sure, but only a few minor signals reflect their deep concerns. Last week, for example, the public prosecutor's office in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg said that it was considering imposing sanctions on journalists for having written excessively detailed accounts of the inner workings of local banks and companies, thereby contributing to the panic.

Speaking in the provincial city of Izhevsk, President Dmitry Medvedev reprimanded Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and two provincial governors for having dared to suggest a return to the system of direct elections for regional governors. Four years ago, former President and current Prime Minister Putin made sure these regional governors would no longer be directly elected, but appointed by the Kremlin instead. If any governors were unhappy about the system, Medvedev said, imitating the crass tone of his prime minister, they were free "to submit their letters of resignation."

Last week, Putin and Medvedev also pushed a constitutional amendment through the Duma, Russia's parliament, to extend the president's term to six years. Putin, it appears, is reshaping Russia into a work of art, designed to suit his needs. The popular ex-president stepped down this year after a mandatory two-term limit, but observers have suggested he may seek the presidency again after Medvedev's time is up.

Securing Loyalty, Consolidating Power

Putin supporters control the central election commission, the television networks, the parliament, the military, the police and the intelligence service. But Putin does not control the dollar, the price of oil or Islamic extremists in the Caucasus region, wrote political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin.

Because of the falling oil price, the work of art Putin has devised with the help of an eight-year oil boom is on the verge of collapse. The oil price is currently below $50 a barrel, but the government's budget is based on an average price of $70 a barrel. The crisis of capitalism is inevitably jeopardizing Russia, as well.

Now the profits of the ruling class are threatened, and new struggles over resource allocation in the thicket of politics and the oligarchies cannot be ruled out. The upper ranks of the Russian bureaucracy, writes political scientist Oreshkin, could withdraw their support for Putin. This is the time when autocratic rulers must secure the loyalty of their subjects.

In a speech he gave last Thursday as leader of the government party One Russia, Putin characterized the global crisis as a "natural disaster." His message was that although his government has nothing to do with the causes of the great crisis, he would not permit his country to be exposed to the kinds of economic shocks it faced in 1991 and 1998, when price deregulation and, later, a barely averted national bankruptcy wiped out the savings of millions of Russians. To allay the fears of Russian citizens, Putin announced increases in pension and unemployment benefits, as well as promising tax cuts for small businesses and homeowners.

Putin was clearly portraying himself as the man in charge during the current crisis. Anyone who, after this year's change of office in Moscow, was still unclear over whether the country was being run by a Medvedev/Putin or a Putin/Medvedev team should now have an answer.

Medvedev can criticize "right-wing nihilism" and "omnipotent bureaucracy" in his speeches, but no one in Russia is surprised that as of December it will be the prime minister who appears in a regular television program to answer questions from the public. That privilege was previously reserved for the president.

In an open "letter to the president," journalist and author Alexander Minkin alluded to the gradient in the relationship between Medvedev and Putin. Minkin writes that what Medvedev and Putin have come up with to secure their power, using the crisis as an excuse, puts the "fatherland in danger." Putin will eventually benefit from the extension of the president's term, writes Minkin, but his portrayal of this as part of the road "to freedom and democracy" reveals a bizarre logic. The less frequently elections are held, the more power is possessed by the people?

Didn't the head of the election commission say recently, Minkin writes, that Putin is always right? But only gods are infallible, not human beings. And gods, writes Minkin, can indeed rule forever.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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