Travels with the Russian Tortoise

Is Vladimir Putin more like an American president, an austere Roman emperor or a French head of state?

Media coverage of Vladimir Putin’s dinner last week with the Valdai Club—of which I am a member—has inevitably focused on his remark about Franklin Delano Roosevelt having stood for four terms as President, and this having been (at the time) perfectly in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. Equally inevitably, this was taken as a heavy hint that Putin intends to run again for President in 2012, replacing Dmitri Medvedev.

The setting in which we met Putin might have encouraged most people to think of themselves as not President, but Roman Emperor: a huge neo-classical sanatorium at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, built under Stalin for the Soviet elites and magnificently restored in recent years. The hall where we ate was lined with immense columns, and the food and wine were excellent, but as usual our lean and somewhat grim host took a couple of mouthfuls and one small sip. If Putin does take after any Roman emperors, it would still seem to be some of the more austere and military ones. Even ten years after the retirement of Boris Yeltsin, Putin is still benefiting from the contrast in this regard—perhaps because the contrast is not only with Yeltsin, but with a tendency to Yeltsinism (not just alcoholism, but a generally genial but lazy and undisciplined approach to life) which so many Russians see in themselves, and which they alternately celebrate and fear.

This brings me to the question of whether he will in fact replace Medvedev again in 2012. In my view this is probably the case—although the journalists made so much of his Roosevelt reference as a headline because the meeting did not give us any others. Despite being genuinely interested in influencing Western public opinion (or the Prime Minister and President wouldn’t have met with my colleagues and me for an astonishing six hours in total) the Russian government has not yet learned the trick of deliberately preparing some new declaration so as to feed the journalists with a headline and a scoop—even if it is a small headline and a pseudo-scoop.

Putin will indeed most probably run for President in 2012, and Medvedev will most probably step down with as much grace as possible to make way for him. The beginning of a new campaign is suggested by Putin’s various publicity stunts in the summer, including planting an electronic tag in a whale and being accepted into a more respectable chapter of Russian Hell’s Angels (something that would appear to stretch even Russia’s capacity for the bizarre, but presumably is thought to appeal to the electorate). If Putin wants the job again, it is almost certainly his—Medvedev would be a fool if he didn’t step aside, since Putin would certainly win, leaving Medvedev with nothing, and splitting the administration in the process.

However, I’d like to leave open the possibility—perhaps one chance in three—that Putin will settle for the substance rather than the outward trappings of power, and will stay as Prime Minister leaving Medvedev as President. Putin has never seemed much attached to pomp and circumstance, and on the other hand, is by training an organization man, who has laid great emphasis on institutional rules and continuity.

There may be a possibility of a development vaguely resembling that of France, where if the two figures come from different parties, the President retains the chief responsibility for foreign affairs while the Prime Minister runs the government. Putin, it must be said, looks the part of a Russian leader much more than Medvedev. At 58, he looks ten years younger, and physically extremely tough. Medvedev on the other hand is much more appealing to Western audiences, and an excellent diplomat with a highly intelligent and charming manner. This division of labor, though, would require Putin to delegate foreign affairs to Medvedev, which he may well not be willing to do.

How much does all this matter? I wish that I could say a great deal, since what Medvedev wants to do in the areas of modernization and the struggle against corruption are very much what Russia needs. The question is, however, whether Russia can actually achieve these changes rapidly whoever is President; and here I am skeptical. The Russian elites have achieved a rather corrupt but stable and consensual setup based on relatively high prices for oil, gas and raw materials; and as long as Chinese demand keeps these prices high, I do not see any push for painful reforms from within the establishment. To push Medvedev’s reforms through against the establishment would however require mass support—and mass upheaval from below. There are very few signs that the Russian masses are ready to provide this, let alone that Medvedev would risk political and economic collapse by making such an appeal. As a result, in the year since Medvedev launched his “Go Russia” statement on the internet, Russia has not in fact gone anywhere much that it was not going already slowly.

If you step back a bit, however, you can see that over time, Russia is indeed slowly changing and progressing. It is very important in this regard not to pay too much attention to the Russian liberal opposition, to whom most Western journalists and commentators instinctively defer but who are in fact about as reliable a guide to their own country as the radical Left is to the United States.