In June 2007 Vladimir Putin’s plans for 2008 were as yet unknown. At that time I wrote a column called ‘Locum Tenens’ in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. I suggested that Vladimir Putin would not stand for a third time as president, but that he would put up a fictitious president who could be guaranteed to return the seat to him in 4 years’ time. This person’s function would be to keep the seat warm for Vladimir Putin and return it to him safe and sound. On 24 September Vladimir Putin himself confirmed the accuracy of my forecast by admitting that he and Dmitry Medvedev had planned it all several years ago.
"The main point about the scam is that it is an expression of Putin's profound contempt for public affairs and formal institutions."
But the type of person Putin chose as his ‘locum’ rendered his plan more ingenious and more elegant than my suggestion. To make him young, modern and an advocate of modernisation in order to draw off the anti-Putin elite was the height of ingenious chicanery. However, I think that this ingenious hogwash was intended less for the anti-Putin elite inside the country than for Western leaders. In time both they and their voters could hardly fail to understand that they were effectively dealing with a puppet president, though for both the leaders and their voters Mr Medvedev's liberal image made more palatable the fact that they, genuinely elected leaders of world powers, would have to sit at the negotiating table with a 'locum', rather than a real leader.
The first point about the scam with the 'locum' is not even Putin's nifty footwork in appearing to keep his promise not to stand for a third term – a promise he probably made to Boris Yeltsin on 31 December 1999 – without actually keeping it.
Dmitry Medvedev recently admitted on TV that Vladimir Putin enjoys stronger support among Russians, so he agreed not to run against him in next year's presidential election. But more and more voices are criticising the tandem’s decision, among them Russia’s most popular rock stars.
The main point about the scam is that it is an expression of Putin's profound contempt for public affairs and formal institutions. This contempt symbolises the belief and political credo of Putin and his circle, which certainly includes Dmitry Medvedev. Their brilliantly executed operation has simply rubbed snot all over the faces of believers in the formal institutions and public affairs.
It was a curious round in the elevated and key discussion of the various ways to manage and organise society. «Institutions are rubbish, the mafia is the power!» was the gist of the announcement at the 'United Russia' party conference, rapturously applauded by the delegates.
What will the next round in this high-minded debate bring us? We'll see. Having abandoned the liberal presidency, Medvedev will move over to a liberal prime ministership. This is his new old role. He will continue with the modernisation of Russia. Advisers, please form an orderly queue. It will be pleasant and easy. They will be changing the light bulbs.
"Vladimir Putin will have to spend the rest of his time in politics fighting to defend his power. The problem is that Putin is not loved. Seriously unloved and by almost everybody. The next part of his life is going to be hard and unpleasant."
The political and economic system is heading rapidly for the ideal of a kleptocratic regime, described by economists as one of the results of the 'resource curse.' Supporters of this theory will have an interesting time.
Two possible scenarios
Vladimir Putin will have to spend the rest of his time in politics fighting to defend his power. The problem is that Putin is not loved. Seriously unloved and by almost everybody. The next part of his life is going to be hard and unpleasant. I see two possible scenarios for Russia.
In the first, positive (!), scenario, economic problems will start actively undermining the political system. The use of artificial measures to support economic growth and the levels of consumption will throw Russia's finances seriously off balance. The political crisis will wreck the Putin system. In this scenario we have a more or less normal economic crisis and then a political crisis. Crises such as these are not frightening: they are a normal element of development.
In the negative scenario, the economic situation will be stablilised for the medium term in a state that is less good, but acceptable. A crisis in the provinces – probably in the Caucasus again – will allow Putin to demonstrate once more to the elites how much they need him. After all, who else would be prepared to give the order to storm a school? In my opinion this would defer the probable crisis until the end of the decade, but it won't be a political, economic crisis – it will be a systemic crisis, not unlike 1989-91.
When management systems start distintegrating simultaneously on all levels, the power structures lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. So it will be Russian statehood as such that is endangered. We might fantasise that, paradoxically, this undoubtedly extremely unpleasant scenario could result in Russian statehood (possibly in some kind of confederative form) being reborn, which could open up unexpected possibilities over the ensuing decades.
"When management systems start distintegrating simultaneously on all levels, the power structures lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. So it will be Russian statehood as such that is endangered."
One way or another, leaving our long-term fantasies to one side, whatever happens, the return of Vladimir Putin will trigger the crisis mechanism in Russia. Putin has neither enough legitimacy nor the resources to resolve the contradictions in the political and economic system, which he has to a large extent created. He has no support and that is very important. He will have to expend large amounts of money and effort to achieve anything he wants to do.
By and large, there's nothing good for him or for us.
This article appeared first in Russian in Novaya Gazeta