The announcement that Vladimir Putin will run again for the presidency should not have come as a surprise to anyone. In reality, Putin never ceased to be president. The Medvedev presidency was a masquerade, a sound-and-light show intended to befuddle the gullible both at home and abroad. Medvedev’s closest associates never occupied anything but secondary positions, and Medvedev did not address a single one of Russia’s underlying problems.
Nonetheless, the Medvedev presidency was extremely useful to the Russians. The idea that it was real underpinned President Obama’s policy of “reset,” which would hardly have been possible if Putin had violated the Russian constitution in 2008 by running for a third consecutive term in office. By creating the impression that Russia is democratic, the Medvedev interlude facilitated a new treaty on strategic arms, the cancellation of U.S. plans to base an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and a decision to downplay Russian violations of human rights.
It is now clear, however, that Putin is Russia’s president for life. As a result of a change in the constitution, the presidential term is now six years instead of four. The president can be reelected and — given Putin’s nearly total control of national television, the intimidation of businessmen in the wake of the conviction of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Putin’s total control over the government apparatus — he has no real political competition. The prospect therefore is that, having run the country for twelve years, he is now likely to continue to do so for another twelve.
Putin is popular in Russia because people associate him with the economic recovery of the 2000s. The credit due him, however, is limited. Russia was the world’s leading beneficiary of the boom in oil and other commodity prices, and, as a result of the economic transformation of the 1990s, market mechanisms were already in place. That expansion has run its course. GDP growth is now only half what it was before the crisis, and the country is overwhelmingly dependent on the price of oil. Two-thirds of Russia’s exports and almost half of its federal revenues are tied to oil sales.
At the same time, Russia has also become one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In Russia today, the “corruption market” is valued by the Indem think tank at more than $300 billion annually. It permeates all walks of life — schools, hospitals, municipalities, parliaments, police stations, and courts. Russia fell to 154th among 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and is now on a par with Cambodia and the Central African Republic. What’s more, Putin’s personal friends and high state officials are the persons who are the most corrupt, a direct result of Putin’s efforts to concentrate all power in the “executive vertical.”
For the moment, discontent in Russia assumes largely passive forms. Recent polls, for example, indicate that 40 percent of the 25-to-40 age group would like to leave the country. A sharp fall in oil prices — likely in the event of a worldwide economic downturn — would create a fiscal crisis in Russia and the real danger of social unrest. The most likely response of the Putin regime in such circumstances would be to provoke a crisis with the West, diverting attention from itself. This is the new permanent reality that we must address.