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    Sunday, April 1, 2007

    Will he or won't he?

    Vladimir Putin continues to swear that he'll leave office when his term ends in 12 months' time. Constitutionally, he's barred from running for a third term in the 2008 presidential elections, and he says he has no intention of amending the constitution to change that.

    But reading the Russian media, you have to wonder how final that decision is. Top Putin allies continue to propose ways of keeping Putin in power. Most recently it was Sergei Mironov, the head of the upper house of Russia's parliament, the Federation Council, who suggested that presidential term limits should be eliminated.

    Opinion polls continue to show that Putin is wildly popular (usually with 70 per cent support) and that the quiet campaigns of his would-be successors - Putin allies like Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev, as well as opponents such as ex-prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and chessmaster Garry Kasparov - have yet to generate any excitement.

    In fact, the majority of Russians would probably prefer an unconstitutional prolongation of Putin's term to a constitutional power struggle that would threaten to plunge the country back into the uncertainty of the 1990s.

    To the West - and it's no longer clear how much anyone in the Kremlin cares what Washington and Brussels think - any move to remain in office past 2008 would confirm suspicions that Putin is an autocrat bent on rebuilding the USSR.

    But in Russia - maybe not in liberal Moscow and St. Petersburg, but in most of the rest of the country - such a move would likely be welcomed. Many Russians are just beginning to benefit from Russia's economic recovery under Putin; seeing their salaries and pensions continue to rise is far more important to them than respecting the letter of the constitution.

    The bottom line is that if Putin wants to stay he can. And if the public supports him (insert caveats here about state control over the media), it's hard to argue that it's entirely undemocratic.


    denis bider said...

    I'd say that (A) the media control Kremlin is exerting, and (B) the competitive threat demolition that Putin has engaged in while in power (witness Khodorkovsky's rotting away in Siberia) are pretty big caveats.

    I'd say that if the West interprets any move by Putin to stay in office as confirmation that "he's an autocrat bent on rebuilding the USSR", then that wouldn't be mistaken.

    markmac said...

    Thanks for the comment Denis, and yes I generally agree with you.

    That said, in all the (justified)hysteria about Putin's neo-Soviet tactics, it sometimes get forgotten that he is genuinely popular with the wide majority of ordinary Russians.

    As Alexander Yakovlev, the late designer of glasnost, told me once, the great tragedy of the Yeltsin years is that they made "democracy" into a dirty word.

    Anonymous said...


    I think that your mistake is that you trust russian current media polls.

    The other thing is that may be many people satisfied with salary raise (which is minimal), however active population - people that do care and people that have a willing to protest are not satisfied.
    There are many people who want freedom and for sure there are many people with political ambitions that do not have any chance to participate in the political life.

    What active population feels will influence the situation towards either side. Passive majority will remain passive in any situation.

    markmac said...

    Hi Anatoly -

    In general, I agree with you. As a former Yeltsin aide once said to me, in Russia, it's irresponsible to believe the government statistics.

    That said, even the late Yuri Levada's polls showed Putin's wide popularity. They also showed that the average Russian's opinion the Soviet Union had grown more favourable, not less, since 1991. (I'm not arguing that any of these are positive trends, btw, just things that need to be understood.)

    I'm sure you'll agree that Yuri Levada was no Kremlin stooge.