It’s the year 2024. President Vladimir Putin is now 72. His sandy hair has thinned. But those icy cold blue eyes still transfix.
This nightmarish vision had many Russian democrats tossing and turning in bed Saturday night. With the daylight, they woke up. Then, they remembered: it was not a bad dream, their nightmare was true!
As if to rub it in, Nova Gazeta published a front page cartoon, showing today’s Russian cabinet, aged 12 years, looking like a Soviet politburo of old.
Indeed it is back to the future, as today’s Kremlinologists study online biographies of Leonid Brezhnev and Joseph Stalin to figure out how long they ruled Russia until they died in their beds. (Answer: 18 years for Brezhnev and 30 for Stalin).
If Putin can pull it off (not a big if), he will win a six year term in presidential elections next March. In 2018, he could run for another term, which would take him to 2024.
Unlike power shifts in the Soviet Kremlin, last week’s elite electorate was not the voting membership of the Politburo, historically about 14 barons of the Communist Party.
Instead, Putin chose himself.
Then in a closed door meeting, he broke the news to his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev. Under the deal, he promised to make Medvedev his prime minister next May.
Thus in a backroom deal, the leadership was decided for the next decade of Russia, a country of 141 million, the world’s largest energy producer and the holder of the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Short term, it all should work because public opinion polls show Putin as the most popular politician in the country. Control of television, controls on political opposition, and controls on vote counting, all help embellish his natural charisma.
Adding a democratic tone to the proceedings, the Putin-Medvedev job swap plan was unveiled at a congress of Russia’s ruling United Party. The congress immediately rubber stamped it.
Putin is an expert at keeping his counsel. Close associates were clearly caught off guard.
On a visit to Washington, Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s finance minister for 11 years, was evidently so miffed about being passed over for the prime minister job, that he announced he would not work for the new government. In an unexpected display of force, President Medvedev told him on Monday that he had until sundown to quit or stay on. By the end of the day, Kudrin, the pillar of Russian financial planning since 2000, was gone.
Russia’s stock markets and exchange markets continued their fall, hitting two year lows. Factoring in the Kudrin exit, economists now estimate that Russia’s net capital flight this year will hit $70 billion.
And a brain drain may follow the money drain.
Seeing crony capitalism and unchecked corruption as a dead end, half of Russian university students and half of Russian business entrepreneurs told the Levada polling company in August that they want to emigrate. It is no wonder that one of the Kremlin’s top issues with the European Union is visas. Cuba and Belarus show that authoritarian regimes are much easier to maintain if the malcontents just leave.
Putin’s coronation of himself speaks volumes about how a cult of personality is supplanting institutions in today’s Russia.
A former KGB officer in East Germany, Putin has long maintained an authoritarian’s distrust of elections. Making no secret of his low expectations, he seems to see Russians as political teenagers, people who are not yet mature enough to elect their own mayors, governors, and presidents. By pruning back civil society, he retards a natural growth in citizenship.
Defenders of the system correctly say that Russia’s history gives little hope that democracy can take root here.
But they twist uncomfortably in their seats when reminded that the same could have been said of nations as diverse as Taiwan, Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Poland, Mexico, Serbia and Japan. In recent decades, all have moved beyond authoritarian systems to create multiparty democracies.
In that tapestry of societies, the common change agent was a middle class that grew to the point where it reached a critical mass.
Russia is moving steadily in that direction. Already half of Russia’s adults go online, with millions turning to the largely unfettered internet for their news and views. About 15 percent of the population is expected this year to go on a foreign vacation. Car ownership levels are rapidly catching up with Western Europe.
Successful autocrats work themselves out of their jobs.
Those who overstay their leave risking ending up like Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru. Fujimori, a politician I have interviewed many a time, decided to go for a third term. He now sits in a jail cell near Lima serving 25 year sentence for human rights violations.
Behind the growth of Russia’s middle class is the stability of the Putin decade.
I once asked a Muscovite why there is a restaurant was called ‘1913.’
He grumpily responded: “That was the last good year.”
After a disastrous century of revolution, famine and war, Putin became president in 2000. He delivered a golden decade. In 10 years, the economy grew by 60 percent, unemployment dropped by one third, real salaries tripled, the debt to GDP ratio dropped from 58 percent to 12 percent, and oil production increased by 56 percent.
Putin was no miracle worker. He simply provided stability. Strong international oil and gas prices did the rest. Now, oil and gas account for two thirds of Russian export earnings. Coal, iron, gold and other minerals and metals account for most of the rest.
But another world recession — or a pause in China’s headlong growth — would push down commodity prices, plunging Russia’s economy into crisis.
Before he quit as finance minister, Kudrin was the Kremlin’s Cassandra.
Two years from now, he warned recently, export prices for Russia’s oil will slip to $60 a barrel, from $106 today — well below the $110 level needed to balance Russia’s swollen budget.
Last weekend in Washington, Kudrin worried about Russia’s deep addiction to commodity exports: “Will we, in the next 5-10 years, tear ourselves away from this dependence, get off this needle, or won’t we?”
In the political field, the price of economic stability was Putin’s “soft” authoritarian political system.
Most Russians are not economic stakeholders in their government in the Western sense.
In American terms, Russia is like Alaska — residents are paid to live there. Each year, a portion of Alaska’s oil and gas bounty is divided up and mailed out in the form of checks to bona fide residents who made it through the winter.
With Russia’s flat 13 percent income tax, the Kremlin gets the bulk of federal funding from 15 companies – largely oil and gas producers.
Marginalized from the political arena, most Russians retreat into their personal spheres, channeling energies into places where they can make a difference and get a real benefit — family, friends, work and travel.
In this depoliticized atmosphere, a protest was held the day after Putin unveiled a roadmap for his own rule of Russia through 2024. The protest was held at Pushkin Square, a confluence of three subway lines. In this city of 12 million, the rally drew about 250 people.
The next morning, the most widely read story on the Ria Novosti Internet news site was not about Russia’s political leadership. It was about a Federal plan to allow the industrial cultivation of hemp, also known as cannabis sativa, or marijuana.