Stabilizing the Bear: Can Putin do it again?

In Russia, stability is often valued high above comparatively trivial things, such as democracy or freedom. This perhaps explains why around half of Russians consider the despot Josef Stalin a positive influence on Russian history.

Josef Stalin remains relatively popular in Russia to this day

He may have been a tyrant, but he saw the Soviet Union through perhaps its most trying time and prevailed both militarily and economically. It is not uncommon to this day to hear toasts to his memory.

This mindset may also help to explain the popularity of Vladimir Putin, and more recently, the lack of domestic concern over his decision to switch places with President Dimitri Medvedev for a third term in office. Coverage of the Kremlin over the past few years has been dominated by speculation as to what would happen at the end of President Medvedev’s term in 2012. As prime minister, Putin amended the constitutional limit on presidential terms, opening the possibility of his return to the presidency. He consistently intimated that he could run again in the future. The younger, reform-minded Medvedev never quite enjoyed the same popularity as Putin, who many considered to still be pulling the strings from behind the curtain. Even guards at the Kremlin would jokingly announce Putin’s limousine’s arrival with, “Now the real one is coming.” The disparity caused many pundits to suggest a growing animosity between the two rulers. One now wonders how much of the falling out was legitimate and how much was exaggerated by a media desperately guessing at how the Kremlin really operates.

Putin certainly fits the description of a strong leader and is credited with bringing stability to Russia, though perhaps at the expense of democracy. In many ways he was everything his predecessor Boris Yeltsin was not. He threw out the oligarchs who infested Yeltsin’s administration, he increased Russia’s economic output, he fought to suppress terrorists in the Caucasus, and he stood up to his critics in the West. He doesn’t even drink (which for Russians means he only drinks beer, not vodka). Yet his style of “managed democracy” has drawn heavy criticism from the West.

Does another Putin presidency bode well for Russia? The first time around, Russia benefited heavily from steep increases in the price of oil. However, Russia’s dependency on energy exports made it especially susceptible to the global financial crisis. The Kremlin understands this and both Putin and Medvedev have heralded the need to diversify Russia’s economy. That will, however, require greater international cooperation. Putin’s dismissal of democratic institutions could be harmful toward these economic objectives.

Moscow has been pushing for membership in the WTO for 17 years. While they have found support from an Obama administration keen on restarting the relationship with Russia, obstacles still prevent accession. For instance, joining the WTO must be achieved by unanimous agreement of the existing members, and Georgia is putting up a roadblock. While negotiations between Georgia and Russia are set to resume this month, progress has been slow, especially since the Russian-Georgian war in 2008.

Russia will need to attract more foreign investment. In a volatile global economy, uncertainty over the future of Russian leadership was not helpful. Kremlin officials no doubt hope that Putin’s return will be a signal of stability to investors who need no longer worry about a struggle for power at the top. However, it’s hard to imagine that this episode will put to rest concerns the international community may hold. The position swap between Medvedev and Putin could prove worrisome for foreign governments and investors alike. The fact that the two politicians have indicated that they reached this decision years ago is particularly troubling as a clear pronouncement of who really manages the “democracy” in Russia. While Russians may look forward to another Putin presidency, they may in fact lose some of the stability they value so highly. Many in the West thought that Medvedev’s rise to power would herald a new push for liberalization at the Kremlin. It seems now that these promises were nothing than hot air to placate audiences foreign and domestic all the while allowing Putin to orchestrate a return to power.

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