The Chicago Tribune reports:
The prospect of Vladimir Putin at the helm in Russia for years to come has been hailed by Russians and foreign investors as an assurance of interim stability, but analysts say the concentration of so much power in a single set of hands jeopardizes stability in the long run and negates the system of checks and balances Russia so desperately needs.
“This system may look stable now,” said Maria Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “But the stability is fragile because it hinges on one man as the safeguard for everything.”
Western leaders had hoped the Russian Constitution — and its requirement that the president step down at the end of his second term — would represent an ideological bulwark that Putin couldn’t sidestep. Putin, however, has devised an end-around that could keep him in power for years to come by announcing he will head the ruling party’s ticket in the Dec. 2 parliament election and may become prime minister. Officials in the Bush administration say Russia can build a democracy only if it strengthens its institutions. The Kremlin has moved in the opposite direction, they say, concentrating power in Putin’s hands.
Concentration of power
“In any country, if you don’t have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday in Moscow after meeting with Russian human-rights leaders. “I think there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin. I have told the Russians that,” Rice continued. “Everybody has doubts about the full independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of the electronic media, and there are, I think, questions about the strength of the” lower chamber of parliament.
An election in March will produce Russia’s new president, but that person is likely to be a loyal subordinate anointed by Putin — someone who would remain accountable to Putin, even if Russia’s government structure requires the prime minister to answer to the president. Putin, who recently turned 55, said the possibility of becoming prime minister hinges on two conditions: Russia’s dominant, pro-Putin party, United Russia, must emerge victorious in the December election, and the president Russians vote for in March must be someone he can work with — in his words, “a decent, competent and contemporary man.” Both caveats are foregone conclusions. Putin’s sweeping popularity ensures that United Russia will run away with the parliamentary elections and likely retain a majority large enough to change the constitution.
While the Kremlin insists it’s up to the voters to select the country’s next president, few in Russia believe that person will be anyone but Putin’s choice. Many analysts in Moscow believe that Viktor Zubkov, the obscure bureaucrat Putin selected as his new prime minister Sept. 12, is also the man he envisions as the next president. Zubkov, 66, is a longtime ally of Putin’s, having worked for the Russian leader in the St. Petersburg city government in the early 1990s. And unlike two other leading candidates for the presidency, First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, Zubkov has no strong ties to competing clans within the Kremlin. If Zubkov is Putin’s choice, he could serve as a figurehead president until 2012, when Putin could legally run again for president. Or, if Zubkov steps down before that, Putin could return to the presidency sooner. “It’s obvious Zubkov is being prepared as the successor,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Kremlin expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Sociology Institute. “He’s a very convenient figure for Putin. To make Putin stronger as prime minister, someone has to weaken the position of president, and Zubkov fits perfectly. He has few connections, he’s loyal and he can be easily managed by Putin.”
It’s the kind of behind-the-scenes engineering that comes from a regime dominated by former KGB agents, Kryshtanovskaya said. The Kremlin prefers to call this approach to governance “managed democracy.” As the Boris Yeltsin era showed, plunging Russia into democracy headfirst doomed the country to chaos and failure, the thinking goes. The state needs to ease post-Soviet Russia into the age of liberty and civil society. Stability first, then full-fledged democracy, the Kremlin insists. In reality, managed democracy is an exercise in Kremlin doublespeak, analysts say. Putin’s designs on retaining power are its latest example.
Moves against democracy
Putin’s government has abolished the election of governors, made it increasingly difficult for human-rights groups to work in Russia and enacted laws that make it virtually impossible for opposition parties to gain seats in parliament. While the Kremlin’s moves against democracy have drawn criticism from the Bush administration and Western European leaders, Russians themselves have not been stirred by the issue. The way they see it, Putin has improved living standards, and that makes democracy a back-burner issue. His approval ratings have consistently hovered between 75 and 80 percent. In fact, an opinion poll earlier this year found that more than a third of Russians would like to see Putin become president-for-life.
While oil prices remain high, Putin likely will continue to bask in his popularity. However, analysts warn that his government has done little to diversify the Russian economy to reduce its oil dependence, or address some of the country’s most pressing problems, including corruption, a plummeting population, a brittle Soviet-era infrastructure and an ailing health-care system. “They’re living off the fat of high oil prices,” said Michael McFaul, a Russia affairs expert at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “That could come back to haunt them.”