Putin’s Constitutional Junta

Russian political commentator Dmitri Oreshkin, writing in the Moscow Times:

What is most interesting about the term increases for State Duma deputies to five years and for the president to six years is the reaction to these changes. We heard hearty, prolonged applause by the Kremlin lackeys in the audience when President Dmitry Medvedev made his announcement in the state-of-the-nation address on Nov. 5. On the other hand, ordinary Russians are strangely silent on the issue.

The game that the Kremlin is playing with the people has taken a new turn. At some point, Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will have to show their cards. Although most people probably have a good idea of what might be up the leaders’ sleeves, they are not ready to believe it completely.

Why was this plan thrown together so hastily? After all, there are more than three years until the next elections, which is ample time for a thorough public discussion and a referendum on such an important matter involving a change to the Constitution. Moreover, given the government’s control over the media, getting a mandate from the people on Duma and presidential term extensions would not have been difficult.

There are two reasons why Putin rushed to change the Constitution only six months after stepping down as president. First, he sees the political and economic dangers of falling oil prices. The house of cards built on an eight-year oil boom is crumbling. Second, Putin understands that as the crisis develops, there could easily be a fierce battle among opportunistic politicians and businessmen to seize troubled assets.

Putin must act now before it is too late. In only six months, a rival group could be formed as an alternative to his siloviki to take advantage of the public discontent and power vacuum caused by the crisis. If this group becomes powerful enough, it could even rally around Medvedev and convince him to dismiss the prime minister based on the government’s failures in handling the crisis.

This threat may seem farfetched, but Putin cannot completely dismiss it. When oil was more than $100 per barrel, the Medvedev-Putin duo could get away with its ersatz, or “sovereign,” democracy. But during a financial crisis, it will be much more difficult to keep pulling the wool over the people’s eyes.

Putin believes that during troubled times, the government and the Kremlin must be in the hands of a benign autocrat who is totally immune from critics and an opposition. Amid a state of emergency, the nation’s leader needs to have a full mandate for six — or, even better, 12 — years.

This looks as if Putin is carrying out a constitutional junta. The only difference between his junta and the one in Latin American is that Putin is taking pre-emptive steps now to avoid a military coup later. This way he can maintain a semblance of democracy by packaging the coup in constitutional trappings.

Putin loyalists control the Central Election Commission, the major television stations, the main political parties, the Duma, the Federation Council, the military, police and the secret services. And the president, of course, is also Putin’s man.

The only things in Russia that are not under Putin’s control are the dollar, the price of oil, Islamic extremists in the Caucasus and the financial crisis. These are all crucial factors that will determine the country’s political future. As the economy worsens, Putin will receive less support from the upper level of bureaucracy, which up until now has received a generous windfall from high oil prices. As this source of income dries up, so will the elite’s unconditional support for Putin. The elite may continue to support Putin on the surface, but at the same time they will be calculating their personal financial losses as the crisis unfolds. They will also be asking themselves the question, “Perhaps we need a change from the current Chekist leadership?”

Equally important is the public’s silence. Despite first indicators that the global crisis is hitting Russia — including a drop in the ruble, layoffs, people rushing to take money out of their savings accounts and a general unease about the state of the economy — the government’s popularity rating has dropped a mere 5 percent. It has now returned to the standard high level before Russia’s victory in the five-day Georgian war. But this could easily change as the crisis intensifies.

Why the urgent need to extend the presidential term to six years? Is it possible that the liberal opposition is right in their prediction that Putin will become president again in early 2009? Why are prices rising if demand is falling? Why is the unemployment rate rising? Why is the value of the dollar rising if the epicenter of the global financial tsunami is located in the United States?

There is still a lot of conjecture surrounding the term-extension surprise that Medvedev pulled out of his hat 12 days ago during his address to the nation. But sooner or later, Putin’s cards will be revealed, and we will finally see the real “Putin Plan.”

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