Spotlight on Russia reports:
One of the surest signs of repression in Russia is a flourishing culture of political jokes. The 1930s and the 1970s, in particular, bear testimony to this. In 2008, when Vladimir Putin tricked term limits by becoming prime minister under hand-picked President Dmitri Medvedev, a new joke was born in the Moscow intelligentsia’s kitchens. The year is 2020. Putin and Medvedev are in a bar, drinking beer. Putin looks up and asks: “Dima, do you remember which one of us is president, and which one is prime minister?” Medvedev thinks for a short while, then replies: “I think you are president, Vladimir Vladimirovich, and I am prime minister.” “Then it’s your turn to pay for the beer,” responds Putin.
Vladimir Putin’s weekend announcement of his return to the Kremlin in 2012 was hardly surprising—except, perhaps, to the wishful thinkers, both in Russia and in the West, who continued, in spite of the facts, to hope for a “Medvedev thaw.” The outgoing president himself, in his speech at the ruling United Russia party’s congress, hinted that the 2012 switchover was planned from the very beginning, ridiculing experts who spent hours of airtime and pages of op-eds debating his future plans for Russia. To be sure, the “Medvedev presidency” was a brilliant public relations move. While the regime further strengthened authoritarian controls (suffice to mention increasing the presidential term from four years to six, and giving a new prison sentence to former oil tycoon turned Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky), Medvedev’s phony reformist rhetoric lulled a large part of potential opposition supporters inside Russia, as well as some of the leading opinion-makers in the West, who would otherwise be more vocal in their criticism of the Kremlin. If there is one positive outcome of last weekend’s announcement, it is that they will finally have to face the reality—though the White House statement that its “reset” with Moscow will continue regardless of who is the president of Russia, already raises some doubts.
Other outcomes are not so positive. With Putin’s return to the Kremlin, analysts are predicting a new “brain drain”—an exodus of Russia’s educated and creative young professionals who will not see a future with a ruler that plans to remain in power longer than Joseph Stalin (on the current timetable, until 2024). Another likely result is a renewed crackdown on what remains of Russia’s independent media and the already-illusive civic freedoms; a new round of repressions against the regime’s political opponents; continuing corruption; and a more confrontational stance toward the West and the ex-Soviet “near abroad,” especially as Russia’s increasingly shaky economic situation will necessitate diverting people’s attention elsewhere (the government recentlyadmitted that the budget would only balance at an elevated oil price of $116 per barrel—with the current price being $104).
The most dangerous result of Putin’s attempt to cement his power, however, is an increased likelihood of upheavals. Popular discontent is rising: the August surveys by the independent Levada polling agency showed that 54 percent of Russians disapprove of the current government, while 64 percent would like to see the composition of the United Russia–dominated Parliament change “significantly” or “totally.” According to the same polling data, most Russians also believe that the upcoming parliamentary elections on December 4 will be a farce. With nine political parties across the spectrum—from the left-wing United Labor Front to the center-right Popular Freedom Party—denied registration and barred from the ballot, and a strict de facto censorship operating on national television, it is difficult to disagree with them. The 2012 presidential vote, meanwhile, is expected to be as predetermined as the “elections” in 2000, 2004, and 2008. With change through the ballot box made all but impossible, Russians’ growing impatience with the regime will likely be manifested in other ways. Recent street protests in Kaliningrad, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok may be an early sign of things to come. Russia’s rulers, who like to accuse opposition leaders and Western countries of preparing a “color revolution,” are doing everything to provoke a Tunisian-style uprising. The responsibility for its consequences will be wholly theirs.
Medvedev, who—just as the joke suggested—will shortly be relegated to the premiership, has faithfully kept to his scripted part. For nearly four years, he had the power—with a stroke of a pen—to dismiss Putin, pardon political prisoners, end censorship, and give the opposition access to elections. After all, history has known such unlikely transitions from authoritarianism to democracy, perhaps the most famous being 1970s Spain. Had Medvedev done this, he would have had the support of the most active and educated part of Russian society, as well as of world opinion. He could have changed Russia’s history. Instead, he chose to remain in it as a sad and inconsequential footnote.