Following Vladimir Putin’s annual call-in session, a veritable flurry of articles have appeared effectively declaring his candidacy for the 2012 presidential election. Yet I still feel that this is unlikely.
As journalists looking at Russia from our western pedestal, it’s all too easy to see intrigue and infighting without having to try (or think) too hard. “Look!” we say, “Putin won’t deny that he’s going to run.” And in the umbrella-stabbing world of intrigue that is Russian politics this surely means he’s going for President Dmitri Medvedev’s jugular.
Yet here’s a more pertinent question to ask: why would he declare himself out of an election that is still, in terms of recent developments in the Russian political landscape, an age away? He is the most powerful politician in the country, and singlehandedly (sorry Dmitri) drove the party United Russia to victory in the parliamentary elections last year. Without him, or faced with the prospect of being without him come 2012, his party’s position, along with the president’s, would be greatly weakened. And as history has shown, perceived weakness and division is nearly always punished by democratic electorates.
So Putin has a strong motivate to be seen to be contemplating a return to the summit of the Kremlin hierarchy. It might even have the added benefit of discouraging pretenders to the throne from trying to destabilise the president incumbent.
That said, it’s still interesting to speculate about what would happen if he actually ran and won. For a start, the perception of Russia on the global stage would be cemented as a backwards-looking, authoritarian state. Putin’s reinstatement would justify accusations that United Russia gives lip service to the country’s constitution in order to legitimately undermine it. The joyous critics would shout that the siloviki, former members of the KGB who have worked their way into politics, have succeeded in their malicious plot to cement power.
Secondly, Putin would weaken any potential candidate who might follow him, as they would arrive with the puppet tag even more firmly attached. If the commentary on Medvedev in Britain is anything to go by, a future successor faces complete ridicule from the off. Russia can ill-afford to belittle the constitutionally vital role of president by making it Putin’s plaything.
Putin has been criticised for a great many reasons, some of which are deserved, but he has never failed in his pragmatism. This is a man who refused to become a signed up member of United Russia until after the party had announced him as their candidate for his current role.
What has gone relatively unremarked on thus is Putin’s discussion of the common ground he shares with Medvedev. He said that the fact that the two studied under the same teacher at what was then the Leningrad State University in St Petersburg had imbued them both with similar values. As logically fluffy as the statement may be, it illustrates, far from reports of divisions in the Kremlin ranks, that the president is being clutched to the bosom of power.
So, looking ahead to 2012, I believe it would take a significant shift in current thinking to knock Medvedev off running for a second term. A revival of tensions between the siloviki faction and the so-called “liberal reformers,” could be just such a trigger. Short of this, however, making a 2012 bid offers Putin more to lose than he stands to gain by avoiding it.