Seen from Western capitals, what is happening on the Russian political stage looks like a game of musical chairs. Under the constitution, having completed two successive terms as President of Russia, Vladimir Putin should bow out of the stage and start a well-deserved retirement.
However, having made sure that his party wins a two-third majority in the Duma (parliament) Putin plans to remain in power, this time as prime minister. He has also nominated one of his protégés, a certain Dimitri Medvedev, to succeed him as president.
Putin’s elaborate mise-en-scene has inspired a chorus of derision in the Western media. Editorialists have warned of a dark night of authoritarianism that supposedly lies ahead for Russia. Commentators who believe that democracy is a western plant that cannot be exported to “primitive” lands such as Russia are having a field day by mocking the Putin plan.
However, a closer examination of what is going on in Russia might reveal a different picture.
To start with, Putin has gone out of his way to do everything he wanted to do within the strict limits of the Russian Constitution. In other words, he has been playing by the rules. This may sound trite to most people in the West who believe that playing by constitutional rules is a given of any political system worthy of respect.
In the case of Russia, however, playing by the rules has the effect of magic. Ever since Russia appeared in history as a state some six centuries ago, all its leaders have ignored or openly violated the rules often set by themselves. True of the tsars this was and even more outrageously the case with the Bolsheviks who tyrannised Russia for almost eight decades.
Putin could have prolonged his rule by amending the constitution. He could have called a referendum to make himself president-for-life, just as Venezuela’s bullyboy Hugo Chavez recently tried to do but failed. By respecting the letter, if not the spirit of the constitution, Putin has helped put Russia on the long path of institution building. He has profited from a combination of circumstances favourable to his party. A different combination, however, could favour his opponents in the future.
More importantly, perhaps, Putin has sought popular support on the basis of his record as president.
Naturally, this is a mixed record that includes some nasty ingredients, notably the unnecessary war in Chechnya.
All in all, however, the Putin record, given the circumstances, is a good one. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union under the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia was plunged into chaotic waters under the charismatic but incompetent Boris Yeltsin. There was a time in the 1990s that this writer, along with many others, expected the Russian federation to fragment further or fall into anarchy.
Like it or not, Putin has succeeded in rebuilding the structures of the Russian state and restoring at least part of the confidence that most people had lost in their national leadership. A decade ago wits could taunt Russia as Burkina Faso with nuclear weapons. Today, that label would be out of place.
Many in the West resent Putin because he has ended a period in which post-Soviet Russia was treated as a giant version of the American Wild West in which making easy money was the name of the game. In those days Moscow hotels were bursting with so-called “consultants”, who ripped off the Russians while offering redundant advice, and “investors” who spent Russia’s own money to buy its industries at thieves’ prices.
Even if he had done nothing else, Putin would have deserved credit for ridding Russia of those who have not developed beyond the pirates’ phase of development in capitalism.
Putin has not tried to undermine the foundations of capitalism in Russia. He knows that his nation’s experiment with collectivism was a disaster, although it provided the rulers with all the means they needed to perpetuate their hold on society.
To condemn Putin’s rule as totalitarian is a linguistic abuse. Putin has not re-created the Gulag archipelago nor filled the prisons with his political opponents. Opposition to his rule is inside Russia, and within the Duma, not in exile as was the case under the tsars and the Bolsheviks. Nor has Putin presided over mass executions or political assassinations, although journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s murder last year leaves a shadow of the doubt.
To be sure, Putin has imposed unwarranted restrictions on much of the Russian media. This, however, has not transformed Russia into a tower of silence, as some in the West claim. Although the Putin regime is no friend of press freedom, it is not as oppressive as some of its critics suggest.
Russia under Putin is not a democracy like Denmark or Ireland, to cite just two examples. But neither is it a dictatorship like Cuba or North Korea.
At most, Putin’s rule can be described as authoritarian, something that many countries have experienced in the early stages of their democratisation. This was the case with France under the Second Empire and Germany under Bismarck. More recently, nations as far apart as South Korea and Brazil found their way to democracy after passing through an authoritarian phase.
The Russian experience under Putin may show that different nations find their own different ways to political modernisation. Only totalitarian regimes are based on the same single model. When it comes to democratisation, there is no one-size-fits-all.
Bringing Russia back from the brink of anarchy and transforming it into a responsible power is in the interests of all its neighbours, more so in western Asia, which remains the world’s most crisis-stricken region. Rather than developing into a mammoth black hole which could suck the whole region into crisis and war, Russia now has the potential to become a force for stability and peaceful development.
Making sure that Russia remains a responsible player on the international stage is a key challenge for all nations in the Middle East, not to mention the major Western democracies.
What we witness in Russia may look like a game of musical chairs. But what matters in the end is the music.