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McFaul: Putin a Victim of His Own Success

randyjones1206.jpgIn yesterday’s WSJ, Michael McFaul writes about Putin’s plan: “The weakening of these three political institutions follows a strategy of deinstitutionalization that Vladimir Putin has implemented since the very beginning of his presidency. State governors, the Duma and the Federation Council (the lower and upper houses of the Russian parliament), the prime minister and his cabinet, the Supreme Court, the media, political parties, and civil society are all much weaker and less independent today than they were eight years ago. The absence of real institutions other than the presidency creates a real dilemma for Mr. Putin today: Where does he go next? During the campaign, Mr. Putin made clear his intention to stay involved in Russian politics and called upon his supporters to demonstrate their trust in him as a means to guarantee his continued influence in Russian politics. But translating his personal electoral victory on Sunday into some institutionalized form of political power after he steps down as president next spring will be hard to do. As a result of Mr. Putin’s weakening of checks and balance on presidential power, the possible positions for him being discussed in Moscow — prime minister, speaker, chief justice of the Supreme Court, secretary of the Security Council, general secretary of United Russia — have almost no power compared to the Kremlin. In searching for a place to park his tremendous popular mandate, Mr. Putin looks now like the victim of his own earlier successes. Only a radical change of the constitution might create a new formal institutional role for Mr. Putin, even if that is exactly the kind of change he has adamantly opposed.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Putin’s PlanBy MICHAEL MCFAULDecember 4, 2007MOSCOW — Russia’s parliamentary election occurred as planned on Sunday. By winning 64% of the popular vote, Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, will have well over the 300 seats needed in the parliament to pass any legislation, amend the constitution or impeach the president — should such a threat be needed someday for President Putin’s successor. Two of the other parties that crossed the 7% barrier to win seats in the parliament, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Just Russia, are also completely loyal to the president.During the campaign, United Russia released a document called “Putin’s Plan” that became the party’s main message. Although Mr. Putin’s actual plan for the future remains a mystery, his plan for the parliamentary election has been carried out.To fulfill this plan, however, several of Russia’s already weak political institutions had to be weakened even further. Most tragically, the legitimacy of elections took several steps backward, making this vote the least free and fair since Russian independence in 1992. Several opposition parties were not allowed to compete. Individual opposition candidates such as Vladimir Ryzhkov, a long-serving parliamentarian, were not given permission to appear on the ballot.United Russia and President Putin enjoyed massive amounts of airtime on Kremlin-controlled TV stations, while the opposition’s advertisements were removed from the air and their campaign publications confiscated. Government officials pressured their employees and directors of large companies to vote for United Russia; some employees reported that they were instructed to photograph their properly marked ballot before casting it. In overfulfilling the plan by producing 99% of the vote for United Russia, Chechnya’s leaders made a mockery of the idea of a free and fair election. And we will never know the extent of any falsification, as neither serious international or domestic election-monitoring organizations were allowed to observe this poll.The freedoms of speech and association, rights that are guaranteed in the Russian constitution, were also weakened by this campaign. Sometime earlier this fall, Kremlin campaign organizers perceived the possibility of low voter turnout. So they tried to scare complacent voters by identifying enemies — the liberals inside the country, and their friends in the West — who supposedly threatened to destabilize the country and return Russia to the so-called chaos and oligarchic rule of the 1990s.This rhetoric about the “liberal threat,” coming even from President Putin himself, was downright hysterical and eerily reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda. Opposition leader Garry Kasparov and his allies went to jail as a result of this campaign project. It’s difficult to imagine how these arrests helped to spur voter turnout, which reached a respectable 59%. What is certain, though, is that these detentions, as well as the closing of regional newspapers for using pirated software and tax inspections of nongovernmental organizations, have sent a chill throughout Russian civil society. Even some United Russia candidates admit privately that this part of the campaign went too far.Besides elections and the freedoms of association and speech, the third sacrifice needed to fulfill President Putin’s electoral plan was, ironically, United Russia’s existence as a genuine political party.President Putin’s decision to head the party list boosted considerably United Russia’s share of the popular vote. Yet, midway through the campaign, the Kremlin decided to transform this parliamentary contest into a referendum on Mr. Putin. The idea of a referendum on President Putin and his “plan” eclipsed the party as an organization, as a set of ideas and as a group of leaders. The obsession with the idea of a referendum on President Putin became so acute that a talk show on Russia’s largest TV network (controlled by the Kremlin, of course) devoted a whole hour just two days before the poll to debating whether Dec. 2 was an “election” or a “referendum.”After United Russia’s smashing victory, Mr. Putin didn’t even bother to show up at the party’s campaign headquarters to congratulate his comrades. In some capacity, United Russia will remain an instrument of Mr. Putin’s political power. But this organization is unlikely to assume the normal party functions of drafting legislation, debating national issues or serving constituents.* * *The weakening of these three political institutions follows a strategy of deinstitutionalization that Vladimir Putin has implemented since the very beginning of his presidency. State governors, the Duma and the Federation Council (the lower and upper houses of the Russian parliament), the prime minister and his cabinet, the Supreme Court, the media, political parties, and civil society are all much weaker and less independent today than they were eight years ago. The absence of real institutions other than the presidency creates a real dilemma for Mr. Putin today: Where does he go next?During the campaign, Mr. Putin made clear his intention to stay involved in Russian politics and called upon his supporters to demonstrate their trust in him as a means to guarantee his continued influence in Russian politics. But translating his personal electoral victory on Sunday into some institutionalized form of political power after he steps down as president next spring will be hard to do. As a result of Mr. Putin’s weakening of checks and balance on presidential power, the possible positions for him being discussed in Moscow — prime minister, speaker, chief justice of the Supreme Court, secretary of the Security Council, general secretary of United Russia — have almost no power compared to the Kremlin. In searching for a place to park his tremendous popular mandate, Mr. Putin looks now like the victim of his own earlier successes. Only a radical change of the constitution might create a new formal institutional role for Mr. Putin, even if that is exactly the kind of change he has adamantly opposed.The silver lining or tragic paradox of this situation, depending on one’s perspective, is that the next phase in Russian politics is likely to be more competitive and unstable than the previous eight years. President Putin has failed to devise a way to transform his “czarist system” — the phrase of a senior Kremlin adviser I visited on Sunday, not mine — into a different form of autocratic government. Consequently, the formation of a new system of rule or the consolidation of another czar’s power will occur in a fluid political environment devoid of rules or institutions that could help guide the transition.Kremlin clans will continue to battle each other for control over Russia’s riches — oil, gas, metals, arms, nuclear technologies — unconstrained by rules of the game that institutions provide. Most important, the new president will eventually have to establish his or her power and legitimacy independent from Vladimir Putin, a process that in Russia’s past has often meant criticizing the past leader. Remember Khrushchev’s rejection of Stalin, Yeltsin’s attacks on Mr. Gorbachev, or Mr. Putin’s campaign against Yeltsin?After years of boredom regarding Russian politics, get ready for much more “interesting times” here. Sunday’s parliamentary election has clarified very little.Mr. McFaul is a Hoover fellow and professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center.