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Russia in the Cul-de-Sac

Anders Aslund has a good column running in tomorrow’s Moscow Times:

Wednesday, February 14, 2007. Issue 3596. Page 9. Reverse Is the One Way Out of This Cul-de-Sac By Anders Aslund A pivotal 12 months lies ahead for Russian politics. According to the Constitution, President Vladimir Putin has to leave office at the end of his second term, in March 2008, and he has maneuvered himself into a lose-lose situation. He needs to stay on for a third term, because his popularity is the key source of legitimacy in current Russian politics. Yet if he prolongs his rule in violation of the Constitution, he will lose his legitimacy. During his presidency, Putin has systematically diluted the country’s nascent democratic institutions. The members of the Federation Council are now appointed, as are regional governors. Formally, the State Duma is still elected, but the parties, nominations, media coverage and the elections themselves are now so manipulated that nobody can take them seriously. As a consequence, few elements of political legitimacy remain in Russia. Putin’s election in March 2004 was the last free election, although the OSCE rightly labeled it not fair. Today, no Russian election can be sufficiently free and fair to lend any credence to the “winner.” The Putin regime’s profound dilemma is that it has deprived itself of all means to generate political legitimacy. … Another reason why a smooth succession is unlikely is that, in the best Machiavellian tradition, Putin has encouraged a maximum of strife between his subordinates to ensure that they cannot collude against him. According to most accounts, the relationships between his underlings are on the verge of open warfare. Whomever Putin chooses as his successor will be seen as a dangerous enemy by his or her colleagues, who will insist that Putin stay. Putin’s top people currently control huge amounts of wealth through state companies. Because they do not officially own these companies, they have to operate through informal contracts, often worth billions of dollars. But they cannot defend these informal contracts in court. People kill for less, and Russia has already seen a regression to the high-level commercial murders of the mid-1990s. Regardless of who takes over, many of Putin’s top officials will likely fear the loss of their fortunes and will do whatever they can — meaning a lot — to ensure that a real transition does not take place. The final reason no orderly transition is likely stems from Putin himself. He is notorious for making decisions as late as possible. Inevitably, he will make this final big decision very late, if at all, because he is afraid of becoming a lame duck. In all probability, he will miss the most favorable time to make his exit. His recent statement that he will announce his preference at the beginning of the election campaign presumably means less than three months before the scheduled election date.

Complete article here.