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Vladimir Putin and the Luxury of Retirement

Being back in the United States this week has me recalling my youth growing up in the Bronx, New York, where, like everyone else, I was a dedicated baseball fanatic. As it happens, today marks the 24th anniversary of the retirement of one of my favorite players, Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox, whose brilliant 23-season career came to a close in back in 1983. I fondly recall watching Yaz’s last game, a historic event which sealed not only numerous statistical records, but also lionized him in the hearts and memories of fans.

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Carl Yastrzemski’s last victory lap

Yaz’s retirement capped off a phenomenal career, making an elegant concluding statement on a great series of achievements. He enjoyed a certain luxury in controlling the terms of his departure from this beloved sport, which is contrasted by a more recent example: this week’s unprecedented announcement by President Vladimir Putin to run for parliament and possibly assume the premiership. Just as soon as everyone was getting to know the new prime minister Viktor Zubkov, who has spent recent weeks asserting his authority through various stunts, Putin swiftly stripped him of relevance with another unexpected trick. Unlike Yastrzemski however, Putin’s move to artificially extend his political career involves straining several constitutional and electoral rules to the breaking point, which I am reasonably certain he finds very uncomfortable. While Russia’s constitution is not very clear on the shift of executive powers from the presidency to the premiership, there are some curious details at stake. For example, while in office Putin won’t be listed as a member of United Russia, even though he will run on their ticket as an “independent.” Also, as the FT points out, Putin doesn’t even have to enter the Duma, even if he leads the party to victory (though he would have to resign from the presidency after the election). In some imagined scenarios, almost nothing changes: he keeps his same office, same desk, same chair, same power, and gets a slightly different job title. His move will entail a radical deterioration of “managed” political competition. This announcement spells an end for the state-approved alternative party, A Just Russia, putting Russia on track toward a heavily corporatist one-party system like pre-2000 Mexico – the perfect dictatorship. In the past, most parties would propose their troika of preferred candidates – while this year the party faithful of United Russia will choose between #1 Vladimir Putin, #2 Vladimir Putin, and #3 Vladimir Putin. The expected result: a virtual constitutional majority. putin_cartoon1002.gif Some analysts see confidence and stability in Putin’s decision to prolong his time in power, but I see this decision being made in dramatically more tenuous circumstances. I don’t think that Putin actually wants to stay in office, but rather has found that he has to – a consequence of this administration’s failure to institutionalize any advances in rule of law or the establishment of independent centers of power. As anyone who has had experience working with Russia’s elaborate Byzantine bureaucratic structures, they will know that the fierce infighting among different parties can only be brokered and negotiated by very few people – and taking on such a role is not the power that it appears to be, but rather the captivity of an onerous duty. Also, we know from past experience that the selection of a successor in Russia depends most heavily on that person’s ability to shield his or her benefactors from investigations and prosecution for their alleged legal peccadilloes. There is no shortage of such events during this administration that could intensify such concerns. But we should never underestimate Moscow’s ability to sell the story they want told. In an effort to project this image of stability and strength, the Kremlin has resorted to instinct: more and more aggressive interference on international crisis issues like Iran, Kosovo, and Myanmar. Once again more doublespeak from Gazprom, promising to be good supplier to Europe while flexing political muscle on the Ukraine. In other words, everything looks like business as usual over there. We know that it is extremely important to Putin that he is seen in a certain way. Consider for example the repeated invocations of the language of democracy in the United Russia speeches, and the reiterations of Putin’s narrative – how he “rescued” of Russia from the chaos of the 1990s, and his battles against Chechen terrorism and separatism. According to a Times editorial, when Putin met with foreign press at the Valdai Summit, “he spoke of the ‘moral influence’ a leader can have in Russia, comparing himself indirectly with those dissidents whose political power came from their moral standing in society. He says he wants to play that role to embed democracy in Russia.” (I myself have become accustomed to the dearth of cynicism among the media profession in response to such statements.) The point is that no one would put so much work into painting their own image as a democrat if they didn’t also deeply care about the perception of their legacy – especially among the international community. Putin has legitimate achievements that he understandably wants to be recognized for, and it is a great source of discomfort that the conclusion of his second term is proving to be so difficult. The president would prefer to gracefully leave office on a high note, like a champion athlete, but instead he finds himself without remedy, trapped within a system he created. There are numerous costs of this decision, reputational and otherwise. Mr. Putin said in his acceptance speech at the United Russia Party Congress that “it would be wrong to change the Constitution to suit one particular person, even if that person is someone I most certainly trust.” However, for the sake of Mr. Putin’s legacy, one would imagine that such an unprecedented political manipulation delivers a certain message: it’s not the institution, it’s the person. Those who strive to argue that Russia is a real democracy need to understand that this embarrassment of succession demonstrates just how far it has to go.