Zigging and Zagging on Putin’s Plans

Steve LeVine has a new comment on Vladimir Putin’s charm offensive, reacting a slew of articles which have come out recently speculating that the Prime Minister has no interest in returning to the presidency, and that Dmitry Medvedev has established himself as an independent force.

News loves to zag after zigging for awhile, and I myself continue to believe that Putin will decide the identity of Russia’s next president, and that he will choose himself. But these writers by implication remind us of a much-disregarded fact of autocratic life: No strongman rules in a vacuum. They each have their own elite circle that they must bring along with them, using such tools as fear, charm, love and persuasion. Indeed, some of the most engaging leaders I’ve met have been autocrats: Pervez Musharraf, Najibullah, Heydar Aliyev, and Nursultan Nazarbayev among them. Colleagues who interviewed Ferdinand Marcos and Zia ul-Haq were bowled over by the charm.

In Putin’s case, the tool of autocratic politics is the populism of the whale and tiger hunt.