No More Kremlin Wizardry

It was clear from the outset that President Vladimir Putin’s second term would differ markedly from his first. Even the legion of well-connected experts insisted that the president would need time to solidify his hold on power. After accomplishing this task during his first term, we were told, Putin would devote his second term to solving the country’s problems.

Much changed after Putin won re-election last spring. The fire that destroyed Moscow’s Central Manezh Exhibition Hall on election day was a bad omen. When changes in the structure and makeup of the new government were announced, the gloom really set in. And the mood of most Russians was spoiled for good when the government announced its policy priorities. Policies that no one wants are usually described as unpopular but necessary.

There are various schools of thought as to who stands to benefit from such policies. But the real issue is whether or not the regime, in its current form, can successfully implement its own agenda. Everything seems fine at first glance. The government controls parliament and faces no opposition. Yet something isn’t right.

The United Russia faction in the State Duma gave up vacation time to cancel benefits for pensioners, and urgently set to work eliminating subsidized housing and universally accessible education. But for all the deputies’ hard work, the triumphant march of reform has faltered. Lawmakers make little attempt to justify their actions. Instead, they play around with language in order to conceal the true intent of the bills they pass.

Officials at all levels of government pass the buck, and the governors are obviously less than anxious to start putting the Kremlin’s reforms into practice. The situation is even worse in Chechnya. Following the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin lost the plot for a while. Finally, the decision was made to combine the posts of president and regional top cop, and to install a suitable candidate, Alu Alkhanov.

As if to spite the Kremlin, fighting broke out in Ingushetia, where a similar system had been developed in recent years. Ingushetia made clear that the system doesn’t work; it leads instead to more setbacks and more unpleasantness.

For the Kremlin, it was too late to change course. The future leader of Chechnya had already been unveiled. Until recently, the Kremlin believed that the war in Chechnya, the rise of nationalism and the collapse of traditional political parties increased the power of the president. Putin’s power is now more than secure, but the crisis in the political system continues unabated. Putin’s team has grown concerned about the growth of nationalism and xenophobia, but has no idea how to stuff the genie back into the bottle.

Instead of bolstering Putin’s image as a strong, decisive leader, the war in Chechnya reveals his regime’s inability to tackle its biggest problems. The Kremlin gutted the old political parties, but has been unable to form new ones.The tragedy in Beslan confirmed this. It didn’t boost Putin’s image unlike previous tragedies.

It was too closely associated with government policies. And the role of Kremlin’s special services, though officially remaining unclear seemed to be quite nasty. Everything that worked so well during Putin’s first term has now gone wrong. When people see that their actions deliver the desired result, they’re apt to repeat them. But few people stop to figure out why their actions were successful.

What’s worse, any boss is inclined to ascribe the success of his undertakings to his own undoubted virtues. When something works, he will repeat it over and over. As it happens, the successes of Putin’s first term resulted from external circumstances that had little to do with his policy decisions. Oil prices rose and the economic growth that began in the wake of the ruble’s collapse continued by inertia. Most importantly, the country expected change.

People were hopeful that the new president would restore order following the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and they were prepared to put their faith in anyone that wasn’t associated with the Kremlin of the 1990s. In this situation, another president pursuing an entirely different program would have enjoyed no less success. But circumstances change. When the honeymoon’s over, the people’s trust must be earned.

Economic growth also gave rise to increased expectations that the regime cannot satisfy, not least because it is simultaneously trying to satisfy the demands of big business. Festering problems are making themselves known. Putin now resembles a wizard whose magical powers have faded. He waves his magic wand and pronounces his spells as before, but nothing happens.

The era of political wizardry is over, and tough times lie ahead.

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