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A Hostage of the Elite


 

I received the news that President Vladimir Putin would be heading United Russia’s federal ticket while on a visit to Harvard University. My U.S. colleagues expressed empathy. Now Russia would be led by a dictator, I was told, and the last remaining remnants of civil liberties would be tossed out the window.

I might have disappointed them by declaring that I did not see any connection between Putin’s announcement and their gloomy predictions. I did not say this because I am somehow optimistic about Russia‘s prospects.

A collapse of the real estate market or a sharp fall in oil prices would be serious matters for sure. But I don’t see the significance in Putin’s decision. The question of who will head United Russia’s ticket in the elections to a decorative parliament is not important for anyone besides the politicians who are participating in this charade.

From a legal and ideological point of view, the president’s willingness to link up with United Russia weakens rather than strengthens his position. It is one thing to be the great and revered ruler who is independent of any party affiliation. It is another matter entirely to head the ticket of a particular party.

It is obvious that United Russia stands to gain from Putin’s endorsement. The party can expect not only to win additional votes, but it will have the opportunity to deliver a knockout blow to "opposition" parties competing for State Duma seats. Moreover, the party’s ratings would increase from the current 45 to 50 percent level to 60 percent with the president’s endorsement.

But what possible use would a Duma seat be to Putin, who enjoys 70 to 75 percent approval ratings? If he wants to become prime minister in March, why would he need a place in the Duma elections? Does anyone really think that Putin would step down as president, which is required by election law to become a Duma deputy?

It seems that all of this makes no sense at all. It is extremely difficult to determine Putin’s motives and rationale, and Putin has once again left people guessing.

If Putin wanted a third term as president, he could have made changes to the Constitution two years ago rather than resort to the elliptic maneuverings he is undertaking today. If Putin were to make a firm decision to become prime minister, no one would stand in his way. If Putin decides to become prime minister in March, would his spot as a United Russia deputy help him?

Why doesn’t Putin say straight out that he wants to become prime minister?

The answer is that he has no intentions to occupy this post. But the people surrounding the president want him to stay in power very badly. Keeping Putin in the Kremlin — or, at the very least, in the White House — is what his inner circle desperately wants. For them, the fewer the changes, the lower the risk. The political elite want to be sure that they don’t lose their cushy and lucrative spots.

Most important, Putin is the source of legitimacy for the entire political system; it is like a combination of the British queen with the authority of a French president. Moreover, Putin is a rare example of a leader who does not evoke nausea from the people.

The political elite have been fighting for some time to prevent Putin from leaving office. The decision of a ruling president to run for office as a Duma deputy, however, is strange and belittling. A president would normally only agree to this under extreme pressure or desperation.

The truth of the matter is that, despite Putin’s immense power and prestige, he has become a hostage to the very bureaucratic elite that he himself created. Bureaucracy has won and the politician has lost. It is high time to gather on the main square and cry, "Free Vladimir Vladimirovich!"

 

 

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