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#8 - JRL 2006-206 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
September 12, 2006
The Myth of the Apolitical Presidency

President Vladimir Putin's remarks over dinner with participants in the Valdai Discussion Club on Saturday were pretty standard, especially for those who followed his performance as host of the Group of Eight summit in July.

What was not so standard was his description of himself not as a politician, but as a citizen who opts for the "moral decision" over the "politically more correct" choice. Others in his administration, he asserted in an aside to a dinner guest, favored more political approaches.

The comment was as candid as it was hard to reconcile with reality. Putin has overseen the construction of a system where most, if not all centers of real political power and decision-making are directly subordinated to or dependent on the president's office.

But unlike U.S. President Harry Truman, whose desk famously was home to a sign that read "The buck stops here," Putin seems to be sending out the message that he is only responsible for part of what's going on, and that he is above politics.

This might explain why we have yet to hear from the president on the violence that broke out between ethnic-Slav locals and more recent arrivals from the Caucasus in Kondapoga last week. Whether the eruption was the result of criminal behavior or racial tensions, Putin has said nothing publicly concerning the danger these moral attitudes pose or how to deal with them.

But when it came to the 2003 State Duma elections, where Putin openly endorsed United Russia, or on-air support for favored gubernatorial candidates like St. Petersburg's Valentina Matviyenko (back in 2003, when they were still directly elected), he has been less reticent. Can his two visits to Ukraine to voice his support for Viktor Yanukovych during the presidential election in that country in 2004 be seen as anything but political?

In the latest example, Putin apparently agreed in August to allow the Party of Life, of which he is not a member (he is not officially a member of any party), to use his image and past positive comments he had made about the party in the election for the Lipetsk regional legislature.

That the impetus for Putin's actions does appear to be strictly political on occasion shouldn't be cause for dismay or criticism. National leaders are politicians -- politics is what they do.

As leaders they are also often stuck in positions, as Truman suggested, where they cannot pass the buck. Putin doesn't seem ready to accept this. His claim to be merely a citizen while characterizing many of those around him as politicians is reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary peasant formulation of the belief in the "good tsar," as opposed to his evil advisers, which was trotted out to defend the actions and honor of the monarch.

The evil advisers, the president would have us believe, still exist -- and it's still not the leader's fault.