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Putin as Democracy

Vladimir PutinOkay, so I was wrong. I've been saying since Dmitry Medvedev's ascendance to the presidency of Russia that Vladimir Putin had finally figured out how to be president for life without having to make Western allies unnecessarily squeamish about his inordinate power. Though Medvedev, to some extent, transcended his status as a Putin puppet, he was the perfect man to placate the sulking mass of allies and "allies" accrued by Russia in its 20 years of existence.

The benefits of this arrangement seemed to have outweighed the negative points. Free to roam the country and show off his physical prowess for the cameras, Putin could leverage his populist domestic image, fill the role of an imposing big brother in other CIS countries, and still not worry about the approbation or censure of other nations, despite occasional suggestions in the media (and a general but diffuse worldwide sense that he was still "in charge"). Though Medvedev is the lawyer, Putin was the one most responsible for flouting the spirit of the Constitution, while fulfilling the letter of the law: everyone understood who was in charge, but one was hard-pressed to find concrete proof of that fact. Until now.

This is not to say that I am a Putin-hater. There are plenty of those in the West, and a few in Russia. The elite in Moscow and many expatriate Russians take great pleasure in assaulting Putin's character, seeing him as a negative influence on the infant democracy of their homeland, and with reason. Putin is certainly no democrat, though he has learned to play that game and speak that speech. It should not be that difficult to see why he enjoys the popularity that he does: he seems at least somewhat upstanding, he gives Russia a positive self-image, and does not appear to be a deadbeat like some of post-Soviet Russia's finest (Boris Yeltsin, Yuri Luzhkov, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to name a few). This may seem a low bar for the presidency, but one need not live long in Russia to understand that men like Putin ­ possessed of ambition, aplomb, and a relentless refusal to make gaffes ­ are very few and far between.

I do not mean that Putin is democratic; he certainly is not. He has certainly wronged many people, some as individuals and some as groups, and he clearly has no true desire to see Russia democratize. However, compare Putin, strong-willed and disingenuous, to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who seemed sincerely to desire some version of Western democracy to become native to his land, but who was incapable of leading the country, appeared drunk on television and passed out at cabinet meetings, and effectively sold Moscow to the oligarchs in exchange for his reelection in 1996 (remember that he would have lost the 1996 election to Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party; Russia would have been an extraordinarily short-lived republic). The majority of Russians, having lived through the 1990s, are supremely uninterested in the sort of democratizing that went on then, and it hardly seems fair to blame them for flying to Putin who, at the very least, exudes a sense of stability.

Putin's gambit of leading from behind while Medvedev took the office of president was effective not least because of the Western media's assumptive treatment of Putin as pseudo-dictator. This poses a problem of narrative for the Russian government. Everything from (as I have said many times) the New York Times to silly PBS documentaries cast Putin automatically in a dictatorial light, without any of the context that would explain how, exactly, he got to where he is. Certainly, Putin is a step backward for Russian democracy. Certainly, his reign has caused undue harm to some people, and to certain groups. Certainly, he is a disingenuous and, in his own way, corrupt person. But he is popular. And that, in a democracy, even a young and troubled one, is what matters.

I can't say what exactly drove Putin to give up the position he has held. I can't think that it is a blind desire for the title of president, as many of my American friends seem to assume ­ Putin is nothing if not patient, and bided his time in the background of Yeltsin's administration until he made his move in 1999 (and what a masterful and nefarious move it was!), and seems more attracted to power than to position. I can only suspect that he feared Medvedev's coming of age. Having himself been placed at the head of the country initially as a puppet, Putin may be wary of Medvedev's ambition. In Russian politics, the man who is an obedient servant one day may be stabbing you in the back ­ or sending you to your dacha at Barvikha for the rest of your life.

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