What does the prospect of perpetual Putin mean for Russia’s future?

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President’s plan to remain in power beyond 2024 does not bode well either for Russia or the world

Simon Tisdall –  The Guardian

Vladimir Putin speaks in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament in Moscow. Photograph: Alexei Nikolsky/AP

The idea that Vladimir Putin would quietly retire always seemed fanciful, given the grisly fate that often befalls ageing autocrats, ex-dictators and even supposedly elected presidents once they let go of absolute power.

In January, Russia’s president-in-perpetuity floated a range of possible constitutional “reforms” to help decide what happens in 2024 when his term in office expires.

This was, in theory, a public consultation. Maybe the Duma, Russia’s parliament, should have more powers, Putin suggested. Perhaps the role of the prime minister, or the state council, should be enhanced?

When Putin fired his top toady, the unpopular Dmitri Medvedev – and the entire government – at a stroke, it seemed he meant business. It was a lethal move straight out of Ivan the Terrible’s old Kremlin playbook.

The upheaval sparked earnest talk about the future of Putinism, the “power vertical” and the post-Putin era. For a minute or two, it sounded like a real debate. Perhaps democracy in Russia was not dead after all.

Big misunderstanding. Political analysts at home and abroad thought they were talking about future governance and how to manage the succession when Putin’s unbroken quarter century in power concluded.

Putin, however, was talking about what, for him, is the most pressing question of the day: how to keep power forever. On Tuesday, he gave his answer, in effect: “Forget all the other stuff, I’m staying.”

It’s strange others did not think of it first. Putin’s brilliant wheeze – turning the presidential clock back to zero – means he and all of Russia can look forward to another two terms. Problem solved. Debate over.

Putin was careful to tell the Duma, apparently in all sincerity, that term limits must be respected and the constitution honoured. Future elections in which he took part would be “naturally open and competitive”.

If such smirking double-speak leaves observers confounded, imagine how Alexei Navalny and other persecuted opposition activists who have spent their lives fighting for free and fair elections must be feeling.

Putin also reassured his adoring Duma fans that his personal Doomsday clock, permanently set at five minutes to midnight, would be put to a referendum next month.

It’s true Putin is not as popular as he once was. The economy is a mess. The oil price war will make it worse. Corruption is out of control. But Putin has ways of winning even when he’s losing. It’s a safe bet the referendum will work out OK for him.

What does the prospect of perpetual Putin mean for the future? At home, more croneyism, more repression, more national stagnation, more grand larceny by his magic circle of crooks and charlatans.

Abroad, more disruption to the international order, more anti-western agitation and subversion, more rightwing populist poison, and more sniggering and bragging about liberalism’s obsolescence.

Putin already has Donald Trump in the bag, so to speak, secretly beholden to him for reasons still unexplained. If Trump wins a second term, there’s no end to the trouble the two of them may cause.

Joe Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice-president, also tried to reset the Russian clock, but in a different way. It didn’t work then. And Biden is unlikely to have better luck now, even if he gets the chance.

In Europe, Angela Merkel battled Putin over Crimea and Ukraine and got nowhere. Now she’s on her way out. Boris Johnson is no match, and France’s Emmanuel Macron could be writing his memoirs by the time 2024 comes around.

Among other world leaders, only China’s Xi Jinping, another self-proclaimed president-for-life, may still be around when Putin’s starts the clock ticking again. And for all their differences, Xi and Putin share one big aim of reducing western power.

Putin’s 2024 CV reads like a roll-call of 21st-century woes: endless strife in contested countries such as Syria, Libya and Ukraine, a UN system mired in endless stalemate, nationalist delusions peddled, elections fiddled, opponents assassinated, wealth stolen and democracy in retreat.

Putin survives through the ruthless exercise of power, spurred by malign intent, greed and personal spite. He will not name a successor, for he can never retire. He has too many enemies to ever rest easy.

 

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