The poignant comment by John McCain that dictators all over the world “may be a little bit more nervous” after the death of Muammar Gaddafi has generated sharp resonance in Russia because the outspoken US Senator named Vladimir Putin among the dictators in question (Moskovsky Komsomolets, RBC Daily, October 21). Putin’s press-secretary Dmitry Peskov suggested that McCain was “very tired,” while a pack of “patriotic” Duma deputies added every insult they could invent; and even Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov felt obliged to note that the “exotic comment” revealed McCain’s particular “phobias” and “quirks” (Ekho Moskvy, RIA Novosti, October 21). The fact of the matter is that the Russian leadership does look quite nervous executing the long-drafted but distinctly dubious plan for securing a new presidential term for Mr. Putin, while rewarding Dmitry Medvedev with the position of Prime Minister and the privilege of leading the United Russia party machine to a guaranteed victory in the tightly controlled parliamentary elections.
Denying any connection, the master of Russian bureaucracy and his side-kicks are at the same time trying to act on the lessons from the Libyan as well as Egyptian regime failure, and the first of those concerns the need to maintain the legitimacy of the sultanist political order. Medvedev meets with carefully selected “supporters” almost daily trying to explain away his timid step down and failing to impress that his “modernization” rhetoric still makes some sort of sense (Novaya Gazeta, October 17; Ekho Moskvy, October 21). Putin shows no inclination to console the mainstream liberals, who had hoped that his regime could be reformed “from above” and seeks to strengthen his support base among the “workers and peasants,” who believe his promises to protect their wages and pensions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 18). His confidence in buying the loyalty of the “ordinary people” by granting some more social disbursement of petro-revenues shows that one important lesson from Libya is lost: the urban middle classes could become fed up with a dictator even if he is generous in providing free lunches (www.gazeta.ru, October 20).
Putin distrusts Moscow, which is too rich and too sensitive to the signs of decay in his system of power; but one lesson he has taken to heart in his KGB education – and has re-learnt again from Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad as well – is that a leader must take care of his own “tribe.” He is reassuring the bureaucracy unnerved by Medvedev’s propensity to “innovations” that “stability” remains the keyword of his leadership and loyalty is the most rewarded virtue in his court (Ekspert, October 19). He leaves the unpopular reforms of the Interior Ministry and the Armed Forces to Medvedev to experiment with but makes sure that the promised big increase in salaries for officers is seen as his gift granted against the objections of the former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin (Kommersant, October 18). That may not be enough to placate the alienated officer corps but Putin believes that he will have time to win back their trust by delivering on the commitment to rearmament and quite possibly sacking the Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov who is despised in the ranks. Meanwhile, the order has been issued to reduce the target figure for the fall draft from 250,000 to just 135,000 conscripts, primarily in order to minimize the anxiety among young men in this politically delicate season (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 5).
The message that could help to rally the army around the seasoned leader is about standing firm against the West, so Medvedev’s eagerness in befriending the US is set to be curtailed (www.gazeta.ru, October 20). Here another Libyan lesson proves useful: it was NATO intervention, jumbled and semi-legitimate as it was that granted the victory to the rebels. The Alliance, therefore, must be denied any opportunity for further power projection, first of all in Syria, and Lavrov suggested that a “legal examination” of its actions in Libya was necessary (RIA Novosti, October 21). The main issue in the rather abbreviated Russia-NATO dialogue in the last few weeks has been the “architecture” of the European missile defense system, which in itself is hardly a matter of great import for the Russian military but is rather a perfect test for the readiness to cultivate cooperation. The calculated steps made by the Obama administration last week toward breaking the deadlock in negotiations are presented in the mainstream Russian media as tricks (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 20). Dmitry Rogozin, the outspoken presidential envoy to NATO, is eager to emphasize the scope of the disagreements and insinuates that Chicago might remain merely the name of a musical (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 21).
There is, however, one more lesson, which Russian propaganda peddles relentlessly: Libya demonstrates how an attempt to depose a dictator could degenerate into a messy civil war, and the brutal murder of Gaddafi adds a gruesome twist to this tale (RIA Novosti, October 20). Many in the Russian elites are far from thrilled with Putin’s reinstated monopoly on power and are aware of the risks associated with settling on the pattern of slow-moving Brezhnev-style stagnation but a revolutionary alternative looks infinitely worse (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 18; Vedomosti, October 20). The picture of a petro-state destroyed by the feuds of warring tribes financed by international corporations vying for access to the oil and gas-fields looks indeed very disagreeable (Kommersant, October 22).
The sum total of these lessons apparently amounts to a net gain for Putin’s plan for yet another reconfiguration of the leadership aimed at consolidating his control over policy-making while creating an illusion of change. This plan may be indeed unstoppable but its triumphant execution by next May will signify a big leap backward in Russia’s political and social rehabilitation from the Soviet debacle. Putin may find it amusing to squash the illusions of “modernization,” but Medvedev’s failed presidency has left a more important heritage than either of the two is aware of by creating more space for open speech, even if mostly in the blogosphere, and weakening the traditional respect in the supreme authority. Solid stability is just a Potemkin façade for the decaying Putinism, and its collapse is certain to be messy but not necessarily that violent – the courtiers have grown too fat to have any stomach to fight.