Traditional May holidays have arrived to Russia, and while the Victory Day parade will be the usual rumbling of heavy weapons over Red Square, it is Vladimir Putin’s third presidential inauguration that is supposed to make them special. The outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev used the final week of his deeply disappointing term for making a self-congratulatory speech at the special meeting of the State Council and granting an interview to a group of TV journalists. The key message of the speech was to assert that, despite stepping down from the position of supreme authority (which in fact he never possessed), he would command plenty of power as the head of the government (Moskovsky Komsomolets, Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 25). In the interview, he advised “everybody to relax” because together with Putin they had finalized the plans and their system of power would continue “for a long time” (Kommersant, April 27). This could have sounded arrogant coming from a true power-holder, but in fact it betrays not only Medvedev’s jitters about his future but also the deep worries in the Kremlin court about the longevity of Putinism (Grani.ru, April 27).
Putin performed a rather peculiar pirouette last week announcing that he would step down from leading the United Russia party and suggesting that Medvedev should be given this privilege (Moskovskie Novosti, April 27). The party gained a slim majority in the State Duma in the December elections only by resorting to fraud and lost heavily in credibility; its conservative-bureaucratic ranks have never been comfortable with Medvedev’s “modernization” discourse (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 26). Nevertheless, Medvedev would gain some extra authority as Prime Minister relying on the parliamentary voting machine, while Putin would assume the pose of a national leader rising above the party-political fray (Polit.ru, April 27). The promise of political reform that Medvedev had to make in order to oil the wave of protests in Moscow has thus turned so false that Mikhail Prokhorov, who made a strong impression in the presidential elections, and former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin are abandoning plans for building a political party and retreating from the political arena (Vedomosti, April 26).
This does not mean, however, that the “white opposition” has melted away as the snow in Moscow’s freshly-green parks; its leaders are focusing on gathering a mass rally in Moscow on May 6, seeking to gain new momentum on the eve of Putin’s inauguration (Gazeta.ru, April 27). Coalitions of opposition groups fiercely contest elections of mayors of major cities from Yaroslavl to Astrakhan to Omsk, and prepare ground for a major offensive in St. Petersburg. This build-up of protest activities in the regions is often triggered by the arrival of a group of “guest-stars” from Moscow. Yet, the pool of local discontent is far deeper than Putin, who dismisses the liberal demands as a pastime of affluent Internet-surfers, tends to believe (Novaya Gazeta, April 23). What alters the political dynamics in the regions is the emerging prospect for electing the governors according to the new law, conditional as it is (Vedomosti, April 25).
Putin is returning to his habitual position of supreme authority in a country that has suddenly changed and is on the move, but he is firmly determined to rule as if “stability” remains the pattern. His plans for ensuring stable economic growth include setting a giant state corporation for developing Siberia and the Far East primarily by channeling state budget investments into priority infrastructure projects (Forbes.ru, April 22). That amounts to creating a great opportunity for a group of loyalists to enrich themselves because construction is the most criminally profitable sector where kickbacks push the prices sky-high (Gazeta.ru, April 25). Corruption is endemic to Putin’s model of centralized control and Medvedev had to admit that the results in his “struggle” against it were “modest.” First of all, because “officials are a corporation, they do not want others to interfere in their business,” he noted. Putin prefers not to touch this blogger-infested subject. That renders completely surreal his declared aim of improving the investment climate so that Russia would climb in the international business ratings from its current position in the 120s to the 40s and even 20s (Newsru.com, 26 April).
Reshuffling aides and ministers is a game Putin loves to play. But any change away from concentrating all power in the Kremlin is seen as a compromise betraying weakness in the paramount institution of the presidency, which has been unfortunately compromised due to Medvedev’s feeble caretaking. Putin needs to show strength in order to restore the credibility of the office but cannot do it by executing the badly needed reforms that are certain to squeeze vested bureaucratic interests. Thus, the President-elect intends to show determination in not authorizing any meaningful reforms (Gazeta.ru, April 24). This blind conservatism, to which Medvedev has also obediently subscribed, is welcomed by the legion of sycophants who are busy evacuating their fortunes and families to the West, and has certain appeal to the “have-nots” dependent upon the meager social support provided by the state. The combination of cynical and self-serving nomenklatura and passively-inert “masses” distinctly resembles the autumnal years of the USSR. At the same time, this year’s parade of the emasculated and under-reformed army will be a parody of the demonstrations of the once-mighty Soviet military machine (Polit.ru, April 27).
The problem with Putin’s course of buying the loyalty of the bureaucracy and the passivity of the pensioners and state-employees with petro-revenues is not only in its irreducible dependency upon the oil prices but primarily in its moral bankruptcy. Every grandiose enterprise that is supposed to prove Russia’s ascent, like staging the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi or constructing the South Stream pipeline, turns instead into a corrupt “black hole” that sucks resources and reveals the unhealthy stagnation in Russian state-building. Putin is so entangled in the old commitments and clandestine deals that reinventing himself and making a fresh start is a non-option, while standing firm against the pressure of delayed reforms requires more energy than he could possibly master. He is stuck on the losing track and he is a bad loser, so the parable for the third presidency is his old story about a cornered rat.