For most of last week Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, traveled to places he knows well and feels good about –Istanbul and Paris. These were neither tourist getaways nor business trips; he had plenty of delicate high-profile political matters to deal with, and none was more sensitive than the issue of UN sanctions against Iran. In Turkey, which resolutely opposed these sanctions, Putin clarified that they were not “excessive” and would not put Iran in a “difficult situation.” In France, he hinted that while the surface-to-air missiles (S-300) were not covered by the sanctions, Russia would not deliver them to Iran according to the contract signed in 2005 (RIA Novosti, June 11). Moscow has few illusions regarding the effect of the UN resolutions on Iranian uranium enrichment program, but seeks to demonstrate its responsible attitude as a member of the “nuclear club” (www.gazeta.ru, June 10).
What is very pronounced in the coverage of these trips is that Putin confidently handled the matters that are supposed to be the responsibility of the president, for instance, insisting on the absolute unacceptability of any military strikes against Iran or pushing the “strategic” deal on buying the French Mistral class helicopter carrier. Certainly, Putin has never been shy to engage in foreign affairs, cultivating his own networks including with such controversial characters as Hugo Chavez or Muammar al-Gaddafi. This time, however, his bearing was distinctly that of the leader of a country. There was also a new twist to the habitual explanation to the French media of the functioning of the ruling “tandem,” where, according to Putin, “there is no vanity, no showing off” (Kommersant, June 10). He went into such details as confiding that Medvedev addresses him as a senior partner, while “like before, I can call him and say, ‘Listen, let’s discuss this.’” This official translation does not quite capture the peculiar turn of the phrase “ne schitayu zazornym,” which means “I do not consider it beneath me.”
As to the central question of elections in 2012, Putin confirmed that the co-rulers “have given this issue some thought,” and agreed to postpone the decision in order to avoid “getting caught up in it before we have to.” Prolongation of the uncertainty makes perfect political sense, but Putin’s behavior shows that he has made up his mind (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 10). There is a distinguishable change in the atmosphere above the Kremlin towers, and the courtiers that have recently entertained quasi-liberal designs for “modernization” are once again acting as bone fide patriotic conservatives. Even in the endless court case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the prosecution that has felt humiliated by the exposure of glaring inconsistencies in the case now radiates confidence that the real verdict has been issued and the legal formalities do not matter (www.grani.ru, June 10).
The foundations for Putin’s comeback, which actually involves plenty of “showing off,” is economic recovery, and he maintains the message that the anti-crisis measures are generating strong impact by stimulating new growth faster than expected. Some macro-economic statistics show impressive rebound, consequently the World Bank has raised the forecast for the Russian economy in 2011 to 4.8 percent, above the ministry of economic development target figure of 3.4 percent (www.newsru.com, June 11). In Putin’s absence President, Dmitry Medvedev, could express dissatisfaction with the government’s work on developing special programs for modernization, but then his senior partner returns and reassures his ministers that: “Thanks to the economic recovery, we now have an opportunity to increase funding for priority items and to cut the budget deficit more quickly” (Kommersant, June 9). Medvedev may argue about the “catastrophic” impact of high oil prices on Russia’s modernization, but the prevalent business expectations are pinned exactly on the strong global demand for raw materials, and there are few worries about the probable stagnation of key economies in the EU caused by severe cuts in state expenditures.
Russia is also looking into the need to reduce budget spending, which is certain to be politically sensitive in a year of parliamentary elections, that may be of little importance in themselves but must demonstrate broad support for the “national leader.” Putin is aware that the least popular expenditures are on defense and innovations, and he takes great care to show generosity in increasing pensions, despite the deep crisis facing the pension fund (www.gazeta.ru, June 9). Yuri Shevchuk, a popular rock musician, told him boldly that the public discontent was rising and demanded greater freedom for expressing it, but Putin will not experiment with such risky reforms. His basic instinct is always for asserting tougher control, but this clamp down only makes the public anger rise to take such ugly forms as gang attacks on policemen in Primorsky kray (Novaya Gazeta, June 11).
The shock of the unexpected crisis has shown to Putin that basic economic reality cannot be overruled and he now understands that the “petro-prosperity” of his two presidential terms cannot be reproduced. He also knows that the deeply corrupt law enforcement system and even the business-minded Federal Security Service (FSB) cannot guarantee efficient suppression of discontent. His budget over-spending and repressive toughness have a very short timescale and can hardly be sustained beyond 2012. The question is why then is he so firmly set on restoring his absolute grasp on power?
An answer that appears increasingly plausible is that he simply cannot afford any other option. Indeed, Medvedev’s re-election for the six-year term would grant him a far greater freedom of political hiring and firing than he currently has –and the authority to appoint those who are responsible for the very possible new economic downturn. Modernization would not miraculously become a feasible proposition but a new team of presidential loyalists would eagerly fall on those shadowy figures that now trail in Putin’s tracks. After them, it would soon become his turn to answer for squandered petro-fortunes, and in Russia, failed “national leaders” cannot expect a dignified retirement. This prospect creates high motivation for Putin to leave nothing to chance in the forthcoming “heart-to-heart” with his hapless co-ruler, but then he might have a hard time persuading a very angry country that he is indeed its choice.