James T. Hackett
The Washington Times
September 4, 2007
Russia may be a democracy, but it is rapidly morphing back into an authoritarian state. President Vladimir Putin looks very much like a man running for re-election. The question is whether he plans to scrap the constitution and become president for life or rule from behind the scenes and return to office later.
The constitution adopted in 1993 by the new Russia states in Chapter 4, Article 81, “No one person shall hold the office of president for more than two terms in succession.” Mr. Putin was elected in 2000 and won re-election by a landslide 71 percent in 2004. He will complete two terms next year, so is ineligible under the constitution to stand for re-election.
Elections to the Duma will be held Dec. 2, after which the political parties will nominate their candidates for the presidency. That election will take place March 2, with the new president taking office May 7. Barely six months before the election, Vladimir Putin dominates Russian politics like a colossus, with polls showing an approval rate as high as 80 percent.
Videos have been released showing Mr. Putin in campaign mode, a vigorous 55, horseback riding and fishing, stripped to the waist. For months he has taken step after step to appeal to the majority of Russians who yearn for a return to the great-power status their country lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. He has been taking advantage of the booming global market for energy, renationalizing the oil and gas industry and using the proceeds to rebuild the Russian military.
For years Russia has been developing the Topol-M mobile ballistic missile, the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, the S-400 missile interceptor, a new evading warhead, fifth-generation fighter planes and missile-launching submarines. Progress was slow and funds were scarce, but the surge in oil and gas wealth made it possible to overcome problems and accelerate these programs.
Now Mr. Putin is using his improving military to throw his weight around, confronting countries from Georgia to Norway. He has resumed long-range nuclear bomber flights, refuses to cooperate with Britain on a KGB murder, claims the North Pole for Russia, sells air defense missiles to Syria and threatens to target NATO countries by basing missiles in Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave.
Instead of joining Europe and America to oppose the threat of militant Islam, Mr. Putin has turned to China, Iran and other authoritarian regimes against the West. He is recreating the Warsaw Pact in Central Asia — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Known as a “dictator’s club,” it is led by China and Russia and includes four former Soviet republics but expected to grow with Iran and other countries seeking to join.
All this is fine with most Russians, who have the strong leader they wanted. A poll by the Yuri-Levada Institute published in February found 68 percent of Russians said their top priority was “security.” Democracy was hardly mentioned. Other findings were that 75 percent consider Russia a Eurasian state, while only 10 percent think they are part of the West.
Mr. Putin has said he will honor the constitution. Nevertheless, he could decide to emulate his friend, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, and make himself president for life. Amending the Russian constitution requires large majorities of both the Federation Council and Duma, which he undoubtedly could get from these rubber-stamp bodies, but it would require payoffs or concessions he may not want to make.
So he appears to be grooming First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as his successor. Since the constitution bars him from running more than twice “in succession,” but leaves open the possibility of a later return, he may plan to have Mr. Ivanov run next year for one term and then replace him. Meanwhile, he would expect to control the country as a “gray eminence” from behind the scenes.
But that is easier said than done. Mr. Ivanov is a highly capable former KGB officer and defense minister. If he wins the vast powers of the Russian presidency, it may not be easy for a former president to control him. Once out of power, Mr. Putin may find it hard to get back in. Of course, he could anoint a more pliable candidate to serve as caretaker president.
Russian democracy is at risk. For the future of his country, Mr. Putin should honor the constitution and retire permanently next year.
James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in Carlsbad, Calif.
The essay above was used with permission.
Cold War Redux?
(Our own commentary on Mr. Putin and Russia)