Kremlinology 2012

The Return of the King

It's official: Vladimir Putin is Russia's once and future president. So how come we're surprised all over again?

MOSCOW – Back in December 2007, with his second presidential term running out, Vladimir Putin decided not to violate the letter of the Russian constitution. Instead, he chose to step down, become prime minister, and nominate one of his old St. Petersburg buddies, an aide named Dmitry Medvedev, for president. Back then, a good joke started to make the rounds: Russia, 2023. Putin and Medvedev are sitting in one of their kitchens, drinking and shooting the breeze. "Listen," slurs Putin. "I've lost track again. Which one of us is prime minister, and which is president?"

"You're the president now, I think," slurs Medvedev.

"Well," slurs Putin, "then it's your turn to go and get more beer."

It was a prophetic joke, and one that turned out to be all too accurate Saturday, when Medvedev announced the latest switch: Putin will return to the presidency in next year's election and Medvedev will take up the prime minister's post. And yet the joke was somehow lost on us over the last four years as we (rightly) let other debates get in the way, from the long silly distraction of wondering who was actually in charge (answer: Putin, of course) to the disputes over whether to believe Medvedev's talk of modernization. Even despite these last few months, when it became clear that Putin would come back, we managed to be surprised all over again when it actually happened.

"It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted," said Andrei Kolesnikov, the Kommersant journalist who, in his intimate chronicles of Putin, has become the man's hagiographer. We were standing in the press section of the grandstands at the convention for the United Russia ruling party, looking down on the swarm of thousands of delegates filing their paper ballots in unanimous support of Putin's party platform.

"We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it's so obvious," he said. "It'd be nice to have some actual surprises because the situation is just so stable" -- Putin's watchword -- "that when they made the announcement, I got really sleepy. Really. Because this is for keeps."

While Kolesnikov drifted off, the Twittering masses of Russia were either euphoric or in despair, depending on their political leanings. The despairing liberals, a dwindling crowd after two decades of dashed post-Soviet hopes, were utterly winded and deflated. Why does God hate Russia, one asked. And then everyone started doing the math: How old would we be when Putin finally leaves office in 2024 (a date that supposes he serves two more consecutive terms, which were extended to six years back in 2008)? Russia's digital airwaves quickly filled with a younger generation bemoaning their lost youth: Many of them will be pushing 40 by then, and they've already spent their last 12 years under his watch.

"When Putin finishes his second six-year term, I'll already be 58," one older blogger wrote. "Almost my entire life will have been spent with him." He punctuated this with a frown.

But Kolesnikov, at least, was still seeing a glimmer of opportunity in this latest Kremlin machination. "I hope we'll see a new Putin, this is my only hope," he told me, "because the earlier iterations have exhausted themselves."

In 2000, he and two other journalists (one of whom later became Medvedev's press secretary) authored a book called In the First Person, an as-told-to account from Putin of his life. At the time, Putin was a little-known former KGB agent newly installed in the presidency by an ailing Boris Yeltsin; though obscure, Putin from the start talked of his plans to restore Russian pride after a post-superpower decade of economic collapse and political intrigue. Periodically, Kolesnikov said, he goes back and reads certain sections and is amazed to see how prophetic it all was, how much of what Putin promised back then he's since delivered. "Even the idea of monarchy," Kolesnikov noted. "He said that, it may sound weird, but the idea of monarchy is appealing to me because a monarch doesn't have to worry about elections and can focus on the well-being of his subjects, so it's not such a bad idea." And even this idea, Kolesnikov noted, "is being realized."

No doubt the fact that Russia is staring down another looming economic crisis makes this return -- to the presidency or monarchy or whatever we call it -- rather problematic. The ruble dropped precipitously this week, and Putin and his finance minister have been squabbling in public in recent days over whether the state can deliver on its mounting social obligations without increasing taxes, or fomenting social unrest. Then again, given Putin's predilection for talking tough but not necessarily doing much, not to mention the fact that many of Russia's current problems -- corruption, cronyism, Byzantine politics -- were cemented into place during his reign, it seems the course he's choosing is to plow ahead and change as little as possible. Which, if you think about it, is a rather bold move, too.

"Putin is a very talented politician," said Aleksei Chesnakov, a United Russia official who was one of Putin's key strategists during his first two terms. "He never repeats himself and yet always remains himself. A politician's style is set early and forever, and his style, his manner of making decisions are well-known, and they will remain the same." Chesnakov assured me, however, that "Putin has always been a keenly responsive politician" who will continue to adapt to conditions as they develop. ("The child hasn't been conceived yet, and you're asking if it'll be a great mathematician," he told me, when I pressed him on what we can expect from the new Putin epoch.)

That remains to be seen. For now, though, Kolesnikov's monarchy thesis -- which, by the way, has more than a few supporters among the Russian elite -- seems to be coming to pass, but with more subtlety than the name would suggest. Russia has shed its still-new adornments of modernity and is once again coming out as a deeply conservative government based on personal ties.

"On one hand, it's a good thing because any ambiguity has now been removed," says political analyst Masha Lipman, referring to the "whither Putin, whither Medvedev" schizophrenia of the last four years. (This, by the way, will also make American foreign policy easier: just one man to deal with.) "On the other hand," she points out, "for everyone who has been thinking and writing about political modernization in Russia, the hope of this happening has been definitively negated." That is, even though few ever really believed Medvedev had the power to modernize without Putin, there was a hope that his installation in the Kremlin was the trial balloon for loosening the reins. Apparently, the balloon has burst.

But that leaves more questions than answers. Why has it failed? How has Medvedev failed, if he was acting the entire time with Putin's approval? Why will he be more effective as prime minister than as president? Neither the president nor the prime minister -- match the names to the titles as you see fit -- explained this in their speeches on Saturday, perhaps because the answer is obvious and yet cannot be uttered in polite company.

Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin get elected in 2000 and who was an advisor to Medvedev until he was fired in May, had another question. "Medvedev never planned to say no to a candidacy for a second term," Pavlovsky told me. "What happened? Was he pressured? Did they make him an offer he couldn't refuse? He didn't explain his refusal in any way." The explanation, from where I sit, lies in that joke from late 2007, and in past columns I've written here: Medvedev, despite his haggard, emotional appearance at the United Russia convention Saturday, has always known that it was not his decision to make. And that once Putin made the decision, he could do nothing but accept it. That was the bargain he struck in 2007, a bargain that would be hard to call Faustian: The end was clear from the beginning.

So what will happen now that the end and beginning are one? Some are predicting a new wave of immigration -- or a class of dual-citizenship holders -- for those who had other things in mind for the next 12 years. Others see Medvedev, as prime minister, shouldering the blame for the next wave of economic crisis. ("Prime ministers are easy to replace," notes Lipman.) Still others see Putin steering the ship of state for a few more years and stepping down early. But Kolesnikov sees 12 more years for Putin, "because it's the first version" again. Pavlovsky, though, sees altogether different man: "The Putin of 2000 was a politician I loved, but that Putin is dead," he says. "And the Putin of 2007 is gone. Today's Putin is a zombie."

What's certain, however, is that the office of president -- buttressed as it was by the degradation of every other institution over the last decade -- has lost quite a bit of its legitimacy. And United Russia, created a decade ago to be the country's new ruling party, has apparently been dealt a body blow. It's being slowly swallowed up by the nebula that is a new entity set up by Putin known as the National People's Front, while United Russia will now be led through the parliamentary elections by Medvedev, a man who was just publicly stripped of his scepter. That may be good news for people who see United Russia as the Party of Crooks and Thieves, but where does that leave Russia? "I think we'll see a decline in the authority of the government, people will see it as silly, as odious," says Pavlovsky, "and power will have to lean increasingly on those who depend on it for wealth, for status. That's not a healthy scenario, but it will be with us for a long time."

Which is perhaps why so much alcohol was traded hands via Twitter in the aftermath of Saturday's big announcement. Someone lost a couple beers on their presidential bet, others won cases of cognac. I won a bottle of Hennessy. Others just wanted to get to drinking away their shock at suddenly facing what's been hidden in plain sight these four years. At the very least, it might pleasantly confuse them about where the rotating door might spin in the future.


Kremlinology 2012

The Kremlin's Spin Machine … and Me

My adventures on Russia's first televised political debate in a decade.

MOSCOW — I'd never been in a green room before, especially not one with ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky sucking up all the air in it. Yet there he stood in a blue suit, surrounded by concentric rings of advisors, assistants, and supporters. Producers and hosts ran around with clipboards. Billionaire and budding politician Mikhail Prokhorov sat nervously on a couch as his publicist prattled on next to him. Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russia Today network, was getting her make-up done; the leader of the ousted liberal party Yabloko stalked about gloomily. Two higher-ups from the ruling United Russia party checked their watches; the deputy head of the Communists sparkled in a shiny suit and a flawless coiffure. And then there was me, lightly dusted with powder, standing a careful few feet away from the refreshments table with its sweating cold cuts, unpeeled banana halves, and Hennessy.

Earlier that week, the hosts of the political talk show "NTV-shniki" (or "NTV-ers") had invited me to appear along with the leaders of Russia's main political parties and some Russian journalists to kick off the political season by asking the politicians some questions. Given the degree of state control over Russian television -- "NTV-shniki" appears on the Gazprom-owned NTV channel -- I was wary of participating: Would I be edited out of the final show unless I asked softball questions? Would I be, as one Russian friend warned me, "legitimizing their charade"? "Don't be shy," one of the producers told me a couple of days before the show. "Be provocative!" She added that Simonyan wanted to prod Prokhorov on his alleged dalliances.

In the end, I agreed. There hadn't been anything like this for a while. It promised to be, at the very least, interesting. "Today, on our show, we have something we haven't had in about 10 years," Anton Khrekov, the main host, intoned when the cameras started rolling. "The leaders of the biggest registered parties will meet in one place to participate in an open political discussion." What, I wondered, would that look like in Putin's Russia, where TV politics are drab and dully loyal? Would they pull it off?

The first question, from Khrekov, was not one you hear too often on Russian television.

"Why are your parties participating in these elections if the count is dishonest, if the election is dishonest?" he asked. "Aren't you just aiding those who have orchestrated this buffoonery?"

His colleagues weren't much gentler. When Vladimir Kashin, the Communist, started alluding to thieves and "corruptioneers," one of the hosts, Anton Krasovsky, started to press Kashin: "Who?" he asked. "Who? Name one name." (Kashin didn't.) They went after the Communists for glorifying Stalin -- "How many people would your leader sacrifice to build the Belomor Canal? 500,000?" -- and for being the Kremlin's lapdog: "Your leader ... meets with the president, discusses with him nuances of internal politics," one of the hosts asked. "How come Comrade Lenin didn't meet with Nicholas II to discuss with him the reform of the country?"

They went after Yabloko for scuttling every liberal coalition, Zhirinovsky for selling his party's votes in the legislature. (At this, Zhirinovsky stood up and hurled his clip-on mic to the floor. "Enough lying!" he bellowed as it exploded into its separate components.) The hosts even went after United Russia for campaign posters in Novosibirsk that implied that federal funds spent on road repair in the region were a gift from the party. (Andrey Isaev, the bigwig representing United Russia at the debate, did not see a problem with this.)

After the hosts took their shots, it came time for some "famous" callers and their questions. There was a question beamed in from Oleg Kashin, the journalist brutally beaten last fall. He asked why the most common prompt in Russian Google when one searches for "party" is "party of crooks and thieves," a prevalent Internet meme referring to the increasingly unpopular United Russia. Isaev said that it was clear that this was the work of a focused campaign funded by the West. (The hosts laughed him down.) Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian entrepreneur who fled to London when a corporate raid possibly backed by the Internal Ministry threatened to turn him into another Mikhail Khodorkovsky, called in a question from his safe haven: "Should Putin go, yes or no?"

I list the questions because the answers were hard to parse, mostly because there were usually several politicians screaming their responses at the same time, sometimes while grabbing at each other's arms. Zhirinovsky in particular made sure to interrupt everyone, waving his arms and roaring with the slight slur of the embarrassing uncle who gets a little too drunk at family events. The edited, polished version of the show, which aired on Sunday night, conveyed some of this chaos. But in the studio, it was far, far worse. The only way to shut up the screaming politicians was for the hosts to yell "Applause!" and the crowd -- young supporters bused in by the parties -- would drown out the brouhaha among their leaders. Prokhorov tried to distance himself from the fray as much as he could, saying, "When I was little, my parents used to take me to the circus. It was a lot like this."

Back when the now exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky built NTV in the 1990s, it was usually the fiercest critic of the Kremlin and of the first war in Chechnya. It hosted the most popular satirical program of the day, Victor Shenderovich's Puppets. When Putin took control of the channel, in 2001, it marked a watershed moment in the new president's rise. It was also a body blow to a once thriving and unruly Russian media. (This year, the 10th anniversary of the takeover was a major topic of discussion.) After NTV, the rest of the stations fell like dominoes and the Kremlin came to own television, which has remained the main source of information -- really, about anything -- for most Russians. Across all channels, political content became staid and formulaic.

But the Kremlin isn't stupid, and it isn't always ham-fisted. The rising tide of discontent in Russia's middle class and urban elite is obvious. It's what created the need for Prokhorov's new political party, the first time since Mikhail Khodorkovsky's arrest that an oligarch has been allowed to participate in politics. It's why anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny is still not in jail. It's also why state media has been easing up its strict, self-enforced ban on certain subjects: In the past year, there has been a show about Khodorkovsky -- usually persona non grata on television -- and one on the death of Sergei Magnitsky. And it's why NTV was able to hold something resembling a political debate.

"They loosened things up about a year ago," one of the channel's employees told me after the show. "Because no one was watching TV. It was impossible to watch. I mean, you can't have sex with a blow-up doll for 10 years and insist that she's a real, hot woman and that the sex is great."

According to Arina Borodina, the television critic for Kommersant, NTV has always been allowed to get away with more. "They're trying to attract the audience that stopped voting, that stopped watching TV," she said, noting that the ratings for NTV spiked during the debates, even though they aired at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night. "Eighteen percent of the Moscow audience watched it," she said. "That's very, very high."

But despite a loosening of the strictures, the most important prohibitions remain. "No one will ever grade Putin versus Medvedev, or Medvedev versus Putin," Borodina explains. "That's definitely not comme il faut. You can't talk about Putin jailing Khodorkovsky. You can talk about why he's in jail, but not who put him there. You can't talk about things that Putin has publicly taken responsibility for, but has not carried out. You can't really criticize him. His personal life is off limits."

When it was my turn to ask questions, I asked why no one but the Communists were fielding a presidential candidate, offending the perennial joke candidate, Zhirinovsky -- a mistake I'll chalk up to nervousness. I asked why Putin's People's Front has shown such drab results in polls (53 percent of Russians don't know what it is). More screaming. Then I asked what it says about the Russian political system that the most important politician in the country, Vladimir Putin, is not a member of any party.

Isaev explained -- well, screamed -- that United Russia has never hidden the fact that it was created to support Putin and that, moreover, Putin himself was more popular than all of United Russia.

I asked why, in that case, United Russia was needed at all.

I don't have the exact quotes for his answer, because this whole part didn't make it into the final edit, even though a lengthy sparring match ensued. (That is why Simonyan, the head of RT, hissed: "What is this, a Foreign Policy interview now?") But it also seemed to cross a line: Prior to my question, we had been criticizing parties, not asking whether they should exist. And weirdly, although the hosts ran with the idea and started to badger Isaev, one of them afterward singled United Russia out for a special thank-you on his Facebook page. "In a situation where they should've cursed and destroyed us, the [United Russia] guys were watching this bacchanal with an almost Buddhist-like calm," the host, Krasovsky, wrote. "They behaved in a way that would make Americans jerk off with envy."

Later, when a Russian journalist quoted me saying my sharpest questions had been cut, Krasovsky called to yell at me. "Where exactly was your freedom of speech violated?" he pressed. "You think that was a sharp question? It was completely banal!"

I won't challenge Krasovsky's editorial decision. But it was striking that Chichvarkin was alone in taking on Putin directly. The nervous laughter that rolled across the studio after his question was also striking -- as was everyone else's seemingly magical ability to stop right before getting to the heart of the matter. People got riled up and said wonderfully angry things about corruption and incompetence. But no one asked: Why does this corruption and incompetence go on when only one seemingly omnipotent person is really in charge? The debaters bemoaned Russia's descent into irrelevance and disrepair. Yet no one asked: Why, despite countless billions thrown at the problem, is Russia still not a competitive country? And after screaming and shouting about rigged and fraudulent elections, no one asked: Why?

The show's utter chaos was also revelatory: not of a British-style uproarious political discourse, but of the thinness of Russia's political culture. Natalia Sindeeva, director of Internet TV channel Rain, asked the debutante, Mikhail Prokhorov, "You're successful, young, rich. Why did you get yourself involved in this madhouse? Why do you need this?" It was a question deeply indicative of one central rule of Putin's nearly 12 years in power: The image of Russian politics as a madhouse is extremely useful to keeping the population entirely out of it. Why do you need this, in other words, when we can take care of it for you?

"There is one iron rule of Russian television," says political analyst Masha Lipman. "There is a strong leader who is in charge and anything else would be worse." In other words, NTV is not exactly giving airtime to Putin's most thoughtful and most dangerous critics (I can't with a straight face include myself in that group). Allowing racist clowns like Zhirinovsky and ineffective old liberals like Yabloko's Sergei Mitrokhin to have their time in the spotlight is a shrewd gamble. In one move, the Kremlin permits the illusion of debate and disarms those who say the opposition is banned from television, while always carefully shoring up the perception that, compared to these guys, Putin really is the best man for the job.

"Look, this isn't Soviet propaganda where you were getting a picture that completely contradicted reality -- that we live in the best possible world and that things were terrible in the West," Lipman says. "Even Putin says elections are fraudulent, he talks about corruption. He doesn't totally contradict what people see in their lives. He's cynical, they're cynical. The point is to show that there is no better choice."

In the end, it's hard to parse what the debate was, exactly. On one hand, it was unprecedented and lively and fun, and the ratings and subsequent discussions in the press confirm this. On the other, it danced carefully around the elephant in the room. It loosened the strictures of federal TV while carefully observing the most important ones. A half-step forward, a quarter-step back? "Wait, what did they allow?" said Oleg Kashin, when I asked him what he thought of the debates we both participated in. "Everyone who regularly visits one office in the Kremlin got together in one TV studio. Am I missing something here?"