Losing the liberal autocrat

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I read an interesting set of editorials in the NYT today about Russia, Putin, and the latest elections. Interesting stuff, but maybe I'm just saying that because I'm still a Russia geek, even after all these years.

One point that I was looking to see brought up was what might transpire if Putin were to be driven out of power at some point. My sense is that most people in the US think that this would be a good thing. 

Without question, Putin is an autocrat. But while his background is that of the KGB, it's also that of St. Petersburg and late-era Soviet liberalism. While Putin is hardly cuddly and nice, he was by no means the most odious political figure to emerge in Russia in the 1990s.

Is Putin a liberal? Not really, under most people's definition of the term. But he's an institutional man, a complete non-populist. He's like David Stern today or Mintemir Shaimiev circa 2000, someone who's been around so long that he's mostly interested in preserving the status quo at this point. Staying in power. Increasingly predictable.

In other words: Putin might not care much about little Central Asian girls getting beaten up in St. Petersburg, but he's no fascist. No radical.

But that old guard is slipping away. First Rakhimov. Then Shaimiev. And then? 

Where have you gone, Mintemir?

Americans might blame Russians for, at least until last year, honestly respecting and admiring Putin. Slaves! But look at the leaders they'd had prior to him. And look at the alternatives. Not to mention the fact that people had been going through a frightening economic depression since the mid-1980s. (And what's our excuse, by the way, for at times choosing bad leaders?) 

People may be hoping for Putin's ouster, but it's a legitimate question to ask: would post-Putin Russia be any easier for the US to get along with than Putin's Russia? 

The thing is, if Putin were to create real institutions of democracy and then step aside, he would go down in history as the greatest Russian leader ever. To use Turkish metaphors, Putin would be both the Ataturk--the savior--and Ismet Inonu--the one who opened up free elections--of Russia.

But that won't happen. He'll hang on until the bitter end, of course. But twelve years? Can he pull that off? Seems doubtful. 

So in a field of weak and uninspiring opposition candidates, who will fill the vacuum if Putin begins deflating?

Be careful what you wish for.

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