Putin is back, and now that all the shouting is over, both we and he can get back to business.
Like, say, arresting the members of Pussy Riot, the all-female punk band that annoyed Putin last week by calling on the Virgin Mary herself to get rid of Putin. Three things should be noted immediately.
1. Yes, they really are called that. They use the English words as their name.
2. They were arrested for “hooliganism,” which is a Soviet-era criminal charge which often means “drunk and disorderly” but often also means “being a general pain in the regime’s ass.”
3. When female punks named Pussy Riot call on the Holy Mother at the city’s biggest cathedral to take out the President, you know you’re in Russia.
Now then. The usual “what does it all mean” head-scratching has begun. Putin won with about 60% of the vote, which for him counts as a “squeaker,” but make no mistake: for a variety of reasons, including the complete fecklessness of the Russian liberals, he’s still popular and likely won that term legitimately. (Not a pretty election, but the results were probably what a majority of Russians wanted.)
Whether that translates into real power is another matter entirely. If Putin were an American president, we’d say his base is out there in the boonies of the Red States; the one place he’s unpopular is in Moscow. As in most places, Russia’s cities are more liberal than its rural areas. For Putin, this isn’t good: it says that the people who actually have to run the place, and make the system work, are the people who want him gone.
So he’s in for another six years, but whether he’ll be able to run again for another six is impossible to know. Six years in a democracy — even one as completely
screwed dysfunctional as Putin’s Russia, is a long time. Anything can happen. (Just ask Richard Nixon.)
The question of the moment in Moscow is: How long will [Putin] last?
Not long, according to some of the more fevered spokesmen of the surging opposition, who predict the swelling of post-election demonstrations. More sober analysts figure the strongman and his circle might hang on for a couple of more years, provided they choose to appease a disgruntled public with political and economic reforms.
The pessimists think Putin may survive for a full six years as president but not for the second six he was clearly counting on when he announced his return to the job last September. Russians I spoke to in the past several weeks voiced a common refrain: The autocracy that dominated the country for the last decade is already dead. The only question is what will follow it, and when.
I think that’s right. The election campaign, I think, shocked Putin and his cronies on several levels.
First, while Putin knew he was unpopular (the Kremlin does good polling, they just don’t talk about it), I don’t think he knew how unpopular he really was with the middle class.
It’s not that he didn’t get the data; rather, there is a deep cynicism bred into the older Soviet-era citizens, and Putin may have just dismissed the initial opposition to his return as just more of the old-style bitching about The Boss that is a Russian custom. When the younger guys hit the streets, that was clearly Putin’s “uh oh” moment.
Second, it really shows that Putin and his coterie just don’t get it about information technology in the 21st century. Going after bloggers, or punk bands, or almost anyone under 50 in Russia means risking a serious coast-to-coast blowup in an hour. To this day, that whole concept seems to befuddle the Russian President.
Putin put out some slick commercials, to be sure. And if this were 1992 instead of 2012, that would have been great. But everything goes viral in this age; I’d never heard of…erm, Pussy Riot until last week, and now I’ve seen their videos. Busting people like that and then putting them in jail creates brushfires, it doesn’t extinguish them.
Diehl then goes off the rails to make some kind of grandiose comparison with China and the Arab Spring, and whether Putin will end up being Gorbachev or Mubarak. (Whatever writing spasm Tom Friedman has, it’s apparently contagious at times. Gorbachev is a ridiculous comparison.) That’s all just so much overblown globalist big-think, but the central point is valid: that Putinism as we knew it, circa 2006, is over. (So five years ago.)
The foreign policy implications are especially important to Americans, and as is becoming a War Room custom, the smart money is going with my pal and colleague, Nick Gvosdev, the regular commentator on such issues for World Politics Review.
Nick points out it’s not exactly good news to see Putin back in the Big Chair, but that maybe his return will help us get past — as we should — the dopey notion that the U.S. and Russian presidents have to be pals to get anything done:
But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud: It offers an opportunity to break with the assumption that the presidents of Russia and the United States must be good friends, which creates the impression that U.S.-Russia relations rest on the personal connection between the two countries’ chief executives. The events of the past several years demonstrate that cold calculations of mutual interest are beginning to take over as the driver of the bilateral relationship. So what if Obama doesn’t take Putin out for a friendly bite to eat at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, as he did with Medvedev last year? In some ways, the bilateral relationship is relocating outward, beyond the immediate presidential circle.
Americans, who are by their nature negotiators and deal-makers, love summitry, and put great stock in personal relationships between leaders. And sometimes, that pays off: the chaste crush between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan worked out well for all involved (meaning, the whole world).
But we’ve managed to avoid war with China, and do a lot of business — which I find creepily un-American, but there it is — with Beijing, despite that we don’t spend a lot of time taking their president for golf. The circles of policymaking are too big to rest on just one or two men or women anymore, and Putin’s decreased power will be a sign of that movement in Russia, especially if his first meeting is with a new President Romney.
In any case, little is going to change. Putin will still flail about looking for a Russian national idea, and Russia will still be a thorn in our side on some important issues while quietly cooperating with us on others. What’s certain, however, is that his imperial days are over — and that’s good news all around.