Putin’s Surprise

The nonstop thrill ride of Russian politics.

Vladimir Putin

From a narrow, media-centric, sensation-seeking point of view, one of the greatest drawbacks of the American political system is its predictability. We know when the primaries will be held; we know the names of the parties; we have a general idea of who the candidates might be; and we can be pretty sure that we will have heard their names somewhere before. Once they take office, we’re pretty sure what constitutional roles they will play, what powers they will have, and so on. That’s “rule of law.” Dull, dull, dull!

By contrast, the Russian political system is chock-full of surprises.

No one knows what will happen, how it will happen, or even who the main protagonists will be—let alone what the Russian Constitution says they can do. As a result, every month now brings a new sensation. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin sacked his prime minister and appointed in his place Victor Zubkov, a man whose name he had never before mentioned in public. Some people thought this meant Zubkov would be the next president of Russia; some people thought it meant the infighting was still going on behind the scenes.

No one knew for certain, of course, except Putin himself. That’s “rule by the whim of the dictator.” Never a dull moment!

Now Putin has thrown all the Kremlinologists off track once again by announcing that, since the constitution prevents him from becoming president more than twice in a row, he intends to run for parliament and afterward to become prime minister. For the past 15 years, this latter job has gone to figureheads, technocrats, and relatively unknown economists, some very young. Presidents Yeltsin and Putin both hired and fired prime ministers at will: Russia has thus had 10 prime ministers in the past 10 years, many of them unknown to the general public.

There is, however, nothing in the Russian Constitution that prevents the Russian prime minister from becoming the de facto leader of the country—if the president doesn’t object. And if the president is going to be Victor Zubkov, or some other figurehead from Putin’s secret inner circle, presumably he won’t object. Or he’ll be paid not to object. Or he’ll be blackmailed not to object. Or he’ll deem it in the best interests of his own personal safety not to object. Thus Putin can go on ruling Russia, presumably indefinitely.

It’s quite a neat trick, if you think about it: It’s as if George W. Bush decided to step down from office, run for Congress in 2008, declare himself speaker of the House, and declare that the speaker of the House would, from then on, take over the president’s responsibilities, and run the executive branch. We would call that a de facto coup d’etat. In Russia, it’s constitutional politics.