The Problem of 2008
There is a version that a signal to alleged murder of Edward the Second, King of England, was a written message from Bishop Adam Orleton “Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est”. The trick with the message was that depending on logical syntax the king either should or should not be killed. The plotters would read it as “Edwardum occidere nolite timere, bonum est” (Fear not to kill the king, it is good he die). But should the plot be revealed, Bishop Orleton would insist that what he had meant was “Edwardum occidere nolite, timere bonum est” (Kill not the king, it is good to fear the worst). A brilliant example of ambiguity!
Today the presidential administration seems to be mastering the medieval art of double meaning.
The 2008 presidential election poses for the Kremlin a problem with an unambiguous solution. It’s high time to look around for Vladimir Putin’s successor. At the same time there is nobody to succeed to Putin. So, for the Kremlin nothing else is left but to play the same old should and should not trick. And it is up to the president to read the message with the right intonation. But neither he nor his confidants know what intonation is right.
It comes as no surprise that the best political strategists in the Kremlin scratch their heads over a dialectic solution to the problem. To make it legitimate should the president leave or should he stay.
One possible scenario is to transform the presidential republic into parliamentary through the constitutional amendments for Putin to become the prime minister. Another option is to appoint an impuissant president just for a change and in four years to return the post to Putin for another eight years. But the more sophisticated the plan is the harder it would be to implement it. Another challenge is to talk into all these plans the president, who despite all the blandishments of the Kremlin courtiers is not a decisive person.
Meanwhile, time presses.
Lately Gleb Pavlovsky, the wisest man in the Kremlin pool of analysts has given his view on the Problem of 2008.
According to Mr. Pavlovsky, Putin “should get prepared for a new, absolutely different and more ranking position – the one of a national leader, who does not hold an office”. To believe Gleb Pavlovsky, “To be a leader is Putin’s duty. And he needs his hands free to do it. It also would be right for Vladimir Putin to have a channel for direct dialogue with the nation. He should get prepared to talk to the people who believe him, and to give voice to hard-hitting ideas that would not please the authorities”. It’s a historic opportunity: “For the first time ever the Russian nation will have an independent leader who is not hostile to the state!” And the new president “will learn from Putin what the nation wants from him”.
What makes Mr. Pavlovsky think he won’t grasp it himself?
But here arises a much more challenging consideration: given that the informal dialogue with the society is indispensable for better understanding of people’s mindset, how can we know that Putin who is locked up in the Kremlin has any idea of the present people’s concerns? And when he finally leaves the Kremlin walls and lends his ear to vox populi will he like what he hears? Or maybe Mr. Pavlovsky means that whatever Putin says should be considered as people’s will?
In other words, Russia might get its own Ayatollah Khomeini – informal but absolutist leader who would feel free to interfere in the public life despite the absence of official status or democratic accountability to the people. He might also be friendly to the state, but this will refer not to the virtually existing government with its agencies and officials, but rather to an abstract state, the one existing for example in the head of Mr. Pavlovsky.
For a precedent, Gleb Pavlovsky made a reference to South Africa: “It has been long time since Nelson Mandela was a president. But who knows the name of the current president of the South Africa? Only a few. Still, everybody knows Mandela. Putin’s political career can’t just come to an end now. He can make a new start in 2008 and I believe he will take this chance”.
I was frustrated on reading these confessions. If you don’t know the name of the South African president there’s no need to boast about it.
If Mr. Pavlovsky happened to know the African president’s name, I believe he won’t speculate about Mandela as a great leader. For in fact the situation in South Africa is opposite to that fancied by the Kremlin political technologist.
Nelson Mandela, though being a much respected person, doesn’t interfere with politics. Neither did he during the last years of his presidency. Thabo Mbeki took a strong grip of the political power in the country first being its virtual leader, already under Mandela, who was getting older and less powerful. And then Mbeki became president himself.
From this comparison it follows that Pavlovsky thinks Putin doesn’t have any political influence or control of the situation and is only a stooge for the real political stakeholders that prefer to stay incognito. But who are they? Is it Vladislav Surkov? Or maybe Igor Sechin? It’s quite possible that they both cherish ambitions for presidency, but for both the presidential election may become a furious struggle…
Most evidently it was nothing else but a misleading comparison – Pavlovsky didn’t mean to say anything discrediting or insulting the president and there is nothing to read between the lines. However, everything Pavlovsky said reveals the huge gap between the generalizations of the Kremlin spin doctors and real political processes.
Is it correct to draw any parallel between Mandela and Putin? The former spent half of his life in prison defending his political creed. He had a say among the countrymen irrespective of his official status. That is why Mbeki at least in the beginning still needed Mandela’s authority to legitimate his unpopular policy. And again this is why despite all the controversies and deplorable results of his presidency Mandela kept being respected among the population.
Putin on the contrary, though leading the polls, can not be considered to be a national hero – he is popular because he is a president, not vice versa. The office brings him high rating polls and as a politician he can’t be viewed separately from it: we say ‘the president’ meaning ‘Putin’, and when we say ‘Putin’ we imply ‘the president’.
Back in 1999 any face would do for the president’s portrait provided that it would be as featureless as possible. Putin came to power to become an abstract principle expressing the vague hopes for stability and better standards of living. Everyone could add to this colorless portrait all preferable features.
Whatever Putin did he met the expectations of some and ruined the hopes of others. That’s why being a rational politician the president preferred to stay inactive: unleashing wars on oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky as well as bringing governors under control had little impact on the life of common citizens. But given the favorable economic situation and general aspiration to have a lounge after the stormy 1990s, the Olympic calm in the Kremlin turned out to be the best policy.
One can sympathize with the journalists who had worked for Berezovsky. And the police regime in the North Caucasus region has become worse. But on the whole people felt that they were finally left alone… at least for some time. And that was not far from true. It’s not that all the positive expectations came true, but nothing really bad had happened.
Meanwhile the last seven years have seen significant shifts in the public mindset. And the Kremlin will have to consider it when elaborating and implementing the “Successor 2” operation. In 1999 the authorities had more or less free hands. People opted for change and stability at the same time. The government was free to introduce any changes given that they would not ruin stability. And everyone knew that it couldn’t be worse than before. That’s why back then any face would fit the president’s portrait. Now the face fits firm in the frame and one can hardly imagine in it someone else. And Putin is perceived by the public conscience only as a president, not as a prime minister, or a party leader. If he changes his entourage he will lose the charisma. He will become ridiculous as a king nominating himself for his own deputy.
As you may see, the Problem of 2008 is more important for the authorities, not for the opposition. In 2008 there won’t be any opposition at all. But even so, the authorities don’t know what to do in 2008, and what is worse they don’t know what to do in 2009.
Boris Kagarlitsky is a Director of The Institute for Globalization Studies
Published in: Eurasian Home web site