The Russian Shell Game Continues

I, like most of the Western world, woke up on Saturday to the news that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had proposed to United Russia that Vladmir Putin be the candidate in 2012. I believe this seven second YouTube clip from Aladdin accurately portrays my reaction.

Back when Putin first stepped down to become Prime Minister to make way for Medvedev, I don’t think there was a single person who knew anything about Russia who thought it would last. The facts pretty much spoke for themselves:

  • Putin had consolidated too much power in the Office of the President to be comfortable with being Prime Minister, even with the ability to basically run things from the Duma
  • With the phrasing of the Russian constitution that prohibits more than two consecutive terms, it was pretty much inevitable that Putin would return
  • United Russia has been busy fixing elections for itself at every level of government imaginable for years now, so the possibility of another candidate possibly winning the seat is enough of a fiction to make Putin’s return a sure thing

Even though Medvedev throughout the years has shown flashes of independence, notably this year calling for a prevention of “political stagnation” in Russia and a brief schism over Russia’s policy towards the Libyan intervention, it was never entirely sure if those moments were actual schisms with Putin that could lead to Medvedev taking on a stronger role in the partnership, or if they were showmanship to manage to effectively play both sides to the Russian people.

This move to switch roles between them seems to lend itself to the more cynical view. Which isn’t to say that it’s going over entirely smoothly. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has been forced to resign today, after publicly speaking out against Medvedev’s economic plans and airing his ire over being passed over for the Premiership under the Putin-Medvedev swap.

This is more likely to be a hiccup rather than a bellwether of anything to come in the next year. While some public dissension may spring up from time to time, there is little chance of anything welling up to the point of action being taken against United Russia. Too many alternate parties have been beaten down over the last decade, arrested at any and all attempts of mass rallies, starved of funding, and their supporters driven away from the ballot box or scared into voting for United Russia. Journalists and non-governmental organizations are harassed regularly, and it’s entirely likely that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be rebuffed entirely from having election observers on the ground in December’s parliamentary elections.

The idea that a government can have enough of any iron fist while still maintaining the facade of democracy most certainly took a shaking this year as the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa. While the Arab Spring analogy may look pleasant when prognosticating for Russia,  you have to realize that the Russians have gotten very, very good at this game. And unlike those states whose leaders have been toppled and besieged with protests, the Russian Federation has more than enough world power left to keep everyone very wary of being accused of interfering in their internal affairs, leaving them a free hand to do as they wish with their very unique version of democracy. And so the Russian Shell Game continues. Only in this version, Putin is under every shell, leaving everyone a winner in the eyes of the Kremlin.


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