A must read article deconstructing the deconstruction of Putin’s Valdai Club remarks.
So apparently every year the Valdai Discussion Club, which is some … well, discussion club, comprised of experts and journalists and the usual suspects, gathers for a little Q&A with Russia’s leaders. Some refer to this as a PR stunt, but I think it’s quite lovely in the same way I think the annual live Q&A with Putin taking questions from random people is lovely. Unlike those more vernacular Q&A’s, I can’t say if the Valdai Club have asked him about the Cthulhu or his sex life. But they did ask him about running for President in 2012. And Oh Boy! has the press had a field day. Of course, if he’d said, “I’d like some more tea, please,” there would be Kremlinologists and Putinologists and simple morons reading, “Yes, I will run in 2012,” into those tea leaves. It’s all very tiresome, IMO. I’m not into forecasting and crystal balls. If you call it correctly, do you get a prize? I mean, no one has contacted me to say, “You were right! He did not change the Constitution to run in 2008! Here’s your all expenses paid trip to Tahiti! Enjoy!” I suppose as a game it is fun. It is. But boy does it piss me off when people treat politics as a spectator sport, from high atop their moral horses. Do they remove the lobe that detects irony before awarding a journalism degree these days?
Anyway, despite my aversion to the fantasy football version of political punditry, every once in a while I read an article that treats these matters with basic common sense and displays an understanding of the primary function of politics, which is not to entertain pundits and show off their guessing skills.
This is one of those articles.
I’m going to excerpt liberally because I don’t trust you to click through and read the whole thing. Click through. Read the whole thing. Register with them. Give them money.
“Putin hints at presidential bid.” This was the headline on an opinion piece by Russia veteran and the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall.[…]
Typically, this piece gets hold of the wrong end of the stick. What Putin actually said was that he hasn’t made up his mind and what he actually hinted at was that if things continue to pan out well, then he probably would not stand for president, leaving things as they are with Dmitry Medvedev as president.
Kendall’s piece reflects the bias in the international press that assumes Putin is power hungry and wants to stay on the throne forever. She highlights this by pointing out at the end of her piece that if Putin did retake the presidency in 2012 (when the next elections are due), his two (recently extended) six-year terms mean he would be in power for a quarter of a century.
Also, typically, the piece passes over the point that Putin is the only president in the CIS to refuse to change the constitution to grant him presidency for life and remains the only leader in the region to voluntarily step down when his term expired. The journalistic tradecraft of balanced reporting demands that this point be at least mentioned.
Now someone will chime in and say he did not actually need to change the constitution, since he seems to be running the country from the PM’s office. It’s a valid argument. But one often made by people who also get very het up about his return to the Presidency. And those people are often the ones criticizing Putin for wanting to have it both ways. Again, stunning inability to detect the irony…
The thing with Putin is you can usually take his comments at face value; the golden rule of Russia-watching under Boris Yeltsin was to ignore everything everyone said and look closely at what they did. Putin was the first politician in Russia’s modern history that actually said exactly what he intended to do (and managed to do it most of the time).
Looking carefully at Putin’s comments and a different story emerges. The first thing he said was that he has not decided if he will run again in 2012, but will see how things stand then. “When it comes to 2012, we’ll work it out together, taking into account the current reality, our own plans, the shape of the political landscape, and the state of United Russia, the ruling party,” Putin said.
The implication is that if things are going well, he will leave things as they are, remaining in the job of prime minister. Specifically, he said he would not compete with Medvedev: “Did we compete against each other in 2007 [before the last presidential election]?… No, we didn’t. And so we won’t in 2012 either. We’ll reach an agreement,” he said.
No one asked, but I’d pay to see a real race between the two. Of course, it might be a huge waste of money and a surefire way to discredit whatever semblance of a serious political system they’ve cobbled together in the last few years. Possibly no one could benefit from it. The debates might be even less divisive than the recent one in Germany, where the two opposing candidates actually teamed up against those asking the questions… But it could also be truly fascinating.
Clearly both Putin and Medvedev associate a more rapid move towards an open society with the chaos of perestroika that ran out of control and brought the Soviet Union down. This is the first time that the Kremlin has linked the problems faced by the Communist authorities during perestroika with democratic reform. “Change will come. Yes, it will be gradual and well thought out, and go step-by-step. But it will be steady and consistent,” Medvedev said.
How can the Kremlin lay out its plans any clearer than that?
At this point in the narrative, Kendal says: “And now, [Putin] seemed to be hinting the time might come when President Medvedev would be asked to return the favour.” It is entirely possible that Putin may ask Medvedev to return the favour, but what he has actually suggested here is that he will only do so if things are going badly.
I fail to find controversy in this plan.
The working hypothesis has to be that Putin will want to maintain the constitutional majority in the Duma for at least one more presidential term as a prerequisite for him staying on as prime minister after which Russia’s recovery should be set.
There are several pieces of evidence that suggest this is the plan. First is that most of the economic programmes that Putin has put in place in recent years are tied to 2020, which suggests he expects to be heavily involved in the process until this date. Second is that in Medvedev’s call for a more pluralistic political scene the reforms he has suggested are all pigeon steps and won’t have much of an impact in the near term.
However, it could well happen that even if Putin was ready to stay on as prime minister, if United Russia doesn’t look like it will win enough seats, Putin could decide to come back as president. This means that, ironically, the key event in the 2012 will be the Duma, not the presidential, elections.
Ah … pragmatism. Not as sexy as conspiracy theories and horse races, but it is Putin’s M.O. Wait, pragmatism IS sexy! Who knew?