Forever Putin?

Bez Putina: Politicheskie Dialogi s Yevgeniem Kiselevym (Without Putin: Political Dialogues with Yevgeny Kiselev)

by Mikhail Kasyanov
Moscow: Novaya Gazeta, 318 pp., 290 rubles
Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by John Springs

How long will Vladimir Putin last? It is hard to imagine Russia without its steely-eyed, iron-fisted, and hugely popular prime minister, especially since he has hinted so broadly that he might run again for the Russian presidency when the term of his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, expires in 2012. Starting in that year, the Russian presidential term will extend from four to six years (a change introduced by Medvedev) and Putin would legally be allowed to serve two more terms. This means he could conceivably be Russia’s leader until May 2024, when he would be seventy-one years old.

If this sequence seems eerily reminiscent of the Brezhnev “era of stagnation” (Brezhnev was the Soviet leader for eighteen years, until his death in 1982 at age seventy-five), it is not surprising. Despite the physical vigor of Putin and the modern, youthful demeanor of Medvedev (who even blogs), today’s Kremlin leadership is acting more and more like it did in the Soviet era—when aged, ailing bureaucrats presided over a one-party system, fraudulent elections, a state-controlled press and television, rampant official corruption, and an all-powerful security service that kept political dissent to a minimum. As was the case then, little is known today about the inner workings of Russia’s political regime, so analysts, both in Moscow and in the West, have resorted to Kremlinology, drawing on the Moscow rumor mill (which flows freely on the yet to be censored Russian Internet) to understand what is happening.

The signals from the Kremlin are mixed. Putin said confidently in a September 2009 speech that he and Medvedev “are people of the same blood, with the same political views.” But Medvedev responded: “Maybe I will have to go and take a blood test to find out whether we have the same blood type.” During a December trip to Italy, he told reporters that he did “not rule out” the possibility that he too would seek another presidential term. Medvedev has also been indicating in recent speeches and public pronouncements that he is not in complete agreement with his prime minister on some policy issues. His harsh criticisms of the status quo and urgent calls for modernization could be carefully scripted by Kremlin strategists to distract attention from the fact that the Putin–Medvedev partnership is solid and has little commitment to real change. But there is also a possibility that Medvedev may be coming out from behind Putin’s shadow.

In Without Putin, Mikhail Kasyanov, who after serving under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s was Putin’s prime minister from 2000 to 2004 and is now a member of the democratic opposition to the Kremlin, avoids speculating about the Putin–Medvedev relationship, concentrating instead on his own relationship with Putin, as well as with Yeltsin. As the first political memoir from a former top Kremlin official since Boris Yeltsin’s Midnight Diaries, published in 2000, the book has received considerable attention from Russians since…

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