The Most Interesting Man In The World

Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that he will be returning to the Russian presidency in 2012 is about as surprising as a Yaakov Smirnoff punchline. In America, citizens choose president by voting… in Putin’s Russia, president chooses votes by citizens! Or something along those lines. Putin first won election in 2000 with 53% of the vote; in 2004, he smashed the opposition by winning 71%, a feat that his deputy Dmitry Medvedev duplicated in 2008. I would say that the over-under on Putin’s number next year is a healthy 75%.

Cool shades.

Why not something a little higher, like 80%, 90%, or even a Saddam Hussein-style flawless victory? It could be arranged. The Putin circle’s mastery of Russian politics is complete. The media has been brought to heel by years of mergers and acquisitions activity and well-placed bribes, not to mention a steady drip of journalist assassinations. The opposition has been cowed into silence–even the Communists, who were once quite adept at seizing and holding political power, but seem to have lost their street-fighting chops on their way to the Duma, where they are content to play the loyal “opposition” to Putin’s United Russia party with a token number of seats. The regional governments have been packed with cronies. The military just had its budget increased.

Medvedev, the most serious (and only realistic) threat to Putin’s control of the Russian state, is heading back to the prime minister’s office, where he will no doubt spend the next eight years (two Russian presidential terms, the maximum allowed by the constitution) waiting to spell Putin in 2020. Western hopes that Medvedev would play the Gorbachev to Putin’s Brezhnev were completely unfounded.

Yes, Putin would appear to have Russia on a string… and yet heavy lies the crown. Personalistic authoritarian regimes like Putin’s often lack the institutions necessary to “reproduce itself in a legitimate way,” as Vladislav Imozemtsev recently noted in a shrewd piece in Foreign Affairs.

The temporary switch to Medvedev only worked because Putin was still in the public eye, constantly reminding Russians that he was as vigorous as ever. Rather than a democratically appropriate alternation in power, the whole exercise was couched as a sort of four-year adventure vacation for the president.

Indeed, Putin’s roster of activities during his time away from the presidency reads more like a page out of The Most Interesting Man In The World‘s battered travel journal than a typical stint in a prime ministership. A partial list includes plumbing the world’s deepest lake in a sub, riding with notorious Russian biker gangs, shooting Siberian tigers with a tranq gun, and piloting various military aircraft (fixed- and rotor-wing!). The guy wasn’t just trying really hard–he was trying too hard.

So what? Maybe the guy’s having a delayed midlife crisis or something; maybe he’s just checking items off his bucket list. Could be, except that everything we know about Putin personally suggests that the man has few romantic or adventurous inclinations. He is most often described as a cautious–even colorless–pragmatist who is methodical to a fault. In fact, his efficient, calculating, essentially passionless nature was a major selling point for Boris Yeltsin, who needed to pick someone who could squelch Russia’s burgeoning economic and social anarchy as his successor. Putin got the job because he was the Least Interesting Man In The World.

The transformation from KGB suit to invincible muscleman strikes many observers in the West as overly facile and tone-deaf from a marketing point of view. But the fact is that Russians eat this stuff up. Putin’s personal popularity stands at 68%, a number that most US politicians would kill for.

Another fact is that Putin needs his personal numbers to be legitimately sky-high–much more so than Barack Obama, say, who can perhaps survive a personal popularity score in the high 40s. Putin cannot, for the same reason he can’t win the presidential vote with 100% of the vote.

Russia’s economic future depends on two things: rising commodity prices (especially in oil and gas) and foreign direct investment. The latter is more important than the former in the long run, in part because Russia’s energy infrastructure desperately needs to be modernized, but mostly because Russia stands no chance of escaping its steady decline without economic diversification.

In short, the Russians need General Electric (and similar firms) to come invest in their country. Investors, in turn, are looking for credible signals that Russia will keep its end of the many deals it wishes to sign. Risk management experts tend to look at absolute dictatorships with a jaundiced eye, particularly when it comes to longterm infrastructure investments, because the investment climates in such countries are actually less predictable than they are in democracies. Absolute dictators may decide to do impulsive things like revoke foreign property rights; they might privilege crony-owned local concerns over more efficient foreign investors; and, most importantly, their countries might explode into civil war upon the dictator’s death.

An anocrat like Putin, on the other hand, floats along winning 70% of the vote, generally without widespread fraud. His popularity is genuine–albeit heavily stage-managed and augmented by media control–and foreign firms are confident in it. By the time he’s on his deathbed, the public should be familiar enough with Medvedev (who is a full 12 years younger) that the transition will go smoothly.

Of course, Putin doesn’t look like a guy who’s going to be on his deathbed anytime soon, does he?

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