Vladimir Putin is poised to take the oath of president of Russia for a third time. It was in August 1999 that he essentially began to run the country, having been appointed prime minister by an ailing President Boris Yeltsin. He served as president for eight years and then returned to the position of prime minister for four, but he continued to call the shots. After his third term as president, Putin will be 65, and he will have been in power for almost 19 years.
It is impossible to predict how Putin will be seen then. People his age generally do not change much, so there is no reason to expect a different Putin to emerge on the other side of his third term. However, in today’s world, circumstances change abruptly and quickly, and politicians have to adapt, whether they want to or not.
Putin has completely remade his image in the last 13 years. At the turn of the new century, he was a cautious and reserved politician, unaccustomed to the spotlight, although he has always had the politician’s gift of listening to and winning over his audience. Today, Putin is a confident policymaker who is at ease in front of almost any audience and devotes much time and effort to cultivating his image.
That being said, the core of his views has hardly changed. He has a firm idea of how Russia should develop, which can be classified as moderately conservative. The president-elect does not consider returning to the Soviet system to be either possible or desirable, though he freely employs Soviet nostalgia in his rhetoric. In general, up to now his power has rested on a coalition of mainstream liberals who have had economic policy tightly in their grip practically since the start of the 1990s and former officials from security agencies who considerably expanded their influence in the 2000s. As with any coalition, it is held together by compromise and the accommodation of interests. While this coalition eventually produced a form of Russian state capitalism with tough fiscal policy and good macroeconomic indicators, it was largely monopolized and unable to produce effective innovations.
The political system reflects Putin’s deep conviction that Russia is a fragile, transitional society. He believes Russia has not yet recovered from the collapse of the 1990s and, therefore, it is not fully ready for pluralistic democracy. Putin does not reject democracy as such (unlike numerous advocates of Russia’s “special path”), but, as he has said repeatedly, it can only emerge from long-term development. Moreover, each country has its own form of democracy. He insists that “manual control” must continue in Russia until the country becomes sufficiently mature both civilly and politically.
Putin is following in the wake of many Russian conservatives who always asked for more time: “Just give us a few calm years without any upheavals, and you will not recognize Russia.” But history was never so kind; something always happened to turn things upside down. Yet, the hope for a period of stability never dies.
Meeting with a group of political reporters, Putin spoke emotionally about his achievements. He said that he and his team managed to restore the framework of the state during these years, but it was still in need of “dostroika” (he used this term, which means “finishing touches,” more than once). Intentionally or not, Putin’s choice of words evoked Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika,” contrasting the Soviet leader’s destruction and reconstruction with Putin’s cautious improvement of the existing structure.
By and large, the ruling class of modern Russia suffers from “perestroika syndrome.” Putin and his generation were at the heights of their careers when the Soviet Union collapsed. They remember well how the enormous hopes and best intentions of the time quickly gave way to complete disintegration. And it is these bad memories that ruin their appetite for change – they are too scared to repeat Gorbachev’s mistakes. The caution and sobriety instilled by such experience are helpful, but they also dramatically reduce one’s capacity for bold action, which is a quality every major politician must possess.
Putin does not like to fire his employees. He only does this in extreme cases and practically never does so in the face of public pressure. If an official makes a bad mistake, Putin waits for the outrage to subside and then finds an excuse to transfer the unpopular official to a new position. True, Putin seems to understand now that one of the problems facing his government is that people have grown tired of seeing the same officials on TV for over a decade. He will most likely overhaul the government and shift the people he still needs to his presidential administration, where they will be out of the spotlight.
Putin’s conservatism is also reflected in his foreign policy. For all his tough talk, he is generally cautious and responsive. He is likely to be more so in the next few years. Putin sees the world around him as extremely dangerous, unpredictable and chaotic; and so he is prone to measure thrice and cut once. He has an idea of Russia’s rightful place in the world and is ready to take part in a new “great game” to secure it, but he knows what lines he should not cross.
In six years, when Putin is finishing out his third term as president, the world will likely look very different. Although he has already accomplished much in his time in power, his legacy as a national leader will be largely defined by his success in overcoming future upheavals.