Vladimir Putin's Acute China Envy

By Brian Whitmore

Unlike his counterparts in Beijing, he's failing to build an autocratic system that will outlive his time in office.

putin banner234.jpg
Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

The Moscow punditocracy has had China on its mind lately. In fact, one leading commentator even confessed to suffering from "China envy." When the Chinese Communist Party elected the country's new top leaders earlier this month, with Hu Jintao relinquishing power to Xi Jinping, many in Russia's chattering classes noted how favorably the system stacks up to their own. "The Chinese have managed to do something the Russians can never pull off: to stop relying on great and irreplaceable individuals, and instead put in place a system of regular change of [its] top leaders," Mikhail Rostovsky wrote in "Moskovsky komsomolets." Since 1992 -- when Deng Xiaoping turned power over to Jiang Zemin -- the rule has been two five-year terms and out.
 
The contrast with Russia, where the political system revolves around the indispensible Vladimir Putin, was noted everywhere from the opposition tabloid "Novaya gazeta" to the business-oriented "RBK Daily," to the official government broadsheet "Rossiiskaya gazeta" -- which, quite interestingly, called the Chinese model "an instructive model for other countries." In the daily "Kommersant," Aleksandr Gabuyev wrote that the Chinese leader is "only the first among equals in a sort of 'board of directors' for the PRC, which avoids a situation in which the country is ruled for too long by a sickly and aging leader who has stayed too long atop the power vertical."

Putin, of course, had the chance to implement something akin to the Chinese model last year. All he had to do was bless Dmitry Medvedev's bid for a second term as president, as the technocratic wing of the elite was urging him to do, and maintain his decisive influence behind the scenes -- as Deng Xiaoping did in his day.
 
But that did not happen. And by opting to return to the presidency for six -- and possibly 12 -- more years, Putin is being compared not to Deng but to Leonid Brezhnev. "Both looked young and attractive at the beginning of their rule and both looked sickly and comical toward the end. Both let the right historical moment for their departure slip by, ran out of steam, and survived in politics," political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky wrote in Slon.ru.

The Brezhnev comparisons, which began in earnest about a year ago and enjoyed a revival with recent rumors about the state of Putin's health, have become a bit overdone and old hat by now. But one aspect is very relevant to Russia's future. It wasn't only Brezhnev who looked old and sickly by the end of his rule but the entire Soviet elite. This cadre, known as the Class of 1937, rose to power in the wake of Stalin's purges -- and remained there until their deaths.
 
And many observers are now wondering whether the same will happen with the entire Putin team. This would keep the rising generation, which came of political age after the fall of the Soviet Union, eternally frustrated and on the outside. "Putin has demonstrated a willingness to keep management of the state in the hands of his trusted people, who will soon be of retirement age, until the end of the decade," analyst Viktor Averkov wrote in "RBK Daily." "In order to avoid a generational conflict, he needs to study the mechanisms of succession and the transfer of power."

There is little evidence that he is doing so. In fact, as columnist Sergei Shelin illustrated in a recent piece in Gazeta.ru, Putin's much vaunted mini-purge of the elite after a series of corruption scandals amounted to little more than shuffling around some familiar faces into new posts. "The purges at the Defense and Regional Development ministries, as well as in other departments and regional structures, seemed to promise the desired posts to those who have grown tired waiting for them," Shelin wrote. "But the paradox of Putin's personnel purge is that the reshuffles of the establishment are in full swing without any hint of upward mobility." Shelin adds that "the Kremlin is shuffling one and the same pack of cards" with "heavyweights" and their "entire close-knit clans moving from place to place."
 
There was a time when many observers, myself included, thought Putin's long-term goal was to build an enduring and stable (albeit authoritarian) system that would endure beyond his time in office. What is becoming abundantly clear is that no such strategic goal exists. There are only tactical maneuvers aimed at survival -- which, paradoxically, makes for the most unstable system of all.



This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/11/vladimir-putins-acute-china-envy/265648/