Tuesday’s Moscow attacks may do more to define the path of Russia’s future as a democracy than any single event since 1991. In a worst-case scenario, Vladimir Putin could return to the presidency. A sunnier forecast sees popular sentiment rising against Putin – and the emergence of a wild card that could lead the way to real change in Russia.
Hyperbolic? Sure, but certainly within the realm of possibility. Three things worth noting:
First, after the tragic Beslan school attack in 2004, then-President (and current Prime Minister) Putin used the event as a catalyst to execute a political power-grab in the name of national security. Most glaringly, Putin canceled the election of regional governors and chose to appoint them himself, thus consolidating power in the president’s hands. This was, as I mentioned yesterday, akin to George W. Bush canceling all elections for state governor in the wake of 9/11. That’s downright crazy. So Putin has set the power-grabbing precedent following past acts of terror — might he do so again?
Second, anecdotal evidence suggests the public may be starting to tire of Putin’s act. Ilya Yashin, a self-described youth activist, makes the point that since Putin has concentrated so much power in his own hands, “he is responsible for everything that happens in our country” and should therefore be held accountable for the latest attacks. “Not long ago Putin promised an end to terrorist acts in Russian cities and a military victory over terrorism. For this we gave up our political rights and civil liberties. We gave up the right to elect governors,” Yashin said.
Will this gently percolating anti-Putin sentiment boil over once Russians add concerns over security to concerns over a stagnating economy, as Josh Tucker and I wrote last year?
And then there’s the wild card: President Dmitri Medvedev. Let’s not forget that Putin may have handpicked Medvedev as his presidential successor, but Medvedev has shown an inclination to be open and possibly more pro-Western, having never been involved with the ex-KGB cadre that surrounds Putin. What’s more, Medvedev has distanced himself slightly from Putin’s Caucasus strategy, saying (from NYT) that the government should aggressively hunt down the terrorists, but also focus on the poverty and government malfeasance that he contended nurtured extremism.
Weighing these factors, I can envision two distinct outcomes for Russian democracy.
1. Putin brazenly unmasks himself as Medvedev’s puppet master. He uses the Beslan precedent and Moscow bombings to justify another round of power consolidation, saying that the last round had clearly not been effective enough. He crushes any sort of domestic civil opposition and launches a drive to change the Russian constitution to allow him to run for another term as president. Medvedev proves powerless to object and is slowly moved off to the side.
2. Medvedev realizes he has a potentially strong domestic political constituency as a resolute but smart antiterrorism president. He offers a different strategy to Russians to deal with the threat and successfully distances himself from Putin while effectively holding off Putin’s attempts to grab power.
Much of the outcome rests with Medvedev’s desire and ability to be independent from the man who picked him. I’m hopeful for the second, but my money is on the first.