Opinion

The Great Debate

from Ian Bremmer:

The Kremlin has castled and Putin is still king

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Long live the king? You can't hold it against the Russian people for wondering just how long Vladimir Putin intends to remain in power with the recent announcement that he plans to return himself to the presidency and swap his partner Dmitri Medvedev into the prime minister slot. The electoral game Putin is playing is being compared to "castling" in chess-- a rook and a king swapping places, in order to shore up the defense.

There might be defense at the heart of the strategy, but Putin's ruling party, United Russia, despite some recent murmurings, is still the only game in Moscow. Which is to say that Vladimir Putin is by all reckoning the most powerful man in the world. What other leader, leaving aside third-world strongmen, has so completely consolidated his rule over a country, as Putin has? His success is all the more venerable when one considers that Putin is leader of a country of nearly 150 million people -- and at the helm of the one of the world's most important economies. Attention must be paid to him. Sure, other leaders around the world may have more people or even larger economies, but they don't have as full a grip on the reins of power as Putin. (And few have ever been reverently photographed riding horseback shirtless, petting a tiger, or playing piano in tux and tails.)

Even with this switcheroo, little will change about Russia's, which is to say Putin's, stance on foreign or domestic affairs. Despite years of inspired reformist speechifying from President Medvedev, little has changed in the ossified Russian bureaucracy. That speaks to his true, limited, authority. The civil service system he declaims remain inefficient and antiquated, and presents ample opportunity for the kind of low-level corruption that greases the wheels of local politics across the world. Medvedev has been a friendly face for the Western world, someone who says the right things on its grand stages; but he has had little influence, as president, over the country's true direction. As the prime minister in waiting, look for that trend to continue.

It's hard to believe the public pronouncements that the decision to castle was made years ago, as Putin has told the press. Medvedev's recent statements simply don't bear that out. Nor does the sudden ouster of Finance minister Alexei Kudrin. Kudrin was upset because he wasn't given advance warning of the decision. That speaks volumes about who is important at the Kremlin -- power there is controlled by Putin's tiny circle and those on the periphery, titles aside, are kept completely in the dark.

Having said all this, one reason Putin's not afraid to pull such a brazen act is that the swap will have little to no impact on foreign investment or the Russian domestic economy. A recent move towards an improved investment climate in Russia's strategic sectors (facilitating, among other things, ExxonMobil's recent mammoth joint venture with Rosneft) is the natural outcome of lower oil prices and limited inbound investment. Again, some of the signals coming out of Russia may change -- Putin as president may once again show something like disinterested contempt towards the West and its demands of his regime in terms of human rights or international conventions, but as in his previous terms, such talk will be just that. The Kremlin has strategically opened itself up to smart money in foreign direct investment and will continue to let Western money in on its own terms. That won't change.

from Commentaries:

Why Russia needs America

In the wake of President Obama's decision to scrap the U.S. missile defence shield in eastern Europe, many are pondering Russia's response. The relationship will remain in the spotlight this week, when President Medvedev heads to the U.S. for the G20 summit. Although the precise nature of Russia's reaction remains to be seen, it has a big incentive to improve relations. It badly needs American investment and co-operation to help solve serious economic problems at home.

Critics of Obama's decision worry that it will "embolden" Russia, causing more aggressive behaviour abroad. Yet they forget that the Bush administration's antagonistic policies failed to provide security to Russia's neighbours. These policies didn't prevent Russia's war with Georgia, the repeated gas disputes with Ukraine, and a serious cooling of relations with countries such as Poland. Far from being restrained, Russia's confrontational attitude had a lot to do with its perception that the U.S. was busy encircling the country with missile bases and alliances.

The critics also imply that Russia is preoccupied with external expansion, but that hardly seems appropriate today. Russia's GDP is set to plummet by 8 percent this year. Russian analysts estimate that the country needs up to $2 trillion to renovate its dangerously clapped-out infrastructure. In major industrial cities, Russia's dilapidated factories are mulling huge job losses. For the foreseeable future, Russia's leaders are likely to be preoccupied with thorny domestic problems.

Faced with such daunting challenges, it's entirely logical that both Medvedev and Putin say they are keen to kick-start American trade and investment. Responding to Obama's decision -- which he described as "brave and correct" -- Putin immediately linked it to economic issues. He called for the U.S. to back Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and scrap Soviet-era trade restrictions against Russian companies, especially those that regulate technology transfer to Russia.

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