Putin’s puppet show

By Ian Bremmer
June 22, 2011

People talk about the Russian presidential election like it really matters. But it doesn’t. The supposedly big news and debate right now is whether or not Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will run for president again in 2012.

The real news that no one is talking about is not the presidential election parlor game being played in Moscow right now, but is about an authoritarian government feeling the need to try to paint a veneer of democracy. Besides, the fall parlor game will matter much more than this spring one.

Western media can keep making it out to be as big a deal as they want to, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Medvedev stays on as president or if Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin returns to the post. While Medvedev looks like he is trying to distance himself from Putin — he has taken a different stance on Libya and is pro-US and Europe and pro-private sector — Medvedev, as much as he may be interested in running again, is not going to run against Putin if Putin puts himself in the race.

Historically, Russia has had show trials; this is a show election. In the past, Russia has put on trials to try to convince the Western world that there is a rule of law and that government transparency exists in their country. But this presidential election is feeling much too like the Khodorkovsky trial, yet another show trial that failed to prove that fair trials exist in Russia. There is no rule of law in Russia.

What’s remarkable about the Khodorkovsky trial is that we are still talking about it a decade later. It’s not in Russia’s interest to let Khodorkovsky speak publicly, but the Russian government feels a need to allow Khodorkovsky to go through the motions of talking to the media so that it looks like he is receiving a fair trial. The trial isn’t for Russians themselves, but for Russia watchers.

Despite a handful of people and media publications who see right through Russia’s vexing charade, there is a deep rooted reason why they continue to put on such a show — Russia’s  insecurity complex. It is exactly that complex, and the diverted energy to cover it up, that makes Russia continually bluster any meaningful political and economic reform.

Despite Russia’ desire to compete with the West, the fact is their economy is not growing – in fact, banks are starting to pull out of the country. Yet Russia is so desperate to be considered a superpower and accepted as an advanced Western nation that they continue to flex their  muscles. In the end, this only makes them look  yet weaker , especially against the backdrop of their next door neighbor, China, which is growing, along with its confidence.

For now, the outcome of who’s going to run for president is probably already predetermined, but it looks nice for Russia to have foreign speculation of plurality in their country. Contrary to common wisdom, it would be a mistake to count Medvedev out. While Putin is still quite popular and could easily get reelected, going back as president shows weakness on his part and it’s great to have Medvedev be his plausible deniability.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

Photo: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

7 comments

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Why worry? Russian people’s problem.Until they have Putin and
Medvedev,Russia is dead.No danger from there.Oil-a-gogo.
Krutschev is crying in his tomb.

Posted by SteveP | Report as abusive

Why worry? Russian people’s problem.Until they have Putin and
Medvedev,Russia is dead.No danger from there.Oil-a-gogo.
Krutschev is crying in his tomb.

Posted by SteveP | Report as abusive

There might not be a full rule of law in Russia, but Putin love his country and Russia. To some degree the world needs someone like Putin to help save the world from having only one super power.

Posted by kedem | Report as abusive

Unfortunately people writing articles about Russia have never been there and know very little about it. In my mind Texas was always a place with only cowboys shooting left and right. I was surprised to see modern cities with cars and some intelligent people there. My point is – go there first, live there for a year, then write an article. Another problem though, nobody would publish that – it doesn’t fit into official comic book version of the world: China – evil commies manipulating currency, Russian – evil KGB (as usual), Europe is collapsing with euro, Muslims are terrorist, Jews are fun, Americans are nice people with great technology and science :) It’s in all movies, games and news. And it’s not true (as any comic book).

Posted by WappingerNY | Report as abusive

Why is it “Putin’s Puppet Show”? Has Putin any more power in Russia than the U.S.president has in the U.S.? Absolutely not. You might as well call the U.S. “Obama’s Puppet Show”. Yet it is not. Is it? People are not talking about the Russian elections. People in general are not as interested in “free elections” as the Hoover Institute which has a constitutional axe to grind. If free elections were the only test of national wellness, why not complain about free elections in China? Although of course that might not go over so well in Palo Alto. In any case, the Chinese are quite pleased with themselves without American-style billion-dollar so-called “free” elections. Thank you very much. The real news about Russia is not the presidential election. It is the IMF’s assessment that Russian per capita GDP will grow from $19,000 to $36,000 by 2016. That is of far more interest to the average Russian and to everyone else, except of course, Bremmer.

Posted by middleterm | Report as abusive

So, what makes Russia “authoritarian” and the USA not? That the people running Russia are not the people running the USA? Both Governments do as they please without regard to the will of the people.

Authoritarian states do not give people a vote on anything that matters. “Show” elections.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

True, true Mr. Bremmer. But investors don’t care, really, as long as they can be reasonably assured of a nice return. Russian assets look better and better as compared with ones in the developed economies – especially as EU states and the U.S. move into ‘downgraded credit ratings’ territory.

So Russia’s going to thrive, at the expense of true democracy. The story of our times (that is, especially since the 2007+ financial crisis) is that democratic principles and ideology have become only a thin veneer to cloak greed for wealth and power. Look at the greedy capitalism devoid of a conscience that is being practiced day in and day out in the U.S. now, for example. The real difference between us and Russia is that our veneer is quite a bit better, but wearing real thin nonetheless.

Posted by NukerDoggie | Report as abusive