By Gordon Hahn – Special to CNN
With news that Vladimir Putin will run for president in Russia, the media is destined to be filled with doom and gloom articles about Russia’s return to domestic totalitarianism and international imperialism. But there is no reason to panic. The return of Putin to the presidency will not necessarily be followed by a reversion to the harder line policies of Putin’s two previous presidential terms. Putin’s decision to run for the presidency and, upon his inevitable election, to appoint Medvedev as premier will most likely lead to more continuity than change from the Medvedev era.
It is important to remember that Medvedev’s policies have been, for the most part, Putin’s as well. None of Medvedev’s policies – efforts to reform the police, fight corruption, humanize prisons and sentencing rules, allow more opposition protests, reduce the ministries’ dominance in positions of power, apply more soft power in the North Caucasus, crackdown down on ultra-nationalists and organized crime, privatize state businesses, and seek more cooperation with Washington and other foreign capitals – could have initiated without Putin’s general support.
Nevertheless, with Putin as president, some changes might be in the offing. If Medvedev is Putin’s instrument for testing gradual reformism, then the former’s assumption ofRussia’s top economic post could mean that the promised large-scale privatization program could move to the forefront, taking precedence over political, police and legal reforms. Also, it cannot be rejected out of hand that Putin’s decision to assume the presidency is connected with his wish to place a firm hand on the helm of state as gradual reforms proceed. Just as ‘only Nixon could have gone toChina’, Putin may feel that only he can implement gradual liberalization and guarantee stability.
Putin’s return was surely dictated by other factors as well. His popularity ratings exceed Medvedev’s, diminishing the need or electoral cheating. In addition, there is the possibility that the Russian ship of state may be entering rougher waters. Both leaders’ popularity is declining as is that of their ruling United Russia Party. Global economic catastrophe beckons, and Russian may have to undertake tough austerity measures at some point after the elections. Pension reform and a vast overhaul of a cantankerous military establishment lie in the future as well. In addition, the Kremlin’s perceived need to tilt the electoral playing field - and if necessary pad the results in the upcoming Duma and presidential elections - raises the specter of a color or ‘birch’ revolution. The reaction to Putin’s candidacy and subsequent firing of Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin are harbingers of the kind of instability the decision to rearrange the Putin-Medvedev tandem itself could spark both within the elite and subsequently in society at large.
Thus, Putin in the presidency may be seen as an insurance policy in the event the power ministries are needed to maintain order; Putin is more likely to be willing to call on them, and they in turn are more likely to remain loyal to Putin rather than Medvedev.
Foreign policy may be another story entirely - one fraught with more immediate dangers and less prospects for continuity. Although Putin surely kept his hand in foreign policymaking, he was somewhat removed from the process simply because Medvedev was the one who met and communicated with foreign leaders. Thus, Putin simply was not privy to all the information Medvedev had at his disposal. Putin could not retain full control over foreign affairs.
Putin’s full engagement with foreign policy, therefore, could bring change. Even more than in domestic policy, troubled waters abroad may have dictated Putin’s return. The Arab Spring, problems withMoscow’s two Slavic neighbors Ukraine and Belarus, the impending 2014 American drawdown in Afghanistan and the European Union’s meltdown all spell trouble for Moscow. Putin’s greater distrust of the West and great power orientation could make relations with the West testier and threaten the Obama Administration’s ‘reset’ policy. This would be especially true if a new U.S. administration takes a harder line vis-à-vis Moscow on issues like Russia’s authoritarian order and violations of human rights, nuclear cooperation with Iran, the Georgian impasse, arms control and missile defense.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Gordon M. Hahn.