What Putin 2.0 will mean
Vladimir Putin. (Getty Images)
March 2nd, 2012
10:26 AM ET

What Putin 2.0 will mean

Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy.  It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.

In last year’s parliamentary (Duma) elections, current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party had to stuff ballot boxes just to avoid falling too far below the 50 percent mark.  Now, as Putin presents himself to voters this Sunday as the once-and-future president, there’s clearly a bottom-up backlash brewing among the urban young and middle-class.  Will it prevent a Putin win?  Hardly.  The only uncertainty here is how far Putin’s United Russia party will have to go to ensure a respectable victory margin. Whether anyone - at home or abroad - will actually respect the process is another thing.

So, stipulating that Putin 2.0 is a given, here’s Wikistrat's weekly crowd-sourced examination of what all this may mean for Russia and the world at large.

Putin 2.0 won’t differ all that much from either the Put-Med “tandemocracy” or Putin 1.0

Putin’s first run as president (2000-08) saw him re-establish the power of the siloviki (state security types) inside the Kremlin and they didn’t exactly disappear under Dmitri Medvedev’s 2008-12 turn at the wheel - even as the modernizing impulse did revive somewhat.  Now, with energy prices fairly solid, Putin’s second presidential administration will naturally stick to what he does best: Buying off the public with oil and gas wealth, “managing” the nation’s “democracy” like any good tsar (dead journalist here, imprisoned political rival there), sticking it to favorite villain America whenever possible, wooing Europe, and keeping energy-ravenous China happy without losing all of Central Asia and possibly Siberia too!

If that sounds like a geo-strategic equivalent of a Sopranos episode, then you now know why so many Western political experts dub Putinism a “thugocracy”.  And just like our old anti-hero Tony Soprano, Putin is likely to stay in power until somebody retires him - forcibly.  Yes, it’d be nice to pretend otherwise, but remember that we’re talking centuries-old Russia, which can count its years of genuine democracy on its two clenched fists.

Civiliki out, Siloviki in 

A more optimistic view says Dmitri Medvedev’s time as puppet-president had its genuine moments of civility, meaning it provided an actual breather from Putin 1.0’s re-nationalization of the economy, which naturally scared off Western investors.  Under Medvedev, the so-called civiliki (officials with backgrounds in civil law versus the security apparatus) made serious inroads throughout the government and thus did their bits to improve the overall investment climate and rule of law.

Given enough time, Medvedev’s Kremlin could have turned a few more corners on Russia’s authoritarian past. Indeed, the current protests shaking up Moscow and other major cities reflects just how real those changes were to the country’s growing middle class professionals. They know what’s coming . . . back, as the pendulum swings back to Putin.

The key question for Putin 2.0 will be, How long does the siloviki stick with their man?  This crew has made a lot of money between 1.0 and 2.0, and that changes people - even Russian oligarchs. Back then, they were into getting rich and Putinism was good for that. Now they’re into staying rich, and, judging by Arab Spring - still slowly spreading its democratization wave in the general direction of Moscow - Putinism may be bad for that business. 

More big talk, but less walking the walk

Putin imagines himself a modern-day Peter the Great, or a post-Soviet tsar who took nothing (Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic rule) and turned it into something (the certainty of rising per capita income). Well, that and rising oil prices got him Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” award in 2007. Then came the global financial crisis and depressed energy prices and suddenly, the great man seemed a bit more ordinary.

Like most siloviki, Putin is a genius at getting power. He just doesn’t have any idea what to do with it. He constantly talks about making Russia great again, but, in truth, Russia is just about as irrelevant in global affairs as it was under Yeltsin’s more Western-friendly reign. Honestly, if it didn’t retain its veto on the United Nations Security Council, Washington wouldn’t pay it any attention beyond the disposal of its many elderly nuclear weapons.

So no, the old joke about post-Soviet Russia being an “Upper Volta with nukes” no longer holds. Now it’s more like an Iran with nukes: blessed in oil and gas and belligerent to the West, but hardly a mover and shaker outside its rim lands. Indeed, like Iran, Russia’s most crucial export is actually an absolute loss - its best brains that no longer see a future there. That had improved under Medvedev.

So Putin must change, right?  Not according to his piggybank.

Yes, the growing opposition movement is significant, and it’s likely to pull more of Putin’s attention inward, hollowing out his fanciful quest for a Eurasian Union to rival OPEC in its control over vast energy reserves. But unlike so many bankrupt governments in the West, Putin is sitting pretty when it comes to Moscow’s finances. According to the CIA Factbook, Russia in 2011 had only 2.5% of its GDP in public debt, a total external debt at $470 billion, and $513 billion in foreign reserves.

Remember when Congress would ask U.S. Secretaries of Defense if, at the end of the day, they’d rather have the Soviet Red Army versus the U.S. military and the answer was always “Absolutely not”? Well, today just about any Western government officials would love to swap out their own fiscal situation for Russia’s.  And given the “haircuts” still to come, Russia Inc. could easily pick up some heavily discounted assets in the next few years to bolster its bottom line in Europe and elsewhere. That reality alone gives Putin some serious cushion for any “rainy” political days to come.

But this is definitely Putin’s last term

In what should be a warning to China, Russia’s public is simply tired of being treated like a child by an elite that clearly looks out for its own wealth-creating needs first. As Russia’s first truly post-Soviet voting bloc matures into genuine ascendancy, Putin’s siloviki are doomed, because, in the end, they care more for their money than for their power.

That means, as this democratization impulse grows ever stronger over the years, the rats will start fleeing the sinking ship of state, ultimately preferring golden parachutes to bloody shoot-outs. This is unlikely to be a fell-swoop affair with tanks on the street.  Instead, the siloviki ranks will progressively thin until Putin realizes he’s mostly on his own. No, it won’t happen any time soon, but Putin won’t make it through his six-year term.  Instead, look for him to appoint a successor somewhere near the end in exchange for his own immunity - Nixon-style.

What if, in the meantime, Putin declares a Cold War and nobody shows up? 

Putin’s sad regurgitation of “enemy America” shows just how ideologically bankrupt his leadership has become.  Frankly, given China’s continuing rise and Iran’s reach for nukes, nobody in Washington gives a hoot.

Putin himself may fantasize about being the truest bulwark against “American aggression,” but let’s be even more frank here: with the siloviki, it’s always about the money. Putin’s military build-up is more about energizing arms exports than standing up to Washington, and his showy militarization of Russia’s Arctic north is a pure energy play.

And that pretty much sums it up. Putinism is money-grubbing, wrapped in nationalism, inside state capitalism. The rest, including this election, is just smoke and mirrors.

That’s Wikistrat's wisdom of the (rather cynical) crowd for the week.

Now tell us which path you find most plausible, or what other scenarios you can envision in the comments section below. And be sure to check out more at Wikistrat.com, a cutting-edge global consultancy.

Topics: Elections • Russia

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. joe anon 1

    the putin at "putin 2.0" the putin at "the return of putin" look to be 2 differnt putins.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Reply
    • DOD

      Just another mumbling gossip by Zakaria based on ....what? He can not even say "chees" properly.

      March 2, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  2. ilyaka

    Any evidences that UR had to stuff vote boxes to win? Or just gossiping again?

    March 2, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
    • DOD

      lol – agreed

      March 2, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  3. Yurii

    Were you like it or not Putin will be a president and will not bow down.

    March 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  4. King

    It will mean an end to US bullying and arrogance.

    March 2, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  5. RasPutin

    Yesterday, for the first time since King John signed the Magna Carta, your right to Habeas Corpus has died. This means the US government can arrest and hold you forever without charge or trial.
    And, nobody even bothered to report the event. With the NDAA your freedoms and rights have been eliminated.

    March 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • DOD

      A few weeks before that US Congress passed V A W A for reauthorisation – yet another u n c o n s t i t u t i o n a l law that violates 14 th Amendment (equal protection of all US citizens), and due process. That law says – all men are criminals, all women are victims – no evidence is needed and due process is ignored. I think US is going down day by day.

      March 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  6. god

    in putin 2.0 russia president assasinates you!

    March 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  7. Joey J

    Putin might still have some business left to settle with the oligarchs. Once he finishes that there should not be too many additional problems with whether claimed assets are legitimate enough to be sold. Plus how do oligarchs create a trustworthy economy? Unless the dishonest ones are removed from power. Since investors don't like getting fleeced either.

    March 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  8. joe anon 1

    hang the crooks (oligarchs).

    one of thousands of examples of injustice in great america:

    Justice on Trial: Lynne Stewart's Appeal by Stephen Lendman

    "Lynne's case highlights American judicial unfairness. Her wrongful indictment, prosecution, conviction, sentencing, and harsher re-sentencing sacrificed her on the alter of upholding wrong over right." (excerpt)


    america needs putin or chavez or paul as its president. not the bootlick we have nor the bootlicks contesting.

    March 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  9. Ivan

    With Putin back in power the Soviets oh sorry Russians will get stronger while we in the US will get weaker.
    They are the 9th largest Oil Exporter, has become a very large Diamond exporter.
    Have huge natural gas reserves.

    They keep making money. Their Military is getting stronger.

    While we are getting weaker by each presidential signature.
    The USA needs to wake up and see that is really happening before it is too late.

    March 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • Ivan^2

      World politics is not a zero sum game, the fact that Russia is getting "stronger" does not mean that US is getting weaker. We have to understand and learn that a world with one or two supper powers rules no longer exist. In new geo politics we have to learn to understand that we are compete, almost evenly with Europe (as a whole), China and Russia. Although America is still the greatest nation on earth.

      March 5, 2012 at 12:47 am | Reply
  10. Ykcyc

    Рас-Путин, Два-Путин...

    March 2, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Ohio Johnny

      "Рас" пишется Раз!

      March 4, 2012 at 7:16 am | Reply
  11. Dan Bednarik

    Probably the most insecure and self absorbed man on earth - Oh, and Vlad, you do not have the body of a muscle man, sorry.

    March 2, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  12. Dmitriy Tadenev

    I hate Putin, but knowing Russian history… He is and will be the best for a long time.

    March 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  13. Chandler Bob

    I didn't see it marked as such, but this has to be an opinion piece.

    The Russians love a Strong Man, always have. Their democracy is like sausage. The less you know about the process, the better.

    March 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
    • Dmitriy Tadenev

      You got it

      March 2, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  14. j. von hettlingen

    As Putin and Medvedev swap roles, the tandem continues. This time Putin is going to be the front rider. He will steer and propel the front wheel. Medvedev as the rear rider does nothing but pedals along. During the last ride it was the other way round. Medvedev was the steersman. But he didn't travel very far, as Putin, who was supposed to be the stoker did the contrary. He braked hard every time Medvedev wanted to accelerate.

    March 2, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Putin was smart to let Medvedev be prime minister, who will have to attend to domestic affairs. He knows Medvedev will not muster enough support to reform the judiciary – the apple of the latter's eye. He will then focus on foreign policies and let Medvedev take the blame for any failure.

      March 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
      • Dmitriy Tadenev

        Well, I think they are plaing the the same game as a teem

        March 2, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  15. Dmitri Klimentov

    Such a poor level of journalism! A freaking mix of gossip, stereotypes and prejudice.Not even funny.

    March 2, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  16. Bob H

    Putin is a mad man with a KGB / Soviet dreams. He is a legend in his own mind that will most likely face an end similar to Arab dictators someday in the near/mid future.
    Thanks, Bob

    March 2, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply

    One word Obsolete !!

    He is a wounded tiger and friends with China.

    March 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  18. Ohio Johnny

    A piece written by someone who I think has never been to today's Russia and has very little clue what its economy is becoming. Putin isfar from perfect – certainly not ideal – but the Put-Med rule since 1999 is a miracle compared to drunk, stupid Boris Yeltsin and his "western-friendly"/ Russia-destructive regime.

    March 4, 2012 at 7:13 am | Reply
  19. rightospeak

    This article is a little naive and has the usual spin.Putin was the smartest thing that Yeltsin did-he must have been a good judge of character. Gorbachev was a naive globalist still in his brainwashed vision of Communist Russia-he had no clue and probably still does not know the true Russian history. He never read Henry Ford or Ernest F. Elmhurst . Did he know that Czar's and Czarina's heads were brought in by Trocky in alcohol-filled glass jars to Moscow ? Did Gorbachev had a clue how Russia was destroyed with American help and the millions given to Lenin by our President Wilson ?
    The tragic history of Russia and its destruction in 1917 should be a lesson to its leaders- how a minority with international money and slogans of equality, ruthless , can destroy a democratic process . Had the Czar been as ruthless as the Bolshevics , Russia would have survived with the Czar intact till today without the tragedy of WW II ,in my opinion. Communism was a conspiracy to destroy the World's Order of Aristocracy , to enslave people.
    What post-Communist Russia needed the most is stability and Yeltsin , in my opinion, provided that in the person of Putin and his political machine. Although some thievery of state wealth occurred , but not as bad as in other post-Communist countries. With Putin ,Russia is on a road to become a country of opportunity for its citizens and history will judge him on that .
    We ,in the U.S. ,are on a path of self-destruction and unless Ron Paul gets elected ,we wished we had Putin.

    March 4, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
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