I admit it: I slept through the Russian presidential election of last month, which saw Vladimir Putin win a third term for a newly extended period of six years. This is unforgivable given my lifelong fascination for Russia and eight-year stay in the country as Moscow correspondent prior to MIT. My life and duties at the Institute have indeed kept me very distant from all things “Russia” — 4,482.88 miles away to be precise (Boston-Moscow distance).
But my unprecedented distant indifference towards Russian affairs extends beyond geography. Perhaps, subconsciously, my mind is mimicking the mass political apathy that has stalled activism and civic progress in this vast land. Latest street protests apart, and broadly speaking, I believe it still persists in the national psyche.
In short, my initial response to the result on March 4 was: “Zzzzzz … Yawn … Zzzzzzz …” Not without good cause: this felt like déjà vu, big time.
Even to the casual observer, Putin’s victory came as no surprise, as out of the five officially registered candidates he was widely expected to win after meticulously maneuvering to hold his grip on power for more than the past decade. After his two initial terms as president, he remained very much the behind-the scene decision-maker as prime minister to then President Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev, Putin’s docile protégé, proposed in September last year that Putin stand for the presidency in 2012 — which Putin readily accepted, offering that Medvedev becomes his prime minister at the end of his presidential term by standing on the United Russia ticket in the parliamentary elections in December. The rest is well known to all: The tandem of leaders is untouched — they simply swapped places.
The means to such skillful political gymnastics also sound like a broken record to most Russians and foreign observers: rampant procedural irregularities, such as repeated voting and vote-count manipulation, and the castration of other candidates through state media propaganda that have been recorded at both the legislative election of December 2011 (which sparked the ongoing protests in Russian cities) and this year’s presidential one.
Perhaps, ironically, the idea of Glasnost (transparency) that former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev initiated in the late 1980s is alive and well in Putin’s Russia. It is in fact amazing how openly Putin went about his game. Barely bothering to conceal his carefully engineered political moves, he essentially concocted his comeback in full view of the public: one did not need a PhD in political science or an Internet connection to see what was happening. Even the non-Internet users in far-away regions could hear Putin on state TV candidly explaining the type of duo leadership he had planned with Medvedev as his prime minister, could see Putin’s constant say in every key decision, constant presence at every key event, and now can witness the full swap of positions taking place under their eyes.
Just like a doe-eyed, soft-spoken Michael Jackson candidly admitted in a TV interview with British journalist Martin Bashir that he let young boys sleep in his bed and told the world “Why can’t you share your bed? The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone,” Putin never tried to conceal or deny his intentions, and always calmly and openly explained to his people his goals and agenda. This included the nature of the dual leadership system with Medvedev, simply announcing in a March 24 speech in Moscow last year that he would swap jobs with Medvedev and return to the presidency. He did not say that he was running for anything. He just stated that he would be Russia’s next president. Simple.
Whatever Jackson did or did not do with these kids in these beds, those two seem to share amazingly similar tactics when it comes to creating the appearance of honesty and innocence and manipulating their audiences to their advantage. Didn’t Putin display a few tears on his victorious day? For more on persuasion and influence through candor and other emotions, see The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.
In any case, the consensus among both Russia experts and the public is that Putin never really left, and everything was planned from the start.
But while it is widely recognized that Medvedev’s presidency was merely a facade for Putin’s game and planned comeback, it is most likely that Putin himself is acting as a facade for the influential forces acting behind the scenes and dictating the course of action for the country. The siloviki, as officials hailing from the Soviet security services are informally called in Russian, now a power-hungry, wolfish pack of well-heeled government officials and businessmen sitting in top Kremlin and private sector positions and all vying for more, enjoy close and influential relations with their former KGB colleague Putin.
Although still a mystery even to Russia insiders, most agree on two things: The siloviki are the ones managing the country and running the show, and they are here to stay. A fixture in the country’s bureaucratic system, this powerful clan is bound to not only keep influencing domestic and foreign policy in the new government, but also to play no small role in the selection of Putin’s successor.
If the West wants an idea of where the country is headed under Putin’s third term then, it may do so not by “peering even deeper into Putin’s soul,” as it did upon his first election to the presidency, but by taking a closer look at this still little-analyzed group and trying to understand its motives and next moves.
Now, if Putin is a pawn of sorts in the crusted bureaucratic system of Russian leadership, not so surprisingly the same could be said about President Barack Obama, many of whose policies have been perceived as pandering to the whims and interests of the financial and political elite maneuvering in the backroom of American government to shore up the economic defense of its ranks. With Obama often appearing to serve the top of the economic hierarchy, and the various debacles the country has seen such as the bankster bailouts and debt ceiling crisis, it is tempting to say that here too, U.S. elections and politics are the face; business and the wealthy elite really call the shots.
This article is the first part of a series on Russia’s presidential election, popular street protests, and Putin’s new presidency.