After Putin: As Vladimir Putin Prepares to Step Down and Orchestrate His Succession, Russia Continues to Roll Back Freedom-But Not All the Way Back

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IN ms EIGHT YEARS as Russia's president, Vladimir Putin has clamped down on his country's newborn freedoms and returned it to a more confrontational stance toward the West. His second and constitutionally final term is scheduled to come to an end on May 7, 2008; as that date began to draw near, the perennial Kremlin power struggle that Winston Churchill once described as "a bulldog fight under the rug" grew more intense. The December 2007 elections for the Duma, the tamed Russian parliament, took a back seat to the mystery of presidential succession. Would Putin stay? Leave? Continue to rule through a figurehead heir? The only thing clear was that the decision would be made under that rug, with minimal input from the Russian people.

Putin solved part of the mystery on December IO by endorsing a successor: deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, a 42-year-old lawyer currently in charge of "national development projects." He has also accepted Medvedev's offer to take over as prime minister (which, under Russia's current system, is mainly an administrative post with no political or executive power). Barring any surprises, the top jobs in the Kremlin for the next presidential term are filled.

Yet in many ways, Russia's political future remains almost as much of a mystery as it was in the fall. The unknowns include whether 140 million residents will live in a partially flee, liberalizing society or under increasingly authoritarian rule, and whether a country filled with nuclear missiles and vast energy resources will be an ally or enemy of the West.

Deciphering the Putin Plan

In late 2007, you could be excused for thinking that the Kremlin was clearing the way for some form of open-ended Putin presidency, if not a de facto coronation. In October, even as the former KGB chief announced he would join the ranks of mere mortals by heading up his United Russia Party's list of candidates for parliamentary elections, a third-term-for-Putin movement gathered force, with a wave of "spontaneous" rallies, meetings, and other events around the country. The kind of adoration lavished on the termed-out president by his servile party and the equally servile state media did not suggest an impending retirement. On October 7 Rossiya, one of several government-owned national TV channels, marked Putin's 55th birthday with a worshipful 20-minute tribute produced and narrated by Nikita Mikhalkov, the director of the 1994 Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun. Less than two weeks later, the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an open letter from several leading cultural figures, including the ubiquitous Mikhalkov, begging the dear leader to stay for a third term. "Russia" they wrote, "needs your statesmanlike talent and your political wisdom."

United Russia's parliamentary campaign became a national Putin love-in. City streets and squares sprouted posters and banners celebrating a previously unheard-of Putin Plan, with such Soviet-flavored slogans as "The Putin Plan Is Working!" and "You, Too, Area Part of Putin's Plan," sometimes helpfully accompanied by circles marked "pensions," "salaries," and "student aid." A United Russia booklet titled "The Putin Plan Is Russia's Victory!" featured photo after photo of the great man inspecting troops and strolling through wheat fields. United Russia and the government-run media touted the election itself as a referendum on a man whose post-election plans remained a mystery. Putin's role as "national leader" they declared, transcended mere constitutional time flames and had to be preserved one way or another. An essay by United Russia activist AbdulKhakim Sultygov, posted on the party's website in early November, advocated a "National Civic Council" that would formally anoint Putin as national leader.

The December parliamentary elections were brazenly rigged in favor of United Russia. Opposition leaders were all but barred from television (with the occasional exception of the private REN-TV channel, now owned by a Putin crony but still retaining vestiges of independence). …