by Serge Eygenson | Uncertainty surrounding Putin’s successor.
Last week, Dmitri Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor, officially began his campaign for the Russian presidency. Recent polls have predicted a landslide victory for Medvedev, with over 80 percent of Russians backing him in the March election. Despite his astonishing popularity, Medvedev is a figure shrouded in mystery. He has spent the majority of his professional life working as an aid for Putin, preferring to stay in the background and avoid media attention. In recent years, Medvedev was appointed as a Deputy Prime Minister and director of government-owned Gazprom, Russia’s largest company. His accomplishments, responsibilities, and aptitude as part of Putin’s secretive regime, though, remain unknown. In today’s Russia, simply having the backing of the popular Putin is more than enough to bring a presidential candidate to power.
Medvedev serves as an example of a troubling trend developing in Russian politics. This is not the first time a Russian president has selected a successor and the people have blindly obeyed. In August 1999, Vladimir Putin first entered the spotlight as the newest in a string of Prime Ministers appointed by then-President Boris Yeltsin. By December, Yeltsin proclaimed Putin as his chosen successor and appointed him to the position of acting president. A rushed presidential vote in March guaranteed Putin an easy victory over shocked opponents preparing for a May election. The Russian population knew little about Putin during his rapid ascent to the top of the Russian government power structure. A former operative of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, Putin used his experience as a professional spy to keep his murky personal and professional past a web of questions with few known answers. Nonetheless, the Russian people voted him into office despite no proof of his presidential capabilities.
Fortunately, the gamble paid off. Despite questionable methods, morals, and tactics, Putin’s reign has brought unquestionable results. Today, Russia is far from the economical and political collapse that seemed almost inevitable when Putin first came to power. While this fortunate turn of events has certainly improved the quality of life enjoyed by the average Russian, it has not necessarily benefited the future of the country as a whole. The recent rise in oil prices combined with the surprising success of Putin’s regime has Russian society confusing earned success and dumb luck.
The recent surge in the price of oil, Russia’s far most important export, has brought the government increased revenue. Even in the 1990s, oil was Russia’s most profitable cash cow. Then, though, the government saved that revenue so that it could be stabilizer in case of serious economic problems, such as the collapse in the value of the Russian Ruble in August 1998. Today, on the other hand, the revenue is being used to increase social programs. The recent growth in international oil prices has corresponded to a rise in unemployment benefits, wages for civil servants, and compensation for the elderly in Russia. The increase in government spending has raised the average quality of life, creating the illusion of a more prosperous, stable economy. While it is true that the Russian GDP has grown significantly in recent years, the reason for that growth, the rising oil price, is largely independent of Russia’s influence. Considering the trouble facing today’s American economy, a fall in oil prices in the near future is not out of the question. Without a back-up strategy, this could bode serious trouble for the Russian economy. Yet Russian society turns a blind eye to the issue, refusing to believe that their lucky streak can end.
In parallel fashion, Medvedev’s popularity is caused by an assumption that in the political arena a fortunate past experience dictates a similar outcome in the future. Tracing back the enormous surface-level success of the Putin regime to his role as Yeltsin’s chosen successor, Russians believe that Medvedev, despite his unproven track record, can replicate the pattern.
serious issues will occur at the intersection of the blind faith in
political and economic luck. It is difficult to predict how Medelev
will respond in the event that oil revenues slow. There is very little
evidence on which to base a hypothesis. Of course, Medvedev has stated
that Putin will become a Prime Minister in his government, meaning a
variety of experienced individuals will surround Medvedev in case of a
crisis. Putin, though, has spent the last several years aggregating
authority to the presidential post and creating a vertical power
structure. If a crisis occurs, much of the responsibility will rest on
Medvedev’s shoulders. This much is certain: how he would respond to the
pressure is a complete mystery.
Mr. Eygenson is a freshman who has not yet declared a major.