Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a man constrained by — or probably terribly familiar with — morals. Yet just a few days ago, on November 13, he told the press that if his political party, United Russia, does well in the coming parliamentary elections of December 2, it would give him the "moral right" to maintain strong influence in Russia after he steps down officially from office next year.
"If the people vote for United Russia, it means that a clear majority of the people put their trust in me, and in turn that means I will have the moral right to hold those in the Duma and the Cabinet responsible for the implementation of the tasks that have been set as of today," Putin said, while visiting a road construction site in Krasnoyarsk, usually described as a “sprawling Siberian region that reaches beyond the Arctic Circle.”
Putin has a slightly different idea of what it means to live and work in a democracy than do political heavyweights in free nations, leaving in doubt if Russia can fit in that category while he rules. His commentary on his future came as the result of a softball question posed to him in Hillary Clinton campaign style by a construction worker at a political rally: “What do you plan to do when your term comes to an end?”
Well, Putin isn’t going to Disney World. Putin, who is barred by the Russian constitution from seeking a third straight term in the March presidential elections, has indicated for a long time now that he hopes to remain influential after stepping down. In Russia, that is fairly easy to do because in parliamentary elections, voters choose only among parties, not individuals. Seats are allocated proportionally to those parties that receive at least 7 percent of the vote.
So, if the United Russia ticket wins a large share of the votes and thus the Parliament, Putin at the very least would be entitled to take a seat in the legislative body. But that is, at the moment, doubtful. According to Associated Press reports the people who lead party tickets do not always take seats in parliament, and the Kremlin has said Putin has no intention of doing so. After Putin agreed to head the United Russia ticket, the party has done their best to cast the election as a referendum on the president and the course he has set for the country.
So the reality is that the Party is set-up as Putin’s machine to keep control of Russia even after he leaves the Presidency. Just exactly how that will work out is still clouded as even Putin himself said in answer to the construction worker’s question:
"In what form I will do this, I cannot yet give a direct answer. But various possibilities exist."
And they are “possibilities” that Putin, really has every intention of pursuing. One scenario has him assuming the office of Prime Minister, but that is not necessarily the path that would secure for him the most power. For one thing, working for the agenda of another President is not Putin’s style. Indeed, an informal title of head of the ruling party may be more than enough to keep the real power of Russia with President Putin even if he is no longer President.
It is evident that the government and Putin’s many friends and operatives in and out of government are working hard to assure themselves of a clear victory, if not a landslide in the coming vote.
On street corner after street corner, on almost every lamppost, and on the billboards, United Russia is campaigning hard with almost unlimited money and total power to make sure it is number one in the polls and number one after Election Day. They are the strongest group and they know it.
Indeed, opposition parties have stepped up their public statements saying the authorities use their power to unfairly benefit United Russia. This has also been observed by the foreign press, especially after the 2003 parliamentary election, in which it was obvious that state control over levers of influence gave the ruling party an advantage, undermining democracy.
But the polls show that United Russia will easily get its needed 7% and frankly, over seventy percent is not unlikely either.
After some thought, one wonders why Russia bothered to create a Constitution and a set of rules they would follow to limit the power and length of any one government. Almost as soon as they set-up these devices of freedom, it seems the Communists and the Politburo have re-invented themselves as Democratic patriots. But however the portray themselves, the facts remain the same: Vladimir Putin and his gang have no intention of steeping down from power but they have the sense of modern politicians knowing that it is far better to appear to play by the rules than to simply retire them completely, as President Musharraf is now finding out in Pakistan.
In Ronald Regan’s day, the saying was “You can trust the Soviets to be Soviets;” today, the saying might be “We can trust Putin to be Putin.” Either de-facto or de jure, in reality, Chairman Putin.