The Eternal Putin

NEW YORK – The only vote that matters in Russia’s 2012 presidential election is now in, and Vladimir Putin has cast it for himself. He will be returning as Russia’s president next year.

When the news broke – together with the lesser news that the incumbent, Dmitri Medvedev, will step down to become Putin’s prime minister – I wanted to scream, I told you so.I have always been puzzled by the naïveté of analysts, in Russia and abroad, who believed that Putin would never be so bold as to make a mockery of Russia’s electoral system by reclaiming the presidency. But contempt for democracy has been Putin’s stock-in-trade ever since he arrived in the Kremlin from Saint Petersburg two decades ago.

Anyone who thought that things would be different was either delusional or ignorant of Russia. Putin can’t help himself, just as he couldn’t help himself in 2004. Then a very popular leader – he restored to Russia its self-regard as a global power through deft use of the country’s control of a large share of the world’s supply of oil and gas at a time of limited availability – he would have won hands down. Yet he rigged those elections nonetheless: in the KGB tradition, people are simply too unpredictable to be left uncontrolled.

If many analysts were blithely unaware of the certainty of Putin’s 2012 return, the Russian public certainly wasn’t. Culture never lies about politics. When Putin installed his protégé, Medvedev, as president in 2008, a joke made the rounds: It is 2025, and Putin and Medvedev, now elderly, are sitting in a restaurant. “Whose turn is it to pay?” Putin asks. “Mine,” replies Medvedev. “Remember, I just replaced you as president again.”