At Large

Russian Musical Chairs

Even with his puppet in place, Vladimir Putin is not one to take chances.

By 11.10.08

Send to Kindle

Vladimir Putin must be given a great deal of credit for his dedication to the rule of law. He has gone to considerable trouble to have his legal fixer, Dmitry Medvedev, come up with the brilliant idea of amending the Russian constitution so the presidency could be extended from four to six years. Harvard Law School, eat your heart out! The amendment concept was introduced during President Medvedev's first state-of-the-nation speech last week.

This amendment device would allow Dmitry to resign as president next year so Vlad could leave his post as prime minister and return to being president for the next twelve years. Naturally, law-abiding Vladimir would never think of breaking the rule that no one can hold that chief executive job for more than two terms. It isn't as if Vlad hasn't retained all the key operational powers of chief executive while sojourning as prime minister. But he is not one to take chances.

The switch back to president for an extended term does take a bit of finagling. First, a two-thirds majority is needed in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. No problem there; Vlad has that body wrapped around his political finger. Then another two-thirds approval is required from the members of the regional legislatures. These, too, do not appear to be an obstacle for Vlad and Dima. At that point Dmitry could resign and a presidential election could be held. There's little doubt as to whom would win.

Young Dmitry, conscious of his diminutive stature, gave his speech standing on an extra high platform. He used his most aggressive tone while in effect greeting the election of the new American president, though never mentioning that fact or Barack Obama by name. Dima declared -- as Vlad has done several times before -- that the deployment of U.S. anti-missile missiles in Poland would trigger a severe Russian response.

The Russians, Dima threatened, would move their own offensive missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Polish/Lithuanian border. Some Kremlin-connected commentators suggested that the Russian military command at the same time would set up jamming stations to counter the radar missile tracking installations planned for the Czech Republic.

There was no mistaking the Russian attempt to rain on the new American president-elect's parade. Vlad lent his support by being televised sitting in the front row of the audience with his most theatrically serious expression nailed to his face. He played the professor listening intently to his student's lesson recitation. The rest of his cabinet dutifully followed his example.

It's obvious that Vlad and Dima, the current principal act at the Moscow Art Theater, never studied Chekhov or other great Russian playwrights, and certainly not Stanislavsky's method of acting. The entire performance lacked the sense of reality so necessary in convincing an audience -- especially an international one. In fact, a critic might say the entire presentation was, after all, quite artificial.

Everyone knows by now that Vlad wants so much to be the reincarnation of Lenin that he -- as they say on Broadway -- can taste it. It's just that he also wants to be regarded as something other than a communist. The role of being a democrat, however, is not really within him, as Stanislavsky might say. So this whole Lenin business in the 21st century is a bit beyond Vlad's reach.

Furthermore, Lenin never would have wasted time and space flitting back and forth from president to prime minister and back again. Good old Lenin, who really was quite an actor, himself, would have just stayed on as top dog both in name and practice for as long as his Chekists were able to keep him there. Come to think of it, Vlad may be a bit more suitable for the role than it would appear at first glance.

Of course we're not supposed to mention the bad old days anymore. Everyone is supposed to pretend that is all over and done with -- maybe didn't even really happen. We aren't supposed to discuss how a Russian security service defector could end up with polonium poisoning in London -- or how crusading Russian journalists are murdered by people who are never found.

No, we are supposed to sit about while Vlad and Dima play musical chairs on the world stage. Meanwhile the duo blames the Americans for the Russian invasion of Georgia and the crash of the Moscow stock market because Russian oligarchs and banks were caught with a massive loss in value of their loan collateral. ("Moskva Meltdown," 10/24/08.) Lest we forget, there is also the small matter of the fall of oil prices that Moscow's leadership would like to explain away as also American-instigated.

The two main themes of Medvedev's speech, the extension of the term of the Russian presidency and repetitions of warnings against American missile placement in Eastern Europe. have the feel of a classic Russian drama, but in a very disjointed manner. Main characters switch roles and then switch back, tragic events are blamed on forces beyond the lead characters' control, nefarious foreigners arrange disaster behind the scenes, and then the great Russian hero enters stage left -- or perhaps stage right!

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.