Op-Ed

Putin 2.0?

Angela Stent

Vladimir Putin’s vigorous and successful election campaign coming on the heels of a protest movement that was clearly unanticipated by him raises questions about what lessons were learned from the events of the past four months. Some might find it tempting to interpret the results of March 4 as a mandate to govern during his third term as he did during the first two. However, Russia has changed in the past year and the Kremlin would be well advised to be more responsive to the Russian public going forward.

The crowds that filled Bolotnaya were largely the beneficiaries of Putin’s previous presidency—the younger, well-educated, internet-connected middle class. They would like their government to treat them as responsible, independent citizens, capable of making their own decisions about whom to elect. And they want a government that sincerely tackles the growing corruption problem. Above all, they would like to participate in a system that offers them real choices. They want a sense of ownership in their political system. In other words, they would like to live in a truly modern political system—one that both Medvedev and Putin have at various times committed to create.

Putin’s supporters, on the other hand, focused on preserving the stability that they have experienced under his rule. Nevertheless, opinion data shows that they, too, are concerned about corruption and lawlessness. In other words, the message from all sides of the political spectrum is that Russia needs to tackle the most pressing obstacles to true modernization—the weakness of civil society and lack of rule of law.

In the short run, the temptation may well be to continue the status quo. Protests are diminishing, high oil prices continue to fill the state coffers and the promise of initial reforms-including the creation of multiple parties—may assuage some of the complaints. But, as the series of articles that Mr. Putin published during the election campaign show, the President-elect himself understands the economic, social and political challenges facing Russia need to be addressed—sooner rather than later if Russia is to remain a great power and ensure that its talented younger generation to not continue to emigrate on the scale that they have in the past few years.

Can there be a Putin 2.0? The question of Russia’s future has less to do with style than with substance. Changes on the scale that Mr. Putin has promised would involve challenging vested interests that will undoubtedly resist change, fearing that it could adversely affect their positions. That has been a problem for much of Russian history—as it has for other societies seeking to modernize their political systems. But the alternative is a system is which a managed democracy could become a managed decline.

The possibility of a Putin 2.0 is a subject of considerable speculation in the United States. The American public has a mixed view of Mr. Putin. On the one hand, he is seen as a pragmatic leader who has in the past cooperated well with the United States on issues of mutual interest, most recently counter-terrorism, Afghanistan and Iran. On the other hand, the vitriolic criticism of the United Sates during the election campaign, the charge that the demonstrators on Bolotnaya were paid agents of the U.S. government and the continuing anti-American rhetoric raise serious issues about how U.S.-Russian cooperation can go forward during the next Putin presidency. American officials understood that some of the rhetoric was for public consumption during an election campaign, but the fact that this demonizing rhetoric is thought to be a productive way of gaining the Russian electorates’ support raises major questions for the future.

Russia policy has already become an issue—although by no means the main one—in the Republicans’ criticism of Obama’s foreign policy as the American election campaign heats up. Recent developments complicate the efforts to rescind the Jackson-Vanik amendment in the U.S. Congress and increase the likelihood that substitute legislation aimed at Russia’s domestic political situation and the ability of certain officials to travel to the United States would be passed were Jackson-Vanik no longer applicable.

From the U.S. point of view, a Putin 2.0 would be willing to maintain and strengthen cooperation on the successful elements of the reset—namely Afghanistan and Iran—but would also take a pragmatic approach on the most divisive issues, such as missile defense cooperation, where the outlines of an agreement already exist. Of course, there was also productive U.S.-Russian cooperation under Putin 1.0, so the main question for the United States is whether the next Russian presidency can move beyond the anti-American rhetoric and move the relationship forward. We know that Mr. Putin has surprised the United States in the past and must assume that he will do so in the future.