Medvedev & Putin: “power corrupts” · 16 November 2008

While Barak Obama traded in the psychology of hope to win the US presidency, Russia’s President Medvedev is trading in the psychology of fear including his own in moving to increase the Russian presidential term from four years to six years.

Psychologically, Medvedev may now be where George W Bush was after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some of Bush’s fears about what might happen next were justified, but his responses included the major mistake of Iraq. Some of Medvedev’s fears may be similarly justified.

In particular, two recent events seem to have worked to boost such fears and possibly cut short Medvedev’s apprentice presidency.

The first was Georgia and the subsequent US response. Russia is rightly fearful of US (and NATO) military activities and ambitions so close to its borders. The US has shown that like an individual it is not unwilling to abuse its power.

The second is the world financial crisis. Some in the Russian power-elite seem to suspect that the crisis is some sort of conspiracy maybe one that is aimed against Russia with the intention of driving down high oil prices. This disconnect from the real world reminds me of the Gaidar-Chubais approach to economic reform in the early 1990s. Their understanding of how market economies worked was quite unsophisticated, and ultimately dangerous.

These events have occurred against a background of the deleterious effect of corruption, the unruly state of some of Russia’s regions, and the enormous economic power handed to a few Russians (who would quickly put concern for their money ahead of concern for their country) by the Western backed Boris Yeltsin.

However, like Bush with Iraq, Medvedev is looking at the wrong solution to his concerns about these issues. Making it possible for one man to remain at the peak of Russian power for 12 years will almost certainly have the reverse effect.

The thinking processes of the person in power become distorted over time, as do the thinking processes of those around him (or her). Albert Speer, Adolf Hitlers architect and Armaments Minister, summed it up nicely:

There is a special trap for every holder of power, whether the director of a company, the head of a state, or the ruler of a dictatorship. His favour is so desirable to his subordinates that they will sue for it by every means possible. Servility becomes endemic among his entourage, who compete among themselves in their show of devotion. This in turn exercises a sway upon the ruler, who becomes corrupted in his turn.

Louis de Bourreinne, who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s first secretary, called this corruption of the thinking processes a sort of cerebral congestion.

Even in the US, with its traditions and governmental structure, 12 years for a president would be a negative. Russia’s traditions, political structures such as the limits on political parties and appointed regional governors and the perverted distribution of wealth and corruption make 12 years potentially very dangerous.

Twelve years for a president would also mean 12 years for many other officials who themselves are less important holders of power. The holder of power pyramid would develop more of the characteristics of that of the USSR. This is even more so given that Medvedev has also moved to extend the terms of members of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, from four years to five. These subordinates and the behavior of most of them merits this term—now have an additional incentive to be servile.

Speer also wrote that the key to the quality of the man in power is how he reacts to this situation.

And it is true not all people react exactly the same. Kemal Ataturk was much more restrained in his use of power than Josef Stalin. Even so, Ataturk’s regime had many psychological characteristics that were similar to that of Stalin. Ultimately there was only one source of power, and this was the man at the top.

This was the case, the law notwithstanding. In 1937 President Ataturk sacked Ismet Inonu as prime minister and replaced him with Celal Bayer. Legally, the Ataurk was entitled to appoint the prime minister, but as president he had few direct executive responsibilities. Nevertheless, when someone commended that Bayer has skillfully handled an issue, Ataturk retorted: The government is in my hands, my hands.

Medvedev likes to speak of the need to strengthen the rule of law, and he is no-doubt sincere. But like many enthusiasts for the law, he is putting too much faith in it at the expense of basic psychology.

Ataturk was in power for so long that his basically authoritarian psychology and the changing needs of the country began moving in opposite directions, and became a negative rather than positive factor in the country’s development. His pervasive influence meant that all depended on him, with little room for natural evolution. The legal system, that he played such a dominant role in forming, remained his—well intentioned—toy, to be pushed aside when he wished.

Medvedev seems to be relatively liberal in his outlook. But even his thinking would be corrupted by 10 years in power (assuming his present term of 4 years was to be followed by another of 6 years). The authoritarian streak in Vladimir Putin would become significantly less restrained if he were to return to the presidency. Eight years as president, 4 years as the major power behind his successor, plus a further 12 years as president would bring the total to 24 years. He could be president until 2024 when he would be 72 years of age.

Count Ciano, noted in his diary in 1941 (when Mussolini was 57) that the aging holder of power can be somewhat sensitive about age: The Duce (Mussolini) is exasperated by the publication in the magazine Minerva, published in Turin, of a motto by some Greek philosopher or other. The motto read:

No greater misfortune can befall a country than to be governed by an OLD tyrant.

The sensitivities of the tyrant as nothing compared to the damage generally done to a country. Old tyrant is not only about age. It is about a declining ability to match the desire to hold power with the desire to work, listen and to be engaged.

While Ataturk believed that government was in his hands, he was also quite disengaged from it. One of his admirers, Falih Rifki Atay said to him: Ataturk! Before you became President you were always in touch with the people. For years now, it is only us at your dinner table who listen to you. The people haven’t heard your voice. You only read the government’s report at the Assembly openings. This is your only communication.

Medvedev seems to be similar to Ismet Inonu in character. Falih Rifki Atay explained why Ataturk chose Inonu as Prime Minister in 1923:

Aside from not feeling any personal competition towards Ataturk he was a hard-working, serious administration man. He was an intellectual who believed in Ataturk.

Ataturk never made Inonu his legal superior in the way that Putin made Medvedev his. It was a bold move for someone who wanted to remain the real holder of power. It suggests to me that Putin’s intent was to fill the post of Prime Minister for a few years while Medvedev found his feet, and then find another quieter—but still very influential—life.

But Putin probably found that he missed being president more than he expected. Even if he intended to be the power behind the throne he would have gradually came to understand that over time Medvedev’s power would increase and his own would decline; and that his influence would be less than he had expected.

Then came Georgia and the financial crisis. As prime minister Putin has had a major role to play, but having tasted power at the top he will want to be in the supreme decision making seat again and doubly so, given the possibilities for a man of action in exciting and dangerous times. And, Putin will almost certainly feel that he is needed.

Ataturk had the same attitude. In 1938, with tensions rising in Europe, the dying Ataturk said:

If this second world war catches me when I’m still in bed, who knows what will become of the nation. It is I who must return to be in a position to take charge of government affairs.

So, will Medvedev resign early, as some suspect, to allow Putin to resume the presidency in 2009?

Medvedev knows that he owes his position to Putin. Moreover, he has been in power for only a short period of time, and will not yet have learnt to be comfortable with it. Indeed, he may be finding some of its aspects quite scary. According to Falih Rifki Atay, Inonu was appointed as prime minister in the first place because had a definite need for Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk’s) authority. Putin would not have chosen Medvedev to succeed him if he felt that Medvedev did not have a similar need—otherwise he could not expect continuing influence!

Yet, time and experience changes things! Medvedev may come away from the G20 Summit with a considerably enhanced sense of confidence. He will also recognize that if he were to step down now, he will irrevocably blacken his name in the eyes of many.

He will most likely have an agonising flight back from the USA. What to do?

What would happen if Putin returned to the presidency for 12 years?

A whole generation of educated and energetic Russians would have their cynicism confirmed and much of their enthusiasm for a better Russia—wasted. As it is now, they do not want Putin to return, and their dismay would only grow over time if he did. During the first six years a strong opposition could emerge, but Putin would probably retain the support of the majority of the population.

However, much also depends on events. These same educated Russians became emotionally charged over the events in Georgia, and are suspicious of US attempts to expend its power closer to Russia’s borders. Further events of this nature would boost Putin’s hold on power.