Many in the Russian elites are far from thrilled with Putin’s reinstated monopoly on power and are aware of the risks associated with settling on the pattern of slow-moving Brezhnev-style stagnation but a revolutionary alternative looks infinitely worse.
Putin distrusts Moscow, which is too rich and too sensitive to the signs of decay in his system of power; but one lesson he has taken to heart in his KGB education – and has re-learnt again from Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad as well – is that a leader must take care of his own “tribe.” The sum total of these lessons apparently amounts to a net gain for Putin’s plan for yet another reconfiguration of the leadership aimed at consolidating his control over policy-making while creating an illusion of change. This plan may be indeed unstoppable but its triumphant execution by next May will signify a big leap backward in Russia’s political and social rehabilitation from the Soviet debacle. Putin may find it amusing to squash the illusions of “modernization,” but Medvedev’s failed presidency has left a more important heritage than either of the two is aware of by creating more space for open speech, even if mostly in the blogosphere, and weakening the traditional respect in the supreme authority. Solid stability is just a Potemkin façade for the decaying Putinism, and its collapse is certain to be messy but not necessarily that violent – the courtiers have grown too fat to have any stomach to fight.