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Hold Tight, Hillary: Russia Just Got Scarier

Julia Ioffe is a freelance writer living in New York.

If any proof were needed that the Russian political system operates in its own time-space continuum, it came this morning, when the parliament decided to deal with the country's economic meltdown by amending its constitution. The Duma fixed the 1993 text by decoupling presidential and parliamentary elections and approving term extensions for the president, from four to six years. The amendment, which President Dmitry Medvedev announced on November 5, was discussed for a scant two weeks and passed overwhelmingly: 392 to 57. (Amazingly, those 57 votes came from the Communists.)

In the West, the amendment was met with a hearty round of "how could they's." It was perceived as a cynical play by Putin for another stab at the presidency, and, more fundamentally, as yet another giant crack in the foundation of an anemic democracy.

The debate among Russia's chattering classes, however, sounds very different--more like specific, sinister prophesies of doom. The amendment, they say, is all Putin's doing, and now Medvedev will step down within the year, ushering in a new round of elections, the end of the thaw, and, of course, twelve years of President Putin (whose approval ratings, incidentally, are still some 20 percent higher than Medvedev's, the actual sitting president). Yulia Latynina, a prominent political columnist, sees something even more complex on the horizon: "First, the ruble will collapse in early 2009--or at the latest when the country's gold and foreign currency reserves run out. ... Medvedev's first reaction will be to blame the West for everything. Then he will explain that he lacks the moral strength to lead the country during a serious crisis." Then, a new round of elections, twelve years of Putin, yadda yadda yadda.

These fears are not unfounded, of course, but for the regular folks, it's far more simple. Fully 56 percent of Russians support the amendment because, heck, they like the president. Both of them! Of the people less favorably inclined--this third of the population mostly happens to live, by the way, in Russia's two big (elitist?) cities--some disapprove because they don't buy the government's argument that they need more than four years to get everything done. In a country of red tape, city voters feel, perhaps ironically, that four years is plenty of time to achieve policy goals. More than half of the dissenters, however, defend democracy so fiercely as to render it moribund: Twelve percent of Russians say that a constitution is not for amending. Ever.

What does the Kremlin say in its defense? It invokes the economic crisis and the time needed to deal with it; it points to Russian exceptionalism and the country's dire need for a strong leader. "To be honest, I do not think that Russia should be a parliamentary republic," Medvedev said at a press conference on Tuesday. "I think this would be fatal for the country." And in the saltiest Russian manner, he invoked the "you hypocrite Americans do it all the time" excuse, saying, "Some countries do it less often, like the United States, for example, though they too have passed a fair few amendments over the years."

Most baffling of all, however, was Medvedev's harking back to the days of the tsarist ancien regime when the French were to be emulated in all things. When Madeleine Albright asked him at the G20 summit why the Russians were so keen to extend presidential term limits, Medvedev replied like a borscht-belt comedian: "That's normal for an incumbent administration--trying to enhance your capabilities." He then added, "But I was guided by other considerations. ... Recall the Constitution that France had at the time of De Gaulle. It gave the President a seven-year term in office. I think it played a good part in helping France to develop as a strong nation."

So there you have it, folks: Russia is moving towards a de Gaullian form of government.

--Julia Ioffe