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The Non-Surprise From Russia

Judging from my Twitter feed, there were many people who still thought that there was a real chance that Prime Minister Putin would let President Medvedev run for re-election in Russia and are disappointed that Putin will return to the big job for the next presidential term.

I’m surprised by the surprise; it’s been clear for some time that the Kremlin is in a defensive crouch, much more focused on hanging on than on innovation, change and the construction of a truly liberal order.  That means less Medvedev and more Putin; it means a policy of increasing long term risks to the stability of the regime by focusing more on the short term.

Every major step Russia has taken in recent months points exactly in this direction.  No doubt the shaky global economy and the falling price of oil has something to do with it.  So do the revolutions in the Middle East; the Kremlin hates the thought of contagion.

For Putin and those around him, power is a pleasant thing, but we should not underestimate the force of the belief in ruling circles and elsewhere that Russia is under threat in a dangerous world.  The demographic time bomb, the instability in the Caucasus that will not die, the spread of radicalism from Central Asia, the rise of China, even the newly vigorous Turkish power in the Middle East: Russia these days is not a country that thinks it has a lot of room in which to experiment and change.

Putin is the authoritarian dad who makes you behave; Medvedev is the sympathetic high school teacher who cuts you some slack.  The message from Russia this fall: dad is still in charge.

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