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'It's Going To Be Messy' -- Edward Lucas On Putin's Return

Edward Lucas suggests Putin will have a tough time sustaining his strongman image during his third term as president.
Edward Lucas suggests Putin will have a tough time sustaining his strongman image during his third term as president.
Now that Vladimir Putin has secured a third term in the Kremlin, what can we expect from him? RFE/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore spoke to veteran Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, a longtime correspondent for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes The West."

RFE/RL: As expected, Vladimir Putin has won another term in the Kremlin. But the opposition appears undeterred and is set to stage a protest in Moscow on March 5. Where do you see things going from here?

Edward Lucas: I think Putin has won the battle but he's lost the war. And he's lost the war in two senses. The promises he made in the election campaign are unsustainable. He can't deliver them with oil at $110 a barrel, so he is going to be disappointing his supporters. He's also lost the war [in] that he can't convince the protesters that Russia is on track toward modernization and a pluralistic political system.

RFE/RL: What do you see happening in terms of Russia's relations with the West with Putin returning as president?

Lucas: I think the question for the West is whether the anti-Westernism we saw in the campaign, both in the speech in Luzhniki Stadium and the article in "Moskovskie novosti" was just tactical for the purpose of whipping up his supporters or whether it was the real Putin revealing himself.

RFE/RL: Which do you think it was?

Lucas: I think it is his default setting and I think it was concealed under Medvedev. I think he realized things got a bit out of control in 2007 and 2008 and he wanted a softer approach. Medvedev did that very well and they got the reset [with the United States] and other things they wanted.

Russia analyst Edward Lucas
Russia analyst Edward Lucas
But I think Putin's own cast of mind is inherently anti-Western and it is something he resorts to under pressure as we saw after [the September 2004 hostage crisis in] Beslan. I think we'll be seeing more of that rather than less.

RFE/RL: Many in the elite, like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, have stressed to Putin the need for reforms such as diversifying the economy away from its dependence on oil and gas and opening up the political system. Do you see any chance of this happening?

Lucas: If he was really going to reform, he had eight years with unlimited power and unlimited amounts of money [from 2000-08] and he didn't reform then.

He also had another four years [during Dmitry Medvedev's presidency] with someone who at least talked the talk of reformism supposedly in the driver's seat and it didn't happen then either. So I find it hard to imagine it is going to happen now.

RFE/RL: What signs should we be looking at for clues to what direction Putin will likely try to take the country?

We will see on the outside with the formation of the government a little bit of what is going on. Is it going to be dinosaurs and concrete heads coming in, or people who are superficially liberal like Kudrin?

But the real struggle is going to be behind the scenes because the people around Putin and behind Putin are going to feel quite fed up about this. They have created a kind of looting machine that gives them tens of billions of dollars in both natural-resource and bureaucratic rents and they don't want that to stop.

RFE/RL: Are there any other obstacles to reform?

Lucas: The fundamental point is that any real reform will have to include the rule of law and open media. And as soon as you have the rule of law and open media you will get very difficult questions about Mr. Putin and his close associates.

How did they get so rich? Where did all the money go and who killed all these people? As soon as you get a political system that is open not just in a sham sense but in a real one, people are going to ask these questions and want answers.

RFE/RL: The elite appears to be deeply divided over the issue of reform, access, and influence. What are the implications of this?

Lucas: The elite has never been united. There have always been deep divisions. It's a bit like a wolf pack. They all bite each other, but they all follow the chief. Now the chief is looking a bit old and mangy.

So now some in the wolf pack are wondering if they want to become chief or if they would be worse off if someone else becomes chief. As usual there is a lot of pushing and shoving behind the scenes, but a bit more now because Putin is looking weak.

RFE/RL: The protest movement appears to still have a lot of momentum and the picture you paint is that of an elite that is unlikely to bend. So what should we expect to see going forward?

Lucas: I think it is going to be messy. The opposition is too weak to win. I don't think [the authorities] have the capabilities to do a real crackdown.

I don't think the authorities can put them down. So I think we'll have a long and inconclusive tug-of-war. The big question is: What tricks do the authorities play to try to get out of it?
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