September 25, 2011

WE’D LIKE TO CONGRATULATE Vladimir Putin on his exciting, come-from-behind victory to become Russia’s next president. After barnstorming across steppe and taiga, presenting a detailed program for the next six years, Mr. Putin won the enthusiastic support of —

Oh, no, wait. That’s not how things work in Russia today. Actually, the story is simpler: Vladimir Putin decided that he would like to be president again, and so he will be.

This may be good news for Dmitry Medvedev, the hapless incumbent whom Mr. Putin installed in the Kremlin in 2008, after Mr. Putin already had served eight years as president. Mr. Medvedev, who had to pretend to lead while Mr. Putin ran the show, can subside into a No. 2 post (prime minister) more suited to his character and to reality.

But it is bad news for President Obama, who invested heavily in his relationship with Mr. Medvedev, hoping he would emerge as a true leader. It is bad news for Russia’s neighboring countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine, whose independence Mr. Putin views as a temporary and irritating historical aberration. Most of all, it’s bad news for the Russian people, who face corruption and stagnation persisting perhaps — if Mr. Putin now seeks, like Stalin, to rule for life — as long as their president.

In the decade since assuming power from Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has closed every avenue through which people might peacefully and legally select or even affect their government. Political parties are his plaything. Television networks are under state control. Demonstrations are banned or tightly circumscribed. The judiciary is cowed. In many ways, Mr. Putin has recreated the Soviet system, down to the ludicrous displays of adulation from the audience at his party congress Saturday.

There are important differences, however. Mr. Putin has not sent millions to their deaths or to the gulag. He showed that the imprisonment or exile of a few key businessmen and the unpunished murders of a couple of dozen crusading journalists could silence their compatriots almost as effectively. Ordinary Russians, as long as they do not challenge the status quo, are freer than in Soviet times to travel, make money and live where they choose.

Unlike the Communist Party, Mr. Putin pretends to no ideology, other than a kind of snarling, nationalist nostalgia. Business and the state have become one, and favored apparatchiks gain enormous wealth. As a key to understanding Putinism, this may be the most important difference: Soviet officials did not have Swiss bank accounts, London townhouses or Riviera estates.

Freed from the wishful delusion of a Medvedev-Putin power struggle, other nations can now deal with Russia as it is. That does not preclude cooperation. Mr. Obama’s “reset” in Russian relations achieved gains, notably in Russia’s allowing NATO to supply its forces in Afghanistan through Russian territory. But it also should enable a more forthright expression of western interest in freedom. Mr. Putin will make decisions based on how he calculates the benefits to himself and his clique. If the United States makes human rights part of its policy — with legislation such as that sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) that imposes sanctions on the worst abusers — it can affect his calculation.