The Next Prime Minister

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

DIPLOMATS AND Kremlinologists who have been worrying over the "transition" in Russia following the end of Vladimir Putin's term-limited mandate as president can relax: There probably won't be one. In a crudely orchestrated conference of his United Russia party Monday, Mr. Putin disclosed that he will head the party's list in December's parliamentary elections, and that taking the job of prime minister was "a realistic idea." He could do so, he said, provided that United Russia won the parliamentary elections and that the subsequent presidential election in March produced "a decent, effective and modern-thinking president with whom it would be possible to work." Those conditions won't be hard to meet: United Russia will surely capture a large majority with Mr. Putin at its head and the power of the state at its back, while every Russian knows that the next president will be, as a practical matter, chosen by Mr. Putin himself.

The prospect of Russia's nominally elected leader morphing into something more like a czar or Communist Party secretary general, with presumed lifetime tenure, will be welcomed by many Russians and even some Western governments that value "stability" above all in the Kremlin. Mr. Putin, his defenders point out, has professed a desire to be a responsible partner of the United States and the European Union and at times has acted the part. His attempt to restore Russia's clout as a world power and its dominion over its neighbors has been brazen but not wildly aggressive. But Mr. Putin's personal ambition means Russia will remain, like some of its Central Asian neighbors, a politically backward autocracy at a time when almost all of Europe has embraced democracy.

That includes half a dozen former republics of the former Soviet Union -- such as Ukraine, an independent nation of nearly 50 million that on Sunday held its third free election in less than three years. The result of the parliamentary voting was the opposite of the unanimous acclaim with which United Russia adopted Mr. Putin's platform the next day. Ukraine woke up to a muddle in which at least four and maybe as many as six competing parties won seats, with none holding a clear majority. Weeks or months of tortuous negotiations may now ensue before the parliament elects a prime minister.

Mr. Putin, who tried and failed to manipulate a Ukrainian presidential election in 2004, clearly views Kiev's democratic politicking with contempt. Yet in many respects Ukraine is outstripping Russia: Its economy is growing almost as fast without the benefit of vast oil and gas exports, and it ranks ahead of Russia in openness to investment and governmental transparency as well as in personal freedom. Russia is going to have a much easier time than Ukraine installing its next prime minister. But Ukraine looks like it has a better chance to thrive in a world that -- however much Vladimir Putin might regret it -- is leaving strongmen behind.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company