Russian Lesson on Term Limits

by Chidem Kurdas

The point of term limits is to prevent the buildup of political power by one person or group. In Russia’s ersatz version, Vladimir Putin merrily plays revolving door with his protégé Dmitry Medvedev. Mr. Putin may win the election on March 4th despite the persistent protests sparked by his latest round of musical chairs with Mr. Medvedev.

That means Mr.Putin could potentially be Russia’s president again for two terms lasting through 2024, bringing his overall reign at the top as either prime minister or president to almost 25 years.

I would like to know what Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one-time-Putin-crony-turned-arch-critic, thinks about this. But the Siberian prison camp where he is held is not welcoming visitors.  A documentary about him, starting to make the rounds of some US cities, is as close as we get to understanding what’s happened to Mr. Khodorkovsky, once one of the world’s richest men, an oil oligarch with ties to the Kremlin; but since 2003 a prisoner after having launched an aggressive political campaign against Mr. Putin.

In an interview years ago, Mr. Khodorkovsky thus described the Russian model:

“It means that theoretically you have a free press, but in practice there is self-censorship. Theoretically you have courts; in practice the courts adopt decisions dictated from above. Theoretically there are civil rights enshrined in the constitution; in practice you are not able to exercise some of these rights.”

Clearly the same goes for Russian term limits. Theoretically there are limits as to how long one man stays in power; in practice the inside clique treat those limits as a joke.

Here is a warning for Americans. It is sometimes argued that term limits are undemocratic—why not let the voters decide whether or not they want the candidate to stay in office for another term? This is the same type of argument as those used against Constitutional checks and balances.

The Russian situation shows how very dangerous is the notion of dispensing with limits and leaving it all up to elections. If anything, term limits need to be more stringent and unconditional so as to function as an effective barrier against politicians looking to consolidate their hold. Mr. Putin’s massive power, built over the years and  now giving him almost complete control over the media as well as much of the economy, may yet enable him to overstay his welcome even as many Russians take to the streets to show their displeasure. To add a postscript to the wise old adage that power corrupts—the longer the reign, the greater the corruption.

One can easily observe the dramatic effect of the power over means of propaganda. German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi, director of  the Khodorkovsky documentary, waited outside the Siberian penal colony where his subject is imprisoned.  A local teenager he questioned remembered the inmate only as a man who “stole millions from Russia”— doubtless as Putin and his associates want Khodorkovsky to be remembered.

We can only hope the protests in Russian cities will force Mr. Putin to say his goodbye earlier rather than later.

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