What motivates Vladimir Putin?

I believe that there’s no big mystery about what motivates Vladimir Putin: survival. He knows, as the ancient saying has it, that you can ride a tiger but you can’t dismount. Up until now he has been very successful at taking total power in Russia, grinding down or sweeping aside virtually all potential competition among persons and institutions. As a result however he has prevented the development of civil society, the multiple checks and balances that normally work to restrain and channel power in modern countries. Thanks to Putin’s own sustained efforts, the presidency is now the sole authority in the land, uninhibited by law, surrounded only by the opportunists and sycophants who depend on him for their own roles. This means that as soon as Putin loses his grip on power, he will become utterly exposed to the mercy of whoever takes over next.

If that were a legitimate, elected, transitional government for instance, it might decide to prosecute him for having undermined the Russian constitution, or possibly for more directly criminal acts (I don’t want to speculate). But, far worse, his successor might be a personal enemy, or even — worst outcome of all — a mob. Putin has commented more than once on the fate of Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan dictator was beaten and sodomized to death with a knife by a rioting crowd who managed to get their hands on him in 2011 as his security forces melted away during the uprising. Before that, of course, he had been the uncontested leader for over 40 years.

It’s quite a dilemma. Sooner or later everyone has to give way to the next generation. One way out might be to introduce gradual reforms aimed at normalizing the country’s institutions over a medium-term period. Something like Pinochet’s path. But so far it appears that Putin is taking the opposite route, tightening the screws, rigging elections, orchestrating a constant drum-beat of propaganda, appointing a personalized armed force loyal only to himself, giving them authority to fire upon demonstrators if necessary, and generally preparing to remain president for life, following the model of so many Third World generalissimos.

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