Vladimir Putin is boxing with three shadows, one from the past, one from the future, and one from the present.
The shadow of the past is Joseph Stalin. As Putin's Russia has positioned itself as the heir of the Soviet Union, its memory policy has defended the most notorious Soviet leader. It is illegal for citizens of Russia to criticize aspects of Stalin's rule, such as the Nazi-Soviet alliance that began the Second World War -- but it seems legal for the president to praise the pact, as Putin has taken do doing. The problem with whitewashing Stalin is that it makes him a kind of unassailable rival. The Stalin of Putin's Russia is the victor of the Second World War and the defender of the world from fascism, the good manager who held everything together in difficult times. Opinion polls show that dead Stalin is more popular than live Putin.
The shadow of Stalin says: do something dramatic. And lie about it.
The shadow of the future is Alexei Navalny. The anti-corruption activist is far younger than Putin, and is the only Russian politician aside from Putin who is widely recognized around the world. Navalny's issues are economic inequality and rigged elections, which are Putin's sore points. The Russian government tried to murder Navalny last year, and is now holding him in prison on a charge that challenges the borders of the word "grotesque." Despite drastic limitations on his activity, Navalny has managed to organize electoral actions that cause Putin's candidates to lose. This September, Russia will hold parliamentary elections. If Navalny were free and allowed to organize a political party, he would no doubt do well. Putin has demanded that his own party, United Russia, win a supermajority, something that is just not possible without some kind of truly stark manipulation.
The shadow of Navalny says: you are afraid. Act out.
The shadow of the present is Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. For two decades, Lukashenko had outmaneuvered Putin, gaining access to Russian resources without ceding Belarusian sovereignty. Lukashenko has now fallen under Putin's power because of a mistake the Belarusian leader made last year: he lost an election, and tried to stay in power anyway. Lukashenko had an elected and legitimate successor, the victor Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The main plank of her platform was to run clean elections. Had she come to power, Belarus would perhaps have created reliable succession principle and strengthened its sovereignty. In using violence to try to stay in power, Lukashenko instead handed power off to Putin, and put the sovereignty of his country at risk. Without support at home, he had nowhere to go but Russia, and Putin has exploited the new situation.
The shadow of Lukashenko says: Belarus is your chance. Seize it.
With military maneuvers scheduled in Belarus just days before Russia's coming parliamentary elections, Putin will surely be tempted to stage some sort of stunt to raise his own popularity, and by extension that of his party. Then, it would seem, he could get out from under the shadow of Lukashenko, and claim the Belarusian prize for Russia. He could get out from under the shadow of Stalin, by achieving something dramatic and violent. He could get out from under the shadow of Navalny, by winning the parliamentary elections. This might well be the lesson that Putin draws from Belarus.
It would be exactly the wrong lesson.
Putin today faces the same predicament Lukashenko faced last year. Lukashenko lost an election, refused to concede, and then found himself in a tragic situation. He could have kept his country going, but he missed his chance, and darkened his own page of history. Putin will likely soon make the same mistake, on a larger scale. Rather than heed the message of the electorate this September, he will try a stunt, claim a victory, and miss an opportunity, perhaps his last one, to find a successor, and a succession principle.
Were Putin to allow his party to lose this September, he could use the occasion to communicate to the public that he was intending to cede power. He could prepare the way for a free and fair presidential election in Russia in 2024 by releasing Navalny from prison and by allowing candidates time to prepare. He would thereby give Russians the moment they need to prepare themselves for a future without him. This will be difficult for them -- but less so than a dramatic regime change would be. If Putin took such actions this September, he could spare Russia the predicament that Belarus faces now, and ensure that Russia as a state can endure. He would be writing for himself a different page in history.
To be sure, Russia is not Belarus. Yet Russian history teaches the same lesson: the continuity of a state depends upon a principle of succession. All Russians are supposed to remember the Time of Troubles, a moment in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when Russia almost ceased to exist as a state. It is the subject of an exhibition in the Kremlin Museums right now. It is commemorated each year by Russia's national holiday, Unity Day. Putin exploits the occasion to rally the nation for strong-man rule, casting the blame for the Time of Troubles on the foreigners who rushed in to seek control.
But what was actually the Trouble in the Time of Troubles? The very trouble that Putin is causing now. The Time of Troubles was a succession crisis.
There is a chance for a brighter future for Russia. But Putin will follow the shadows.