A 21st-century tsar

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A 21st-century tsar

The presidential election in Russia yesterday was a contest with a predetermined outcome. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was running for a third presidential term, had been far ahead of the other four contenders in the race. Barring unexpected events, he will likely be the winner after getting more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round. Even if the election goes to a runoff, the result will hardly change.
After serving as president for two consecutive terms from 2000 to 2008, Putin is guaranteed a renewed presidency for six years until 2018,   thanks to a constitutional amendment passed under Dmitry Medvedev, the current president and Putin’s protege. As a result, the next president can enjoy up to two terms of six years each. That means Putin could remain in the Kremlin until 2024, making him a “21st-century tsar.”
Putin’s re-election can only be explained by a lack of alternatives. Russian voters could not do much but vote for him despite their unpleasant feelings toward him. Putin should remember that he received votes, not trust. He could be sowing the seeds of an overthrow of his regime at anytime. He must not forget the lessons he learned from middle class citizens’ vehement protests against the controversial ballot rigging in the general election last December.
As a candidate for president, Putin vowed to improve the livelihood of the middle class, root out corruption and achieve an even distribution of national wealth. Such commitments, however, will be difficult to put into action without a fundamental change in the oligarchic structure of Russia’s political and economic systems, which rely heavily on energy exports, including petroleum and natural gas.
Putin’s authoritarian regime rests on a corrupt structure deeply rooted in collusions between a small number of conglomerates and political power. Fundamental change to this structure cannot occur if Putin’s government attempts to sustain the system with a harsh crackdown on the press.
He needs to change his foreign policy, too. Russia cannot expect to raise its international status by taking a unilateral approach on global issues, as evidenced by its opposition to intervention in the crisis in Syria.
Ironically, the future of the Russian people depends on the choices made by Putin. That’s the limit of Russian democracy. Depending on his decisions, Putin’s third term as president could mark the beginning of his end or a starting point for a real democracy. We will watch closely to see which path he will take.

어제 실시된 러시아 대선은 결과가 미리 정해진 경마(競馬) 시합이었다. 3선에 도전한 블라디미르 푸틴 총리는 다른 네 명의 후보들에 비해 출발선 훨씬 앞에 나가 있었다. 이변이 없는 한 1차 투표에서 50% 이상의 지지를 얻어 당선이 확정될 가능성이 크다. 설사 결선투표까지 가더라도 결과가 바뀔 가능성은 없어 보인다.  푸틴은 2000~2008년 두 차례 대통령직을 역임한 데 이어 2018년까지 6년으로 늘어난 세 번째 임기를 보장받게 된다. ‘21세기 차르’의 부활이라 해도 과언이 아니다. 그의 당선은 ‘대안부재(代案不在)’란 말 말고 달리 설명하기 어렵다. 다른 적임자가 없으니 미우나 고우나 다시 한 번 그를 선택할 수밖에 없다는 것이 투표소에 간 많은 러시아 유권자들의 심정이었을 것이다. 그들이 표는 줬지만 신임까지 준 것은 아니라는 점을 푸틴은 명심해야 한다. 유권자들의 비판적 지지는 언제든지 정권 퇴진 운동의 불씨로 바뀔 수 있다. 지난해 12월 총선 부정선거 논란에서 촉발된 중산층의 유례없는 시위 사태의 교훈을 잊어선 안 된다. 푸틴은 중산층에 대한 배려와 부패 척결, 경제적 과실의 공정한 배분 등을 공약으로 내세웠다. 석유와 가스 등 에너지 수출에 의존하는 과두(寡頭) 독점형 정치·경제 체제를 근본적으로 바꾸지 않는 한 실현하기 어려운 공약이다. 소수의 재벌과 정치 권력이 야합하는 부패 구조는 푸틴식 권위주의 체제의 근간이다. 언론 탄압을 통해 이 구조를 존치(存置)시키려 하는 한 러시아의 근본적 변화는 기대하기 어렵다. 대외정책의 변화도 요구된다. 시리아 사태에 대한 국제사회의 개입에 반대하는 등 일방적인 대외정책으로는 러시아의 국제적 권위와 위상을 제고하기 어렵다. 역설적이지만 푸틴을 선택한 러시아 국민의 미래는 푸틴의 선택에 달려 있다. 러시아 민주주의의 한계다. 푸틴의 선택에 따라 그의 세 번째 임기는 푸틴 시대 종말의 시작이 될 수도 있고, 진정한 러시아 민주화의 출발점이 될 수도 있다. 세계와 함께 우리는 그의 선택을 지켜볼 것이다.  
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