How Long Can Vladimir Putin Avoid The Political Noose?

With the elections upon us Putin has said he could rule until 2024, but with a strong opposition waiting to strike and people turning against him he'll have to show all of his powers of intimidation and manipulation...
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With the elections upon us Putin has said he could rule until 2024, but with a strong opposition waiting to strike and people turning against him he'll have to show all of his powers of intimidation and manipulation...

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A favourite old communist-era joke has been updated and dusted off in Russia this week. A trembling official approaches the leader and says “I am sorry, President Putin, but we will have to cancel next week’s election”. “Why?” booms back Putin. “Because someone has lost the results” replies the official.

There is no evidence that Putin has really considered cancelling the first round of the Russian presidential election scheduled for 4th March but, given the events of the last few months, he must have been sorely tempted. He, and the governing system he presides over, appears to have gone from impregnable power to inevitable demise in a remarkably short space of time. After years of apparent apathy on the part of the Russian people, there have been a series of mass demonstrations demanding the departure of Putin and his cronies.

This discontent, which has actually been bubbling under for some time, surfaced in reaction to Putin’s brazen announcement last November that he would be returning to the top job in place of his puppet President, Dmitry Medvedev, after the presidential “election” this March. Few Russians were under any illusion that their political system was a model democracy but the arrogant “one man, one vote….and I am the one man with that one vote” nature of Putin’s declaration tipped a large proportion of the citizenry over the edge. Their anger was compounded by the parliamentary elections in December. Russia’s government cheekily calls its system “managed democracy” but the parliamentary vote required more micro-management to produce the desired result than many people were prepared to put up with.

There is, of course, no danger that Putin will lose the presidential vote on Sunday either. The Russian media coverage is under complete government control and all vaguely threatening opposition candidates have been excluded from the ballot. The more interesting questions are how blatantly the authorities are prepared to cheat to produce their desired result and how the public reacts to their machinations.

For much of Putin’s time in charge of Russia, overt opposition to him has been restricted to a small cohort of the brave and the barmy. The opposition is now a different proposition. They have built a coalition of young nationalists, old communists, liberal professionals and all-round every day people, united by their common goal of getting rid of Putin and his corrupt, authoritarian regime. This movement has been accused of lacking leaders or alternative policies for the future but this is a deliberate strategy to avoid division and maintain focus on the immediate goal of changing the system. Nevertheless, and despite the increased personal risk of imprisonment or unfortunate accident, some opposition figures have started to come to the fore. These include a former Kremlin insider, Sergei Mironov, the long-time dissident and chess grandmaster, Gary Kasparov, and other celebrity intellectuals such as the crime novelist, Boris Akunin, and music impressario, Artyom Troitsky. Perhaps most influential of all is the blogger and anti-corruption activist, Alex Navalny, who has been instrumental in using Russia’s hugely popular internet and social media forums to circumvent the Kremlin’s stranglehold on the traditional media.

the macho stunts that once wowed the nation as statements of Putin’s virility have started to look silly, turning a clearly botoxed Putin into the political equivalent of an ageing rock star in tight spandex trousers

How they and their supporters react to the forthcoming electoral fiddle on Sunday will have a major impact on what happens next in Russia. Although Putin still retains significant support, some of it is only based on the previous lack of a viable alternative and many people are clearly disillusioned with his rule. In his earlier years in power, Putin formed a genuinely popular compact with the people by providing social stability after the chaos of the post-Soviet Yeltsin years and economic growth, in return for the public abstaining from politics and ignoring the elite’s plundering of Russia’s economic wealth. During this period, Putin displayed a sound sense for what would appeal to the man in the street. But years of isolation amongst the rich and powerful has led to Putin losing his touch, as exemplified by the cack-handed announcement of his job-swap with Medvedev.

Worse still for Putin, his carefully cultivated aura of personal integrity and macho strength has been shattered. The pretence that the man at the top of a system built on vast corruption was somehow not personally implicated was always faintly ridiculous but widely believed in Russia. It has now been thoroughly undermined by the likes of Navalny, who have revealed evidence of Putin’s huge ill-gotten wealth. And the macho stunts that once wowed the nation as statements of Putin’s virility have started to look silly, turning a clearly botoxed Putin into the political equivalent of an ageing rock star in tight spandex trousers. The most recent stunt, which showed Putin diving and amazingly discovering a pristine ancient vase perched on the sea bed in shallow waters, has been the subject of endless mockery. It was, of course, a fake placed there by his aides, something they have subsequently been forced to admit. He also suffered a mini-Ceausescu moment in December at the hands of a previously ultra-Putin friendly constituency, when he was roundly booed at a mixed martial arts contest. His press office then helpfully magnified the humiliation by claiming that the crowd’s boos were in fact a complaint about the long queue for the toilets.

Now that his aura of invincibility has gone, it is hard to see Putin seeing out two more presidential terms, as he had planned. But, given that Putin and his clique are trapped into retaining power by the need to protect their corrupt fortunes and avoid prosecution by their successors, he will not go easily. There are numerous possible scenarios for how the end will play out. One is that others in the elite will decide that Putin is no longer a useful firewall against public anger and will seek to push him aside. This would be risky for them. Putin is a dyed in the wool KGB man and, true to type, has always controlled the elite by blackmail – he almost certainly possesses a fat file from his KGB days which, all too literally, details where the bodies are buried. He is also deeply suspicious by training and inclination and would be sceptical about any guarantees of immunity offered to him.

Another possible scenario is that Putin will seek to retain power by brute force and start shooting demonstrators. But the odds are against this happening on a mass scale. Putin would not be at all squeamish about giving the order if he thought it suited his purposes but he usually prefers to rely on a more subtle mix of intimidation and manipulation. Nor are the demonstrators likely to get involved in the sort of confrontation seen recently in the Arab world.  In contrast to Egypt, for example, Russia does not have millions of unemployed, angry young people ready to face almost anything in a desperate struggle to improve their lot.

The smart option for Putin, in the short-term at least, might be to concede some of the demonstrators’ demands by allowing the formation of genuine political parties and authorising new parliamentary elections. These steps would make it easier to weaken the opposition by forcing their ideological differences into the open. It would also compel the opposition to select leaders who could then, on past form, be encouraged to turn on each other due to clashing egos, Kremlin bribery and individually targeted intimidation. This scenario would not make Putin more popular but it would reduce the impact of those opposing him for a while at least.

Ultimately, the only thing that does seem certain is that Putin will not be able to re-establish his previous iron grip on power or continue to rule indefinitely. Once a leader has lost legitimacy with the public, it is usually only a matter of time until his rule ends one way or another. And perhaps the most worrying lesson for Putin from recent events is that when change comes, it can come surprisingly quickly.

Like this? Read Paul Knott on Russia, China and Their Part in Syria's Bloody Downfall

Last Saturday, thirteen of the fifteen diverse member states of the United Nations Security Council voted to support the Syrian people in their struggle for freedom. Their initiative was vetoed by Russia and China.

Russia and China are widely believed to have an undeclared agreement to oppose attempts by the other members of the Security Council to constrain dictatorial regimes from abusing their people. Their main motivation for pursuing this policy of “non-interference” is to avoid precedents being created that could hinder them in crushing their own domestic protest movements. This concern is particularly acute for the Putin government in Russia, which was the prime mover in blocking action against the Syrian regime. It is currently facing unprecedented opposition at home that threatens to disrupt the stage-managed presidential “election” it has scheduled for 3rd March.

Apart from wanting to preserve the sovereign right to shoot demonstrators, the Putin government has other reasons for protecting its odious Syrian counterpart. The Russian arms industry is closely connected to the corrupt establishment that controls Russia and Syria is one of the few reliable customers for its products. The next Syrian government may well decide to look elsewhere for its armaments. Similarly, Russia’s Mediterranean naval base at Tartus in Syria is unlikely to survive a change of regime in Damascus. Click here to read more...

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