Deep Inside The World Of Vladimir Putin

Moving from ally to ally in the political world, Vladimir Putin is anything but a conventional politician - but what will he do next? Only time will tell...
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Moving from ally to ally in the political world, Vladimir Putin is anything but a conventional politician - but what will he do next? Only time will tell...

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Surveying the wreckage of capitalism, from the vantage point of today, and the meltdown currently engulfing economies across the world, it seems scarcely credible that as recently as the early 90s the picture was a very different one indeed.

The collapse of Stalinism, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent ending of the Cold War ushered in a new age of ideology-free politics. Or so we were told.

The ostensible triumph of capitalism and the virtually unchallenged ascent of unfettered neoliberalism signalled the dawn of the post-ideological world. An ending to the traditional divisions of left and right as common ownership and state intervention vanished from political platforms the world over.

Socialism was dead and the purity and superiority of the free market transcended politics and became, for perhaps the first time ever, in the minds of billions, the established orthodoxy its cheerleaders had always wished for it.

Political discourse was reduced to arguments about who best to manage society rather than what type of society we should have and it was against this background that Vladimir Putin began his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia. Appropriately, as this fascinating documentary intimates, Putin’s controversial but undoubted success succeeded almost because of an absence of traditional politics rather than in spite of it.

The Unity Party, from which Putin’s support was initially derived, is described as a ‘centrist’ formation. Not centrist in the classical Leninist sense, not a party that swings between reform and revolution, but a party that occupies the middle ground between the free market right and the communist left. With virtually no manifesto, beyond support for the war in Chechnya, this was a bloc that suited the freewheeling politician.

Unencumbered by conventional political philosophy and subscribing, it seems, to no particular manifesto, makes for an unpredictable and potentially dangerous leader but also for an extraordinarily effective one.

As such Putin’s leadership and two terms as President have been characterised by a savvy blend of populist anti-elitism and restrictions on democratic freedoms of which his former KGB colleagues would no doubt approve. Ultimately, his skill as a pragmatic tactician and master horse-trader became clear for all to see.

On the one hand, as the documentary makes clear, his assault on the stranglehold the oligarchs exerted on the fledging market economy was tackled head-on and made for a spectacular political victory. The man in the street, hearted by an across-the-board 13% tax rate and the stark ultimatum issued to big business, pay up or we’ll take your business from you and nationalise it, ensured his personal approval ratings soared. At one point, the highest of any leader anywhere in the world.

On the other hand, his ruthlessness in dealing with opposition lead to protests from human rights organisations as the Chechen rebellion was brutally suppressed and conventional combat etiquette entirely ignored as prisoners and captured rebels were routinely tortured before summary executions were carried out. Similarly, his handling of the Moscow Theatre hostage crisis, in which 129 hostages died, was heavily criticized for its ruthlessness and apparent lack of concern for those held captive.

Political opposition, too, was a key feature of his leadership. The communist opposition were outraged as historic land ‘reforms’ were pushed through, opening up ‘opportunities’ for private investment for the first time in nearly a hundred years. Extraordinary scenes were broadcast around the world as the Duma descended into a mass brawl with inflamed politicians exchanging punches, kicks and head-buts.

In world affairs, he displayed a prophetic nous that saw George Bush first embraced as friend and warned, with Cassandra-like prescience, of the threats still to come from Pakistan and Afghanistan and then rejected as enemy as Russian interests changed and, accordingly, Putin’s approach.

Post-911, in the face of howls of outrage from friends and foes alike, he allowed the US the use of Russia’s strategically placed central Asian bases to attack Afghanistan in exchange for the US-lead destruction of rebel Chechen outposts and the delivery to him of rebel leaders.

Shrewdly, the inevitable and eventual war served only to stimulate the Russian economy as oil prices surged still further consolidating both Putin's powerbase and popularity among left and right alike.

Unencumbered by conventional political philosophy and subscribing, it seems, to no particular manifesto, makes for an unpredictable and potentially dangerous leader but also for an extraordinarily effective one.

In a very real sense Putin is a politician in the purest form. If politics, as Otto von Bismarck cynically observed, is the art of the possible then Putin is surely its most consummate and accomplished practitioner.

Just when the world was beginning to get used to a new era of American and Russian cooperation, Putin again changed allegiances and, in a bloc with France and Germany, vetoed the planned US invasion of Iraq, to the fury of his former White House allies.

Shrewdly, the inevitable and eventual war served only to stimulate the Russian economy as oil prices surged still further consolidating both Putin's powerbase and popularity among left and right alike.

The corruption scandals that broke in the mid-2000s, with accusations of pay-offs, bribes and extortion among public officials, in which Putin himself was briefly implicated, were handled in typically robust style. The jailing of Russia’s richest man, multi billionaire Mikhail Khordorkovsky, the acquisition of Yukos and its absorption by the state crushed dissent among the remaining, and now severely weakened, oligarchs and served only to further aid economic growth as the economy climbed on the back of an almost impregnable energy sector. By now, almost predictably, Putin emerged with ever greater approval ratings among the Russian electorate.

It’s here, perhaps, where we see Putin’s real genius; a genuine talent for ensuring opposing and contrasting interests benefit, in different ways, from his masterstrokes of real politik. Unburdened, as he is, by the straitjacket of conventional political orthodoxy, selling out is both a stupid and pointless accusation to hurl at the steely-eyed manipulator. His concern is only with ends. Means are simply that; routes that can be as flexible and as fluid as the ends dictate. A concession here for a victory there, is simply the currency of political exchange, Putin-style. Consequently, he is both unconcerned with and entirely untouched by a need to retain, or even appear to retain, the sort of ideological purity and commitment to programme necessary to other politicians.

Putin dispensed with the garment altogether to tackle big fish in the rivers of Tuva. A moment captured in a now iconic photograph. Too sexy for his shirt, perhaps…

In terms of image, he stood in stark contrast to his Western counterparts in Tony Blair and George Bush. Where Blair would take off his tie and roll up his sleeves to indicate a relaxed and affable man of the people, Putin dispensed with the garment altogether to tackle big fish in the rivers of Tuva. A moment captured in a now iconic photograph. Too sexy for his shirt, perhaps…

His proven expertise in judo and his predilection for extreme sports further reinforces the hard-man reputation, entirely consistent with the former KGB officer’s ruthlessness and willingness to take big risks in pursuit of his objectives.

And so, to 2012, where Putin is poised to make yet another bid for the presidency. As Prime Minister, a political appointment rather than an elected role, he is said to wield the real power behind Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential throne. Apparently, though, this is insufficient for the charismatic maverick.

The current Russian constitution prevents any President serving more than two consecutive terms but in a typically controversial move, Vladimir Putin has interpreted this literally and announced his intention to make a grab for a historic third, non-consecutive, term following the end of Medvedev’s reign.

Even with Putin’s impressive track record and knack of achieving the seemingly impossible, he may find his stiffest tests are yet to come. Unprecedented Russian growth cannot remain immune to the economic contractions smothering the rest of the world’s economies and opposition to his questionable approach to matters of democracy look likely only to intensify.

In an increasingly volatile economic era, increasing tensions in the Middle East and the looming spectre of a US invasion of Iran, Russia’s economic and strategic importance ensures its starring role on the world stage for some time yet. It would, though, be a brave or foolish man prepared to assert, with any assurance, what its most complex and dynamic politician will do next. Only one thing is certain; the world hasn’t seen the last of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin…

You can watch Putin, Russia and the West: Taking Control on BBC iplayer

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