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Putin: The Erosion of Time

7 December 2011

Putin: The Erosion of Time

By Gwynne Dyer

“Throughout the day, it was like receiving reports from a war zone,” said Communist Party Vice Chairman Ivan Melnikov Dec. 4, speaking about the thousands of calls he had received from regional offices about ballot-box stuffing and other violations in the Russian parliamentary elections. But despite the manipulation, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party got fewer than half the votes this time, down from almost two-thirds in 2007.

Putin’s party will still form the next government, since it can easily form a coalition with smaller pro-regime parties in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, but it has lost the two-thirds majority that let it amend the constitution at will. And Putin will still return to the presidency in March’s presidential elections, but the erosion in his popular support is suddenly visible for all to see.

The first clear sign that Russians were getting fed up with Putin came two weeks ago, when he made an unheralded appearance at a martial-arts fight at the Olympiyskiy Stadium in Moscow. That wasn’t surprising, as he makes a great public show of his own prowess in the martial arts. But when he climbed into the ring to congratulate the winner, the audience began to boo and whistle at him. They didn’t stop until he left.

It was all broadcast live on Russian state television, and subsequently went viral on YouTube and the Russian social media. There is no credible rival to Putin on the scene, but neither is it certain any more that he will serve out the full six years of his new presidential term. He is wearing out his welcome.

During Putin’s two terms as president between 2000 and 2008, he stabilized the ravaged economy: average salaries increased fivefold and the GDP grew by almost 8 percent a year. High oil prices helped, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless, and when he left the presidency three years ago he could still do no wrong in the eyes of most Russians.

He left it because Russia’s constitution forbids a third consecutive term as president. It was a nice gesture, but he didn’t really leave power. His close ally, Dmitry Medvedev, was elected to the presidency, and then Medvedev appointed Putin as prime minister. In practice, Putin went on taking the big decisions himself – including the decision to return as president next year.

But the past four years have not been as kind to Putin as the first eight. The economy has stagnated, and the scale of the corruption has grown too large to ignore. (He is not personally corrupt, but everyone thinks he tolerates the massive corruption among his allies in order to maintain their loyalty.) So when he announced in September that he would run for the presidency again in March, something seems to have snapped.

In the past couple of months, Russians have suddenly woken up to the reality that they may face another 12 years of him as the all-powerful president (he’s only 59 now), and a lot of them have realized that they don’t actually like that prospect. Hence the steep fall in United Russia’s share of the vote Dec. 4 – and, probably, in Putin’s share of the presidential vote next March.

He’ll still win, of course, but it may be a long and miserable six years for him unless the oil price goes through the roof and Russia experiences another economic boom. Once the bloom goes off the rose, it almost never comes back. So where does Russia go from here?

Russia doesn’t need another revolution. Despite the chronic abuses of power, the perversion of the courts, and the intimidation of the media, Russia could re-emerge as a real democracy quite smoothly if Putin ever decided to let it.

Could he lead Russia through such a transition? It is not to be excluded, for Putin is acutely conscious of his place in history and would not want to end up being rejected at the polls or, even worse, being forced to yield power by a popular revolt. Better to hand the country over in good condition and retire gracefully in four or five years’ time. He is egotistical and arrogant, like most powerful people, but he is not just a thug.

 

Russian Puppet-Master

16 September 2011

The Russian Puppet-Master

by Gwynne Dyer

“He took off the Kremlin dog collar,” explained a friend of Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third-richest man, as the political party Prokhorov had founded to run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the December elections blew up in his face last week.

Prokhorov spent about $15 million setting up the new party, Right Cause, and now he wants his money back. The Kremlin stole the party from him, he claims, though he never blames President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir personally.

It can’t be the money that made him so cross: $15 million is about one-tenth of one precent of Prokhorov’s wealth. It can’t be a hunger for real democracy in Russia either; his party was being created with Kremlin backing, and the proof was that it was being allowed on television. That doesn’t happen without the government’s permission.

Putin & Co. had allegedly encouraged Prokhorov to launch Right Cause in order to provide a safe repository for the votes of businessmen and intellectuals who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Putin’s own United Russia Party any more. It wouldn’t be a real opposition party with ambitions of its own, of course, but it would improve the optics of the situation and offer friendly criticism of the regime’s actions.

Such opposition is sorely needed, because many people in the Russian elite are getting fed up with Putin’s rule. When I was in Moscow last week I went along to the 50th birthday party of a friend of a friend, and the dissatisfaction was palpable.

It was a tight circle of friends who had almost all known one another since university, most of them since school, and a few of them since kindergarten. It was a typical phenomenon of Soviet times, when you couldn’t really trust anybody you hadn’t known all your life (and it is disappearing in the younger generation that grew up since the collapse of Communist rule in 1991).

Much has improved greatly in Russia since Soviet times, but this is an impending loss that is to be mourned. There are few countries where groups of people who have long since scattered to different professions, places and standards of living still stay loyal to their old friendships, even coming together to celebrate one another’s birthdays. The downside was brutal, stupid repression; this was one of the upsides.

There we all were – and three separate men who had done well in business in the new Russia, two of them factory-owners, told me that they were thinking of voting for the Communists this time. Why? Because there is no other way to register a protest vote.

There isn’t. The Communists command a loyal group of voters who will never change their allegiance, but they are all getting older and they can never threaten the regime. All other “opposition” parties have either been neutered and coopted, or else banned from taking part in elections on various technical pretexts.

So if you belong to the more intelligent wing of the ruling elite, then you try to create a different place where disgruntled intelligentsia and businessmen can park their protest votes. Perhaps a centre-right party that will defend their economic interests, but offer an articulate critique of the regime’s policies.

Prokhorov’s party was never going to replace United Russia, but it’s entirely possible that some people around Putin – perhaps the even the great man himself – thought that cogent criticism from a loyal opposition might do them and the country some good.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t need to control the Russian political system as tightly as he does. Even after eleven years in power, he is immensely popular, for he has given Russians back their self-respect and a modest degree of prosperity. He would win a free election hands down no matter how many political parties were allowed to compete, and how easy their access to the mass media.

So in Russia’s long-term interest, he should lighten up a bit and allow the political system to evolve towards a genuine democracy. Only slowly, of course, for he still thinks he is indispensable to stability, but maybe that’s what he had in mind in allowing the creation of Prokhorov’s party. So what went wrong?

There are undoubtedly elements within the Putin regime who think no opposition should be tolerated, either because they fear anarchy or just because they think their own interests would suffer. According to Prokhorov, the name of the chief villain is Vladislav Surkov.

The collapse of Prokhorov’s party was slapstick comedy. Last Wednesday, he said, 21 “doubles” of authorised delegates arrived at Right Cause’s first major party conference with false papers. The real delegates were not admitted, and the conference began without his presence or permission. After that it went downhill very fast, with Prokhorov declaring his own breakaway party and then abandoning that as well, all within 24 hours.

He blamed Surkov, President Medvedev’s top aide. “We have a puppet master in the country, who long ago privatised the political syatem, and who for a long time has disinformed the leadership of the country about what is happening in the political system,, who pressures the media…and tries to manipulate public opinion.”

Who knows? It could have been Putin changing his mind. It could have been Surkov circumventing his wishes. But this is not going to be the year when a credible non-Communist oppposition party emerges in Russia.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 6 and 7. (“It can’t…permission”; and “It was…upsides”) Also “There isn’t” paragraph 9 can be dropped.

Russian Democracy

4 December 2003

Russian Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

First, the results of the Russian parliamentary elections on 7 December: United Russia, the ‘party of power’ that supports President Vladimir Putin, wins a large majority. Second, the results of the Russian presidential election next March: Putin wins by a landslide. Third, a question: can Russia be a democracy?

Putin himself is ambivalent on the question. “I’ve been hearing allegations (about the rollback of democracy) for four years now, since I became president of the Russian Federation,” he said in October. “If by democracy one means the dissolution of the state, then we do not need such democracy….I don’t think that there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos.”

The message is underlined by United Russia’s election posters, which show a mosaic of the faces of fifty Russian heroes arranged to form a map of Russia — and include the faces of Lenin, Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. The message is not that Russia needs Communism back, but that it needs to be led by a strong man who gives orders and is obeyed — like Putin, for example.

There was a frantic flurry of speculation last month when Putin’s government arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man and CEO of the Yukos oil company, the world’s fourth largest. It was particularly noted that if the fallen oligarch is convicted of the charges he faces, involving tax evasion, embezzlement and other corporate misdeeds, then the state will confiscate his assets, including the 40 percent of Yukos’s shares that he owns personally..

Does this mean that Putin is setting out to reverse the privatisation of state-owned industry that occurred after the end of the old Soviet Union in 1991? And have ordinary Russians grown so cynical about politics that they are effectively abandoning democracy from below even before it can be stolen from above?

Putin has no desire to recreate the old socialist economy, and he knows that actions like the persecution of Khodorkovsky are hugely damaging to Russia’s attractiveness to foreign investors. However, he may not be able to stop important allies who missed out on the first wave of privatisations from bringing down the first-wave oligarchs, confiscating their assets, and re-privatising them into their own pockets. Besides, Khodorkovsky had shown an interest in politics, giving money to opposition political parties, which was forbidden to the oligarchs by Putin.

The attitude of the Russian people is a harder question. They persistently show levels of support for Putin of between 70 and 80 percent even as he manipulates them and tramples on their rights. Do they care about democracy, or is it just not a Russian thing?

The problem is that they have been fooled and betrayed so often. The ‘privatisation’ of state assets was carried out in 1992 by giving each adult Russian a voucher for 10,000 roubles to buy shares in the firms that employed them — “What we need is millions of property owners, not a handful of millionaires,” said Yeltsin — but the assets were massively and deliberately undervalued. Gazprom, Russia’s biggest energy industry, for example, was valued at only $250 million, while its stock market value by 1997 was $40 billion.

No sooner had the shares been distributed than an entirely avoidable great inflation destroyed the value of the rouble (and everybody’s savings). Then along came the favoured friends of the Yeltsin ‘family’, clever young Communist apparatchiks retooled as thrusting capitalist entrepreneurs, and bought up all the innocent workers’ shares at bargain-basement prices. That is where Russia’s massively rich oligarchs come from, and why they and their system are hated.

The oligarchs financed Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, and when he made his deal with Vladimir Putin in 1999 (Putin got the presidency in return for a promise not to prosecute Yeltsin and his cronies for corruption), they initially went along with that too. Putin, a relative unknown, had to start a second war with Chechnya in order to wrap himself in the flag and win the 2000 election. But once he was safely in office he turned on the oligarchs who represented the only serious potential threat to his power.

Putin has now driven a number of the oligarchs into exile, and he knows very well that jailing Khodorkovsky can only add to his popularity. He has silenced or shut down every independent television network, and made great progress towards bringing the print media under control. He has made some economic reforms like a flat-rate 13 percent income tax and corporate tax cuts, and the economy is now growing fast as oil exports soar and prices hold firm — but a third of Russia’s people are still desperately poor, the population is falling by a million a year, and GDP has still not crawled back up to late Soviet levels twelve years after the fall of Communism.

So why will around three-quarters of Russians vote for this cynical manipulator with few real achievements to his credit? Because the Russian people have become deeply cynical about ‘democracy’ as they have experienced it, and respond to anyone who at least seems ‘strong’. It is a pattern alarmingly reminiscent of what happened to the Argentine voting public over a longer period of time, and left them so cynical that democracy in Argentina may be crippled for a generation. If the same thing has happened in Russia, it will be an even greater tragedy.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and . (“The message…example”; and “The oligarchs…power”)

NOTE: if using the article AFTER the election on 7 Dec., use the following lead paragraph instead:

United Russia, the ‘party of power’ that supports President Vladimir Putin, won a large majority in the Russian parliamentary elections on 7 December, just as everybody knew it would. The results of the Russian presidential election next March are equally foreseeable: Putin wins by a landslide. In fact, current Russian elections are almost as predictable as the old Soviet ones. So the question arises: can Russia ever be a real democracy?