Successive election victories, which became more and more suspect, allowed Putin to severely restrict free speech and peaceful assembly.
Twenty years ago, US President Bill Clinton received a phone call from an ailing Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia. Yeltsin had just promoted an unknown intelligence officer to be his Prime Minister and he was keen to reassure Clinton about this rising star. “He’s strong, very sociable and can easily have good relations with people. I’m sure you will find him a highly qualified partner”, said Yeltsin according to the archives. Four months later the “rising star”, Vladimir Putin, had replaced Yeltsin and went on to win the election on 26 March 2000. He was on his way to becoming Russia’s longest serving leader since Joseph Stalin.
During the past 20 years the world has witnessed a master class in the control of Russia. The Romanov Tsars would have applauded Putin. “He’s one of the family”!
When he entered the Kremlin, Putin realised he had to do two things quickly. First he had to get to grips with a disastrous economy bequeathed by Yeltsin. He then had to re-establish national pride, crushed by the humiliating crash of the Soviet Union. Only autocracy, under the guise of democracy, would work.
The first election victory was easy. The electorate was so relieved to have a young, thrusting leader that even free elections swept him to power. Putin then speedily and systematically consolidated his position. He neutralised the power of the oligarchs, who had accumulated vast influence under Yeltsin. Simultaneously, he established full control over the media, before reinstating the direct appointment (by himself of course) of governors across Russia. Putin now controlled what people read in newspapers, watched on TV, and who they could vote for in the provinces.
Successive election victories, which became more and more suspect, allowed Putin to severely restrict free speech and peaceful assembly. Nowadays, courts and judges are nobbled, while NGOs, religious minorities and human rights activists are permanently harassed and persecuted.
High oil prices in Putin’s second term massively expanded Russia’s coffers. Wages and pensions quadrupled and the shops were full of western products. National pride was restored following huge investment in the armed forces and when Putin seized Crimea, his popularity zoomed to 86%. Everyone was satisfied with the regime.
So why is there now so much discontent?
In fact, today’s protests aren’t new. The rigged presidential election in 2012 brought people onto the streets with the biggest anti-government rally in Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union. As many as 50,000 people gathered near the Kremlin to condemn alleged ballot-rigging in parliamentary elections and demanded a re-run. Additional smaller rallies took place in St Petersburg and other cities. Communists, nationalists and Western-leaning liberals turned out together, despite divisions between them. There were more than 1,000 arrests, mostly in Moscow. This was clearly a shock for Vladimir Putin, who had grown used to being seen as Russia’s most popular and powerful politician.
Matters looked so serious for Putin in 2012 that the Economist ran an article headed “The beginning of the end of Putin”, adding “whether it is a good end or a bad one is up to him”. “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”, Putin could claim later, echoing the American Mark Twain after his obituary had been mistakenly published.
Fundamental changes were urgently required. Putin realised that his error had been to allow protests to go ahead unhindered, riot police becoming involved only when they got out of hand. Protest would now have to be rigorously controlled using a permit system. Also, as vote rigging was clearly too easy to discover, he decided that he could always win by limiting the candidate list to only those “approved” by him. Rigging the vote count was now unnecessary.
Seven years on, the temperature of protest is again rising alarmingly for Vladimir Putin. Unrest on the streets has returned to disturbing levels. Fines of 30,000 roubles (Rupees 32,000) or at least five days in jail, the penalties for unsanctioned protests, have clearly not deterred protesters.
Two weeks ago, some 10,000 Muscovites turned out to demand that independent candidates be allowed to run in upcoming elections for the City Parliament. Russian police in riot gear detained more than 1,000 protestors, video evidence showing the police beating them to the ground with vicious truncheon swings. Several protesters reported broken limbs and head injuries, a brutal response creating the image of a police state. This was a message of force from the county’s ruler. This is what people will get if they want to depose the Tsar and “destroy Russia”. A portent of the 2021 parliamentary and 2024 presidential elections.
The Kremlin controlled Electoral Commission is clearly responsible for the recent protests. While ushering through the Putin-approved candidates, who barely bothered to campaign, the Commission thwarted the attempts of the Opposition to collect the 3% of voters (about 5,000) required for registration. This barrier succeeded in keeping the Opposition out in the 2014 Moscow elections. Last month they were determined to succeed. However, just as the Opposition candidates reached the required number of backers, the Electoral Commission simply disqualified them. The sham backfired. Instead of dampening interest, the move simply mobilised the Opposition.
Other factors are adding to the people’s discontent against the gerrymandering of the Kremlin. They look at the future and only see a fall in their living standards. The anger against Putin for last year raising the retirement age is still simmering. A fall in oil prices together with the effect of sanctions resulting from his chemical warfare attack in Salisbury last year has resulted in real incomes per head falling by about 14% since 2014.
Poverty is rising, with more than 20% of the Russian population now unable to buy anything beyond basic staples needed for subsistence. All this while the richest 10% of Russia’s population control 75% of the country’s wealth. Wealth inequality in Russia is one of the highest in the world. No wonder so many ordinary people are angry.
President Putin’s popularity has never recovered from the highly unpopular decision to raise the pension age in 2018. However, with a rating of 64% approval, a figure most Western leaders would die for, his presidency is not in danger. For one thing, there is no obvious successor, which probably explains his poll rating. When asked by the pollsters, respondents say that they support Putin because there is no one else. The mantra “if there’s no Putin there’s no Russia”, heavily propagated by the Kremlin, is clearly working.
Throughout his political career, Putin has ensured that any serious challenger has either been “persuaded” not to challenge him or has been disqualified. Even the prominent Opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, so badly treated by the corrupt legal system and hardly a threat to Putin, was prevented from running against him in the 2018 elections. Not since the days of Joseph Stalin has there been such paranoia about competition.
With less than five years of his current term remaining, according to the Constitution, President Putin faces the classic conundrum of an autocrat. Does he increase the growing separation between the Kremlin and the Russian people? Will he show that he is unafraid to use further violence against the protestors, a move which could galvanise the Opposition, leading to a revolutionary spiral? His decision will determine the political outcome of his remaining term.
But suppose he decides to remain as Russia’s leader? There is certainly support for this idea. On 29 July, a Levada Centre poll showed that 54% of Russians want to see Putin remain as President because they see no alternative. How could this be achieved when the Constitution says he must stand down?
Rumours currently circulating in Moscow indicate two possible ways in which President Putin could stay in power, breaking all records. A possible union with Belarus could be seen as creating a new country and therefore an excuse to side-step the Constitutional term limit. Another possible dodge being discussed is changing Russia from a republic to a parliamentary democracy and appointing Putin as Prime Minister.
“All political lives end in failure”, the British politician Enoch Powell famously once said. Some Russians wonder if Putin’s political life will ever end.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.