Russia is the house that Vladimir Putin built – and he’ll never abandon it
When was asked about his job, two years after becoming master of the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve, 1999, he said something about being a hired manager elected by the Russian people for a term of office. When he is asked about his job now, he calls it “fate”. Yesterday saw thousands joined the biggest since anti-government demonstrations in many years to protest against Putin and his prime minister/protégé Dmitry Medvedev.
Even so the Russian people, Putin is above all a symbol of stability after a decade and a half of turmoil that included the misguided and botched reform of the Soviet communist system; its abrupt end and the sudden advent of freedom that often looked like a free-for-all; the painful dissolution of the Soviet Union; market reforms, often dubbed “shock without therapy”; virtually instant crass inequality; the end of ideology and the collapse of morals.
Putin was appointed by Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, to be his successor, but he earned his stripes by taming the oligarchs, bringing to an end the seemingly endless war in Chechnya, breaking the backbone of the once powerful Communist party and marginalising liberals. He recreated the traditional Russian system of hierarchical government. The state that had been privatised by the high and mighty could now strike back, reasserting its awesome power.
In much of what he was doing, Putin responded to the paternalistic demand of the bulk of the Russian people who had not particularly succeeded in the post-Communist era. Not only did he genuinely win elections, which under his rule became a means of confirming people in power not replacing them. He also cracked the code of staying in power in a country that had rejected both his predecessors, the once widely popular Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. When faced with the choice, early on, to go with the elites – including the intelligentsia – or with the ordinary people, he chose the latter.
Putin understood that to rule Russia he had to stay genuinely popular with “the masses” and from time to time crack his whip at the elites: a reining in the greedy “”. Popularity ratings are important: to rule effectively, one needs at least 60% support; to rule comfortably, 70%. Approaching 50%, however, which is totally fine in the west, is fraught with the dangers of civil strife in Russia. Thus by his own personality, his public actions and attitudes, Putin managed to confer legitimacy on the Russian state in the eyes of the vast majority of the population.
Putin has restored Russia’s status of a great power, lost with the Soviet Union. He first tried to fit Russia into an enlarged west, as a senior ally of the US in Nato and a close partner of the EU within a “greater Europe”. When his efforts failed, he steered Russia away from the western orbit, rebuilt the country’s military power and used it to protect Russian security interests in Ukraine – as he saw them – as well as to project force outside the former empire, to send the message to the world that was back in play. Publicly and resolutely, he stood up to US global dominance.
Seen as disruptive in the west, Putin has struck a conservative tone at home. He allowed economic reforms in his first term, and later tolerated talk of modernisation, but his method of governance is essentially bureaucratic. Putin is both a capitalist and a statist. He understands the power of the market but is also wary of it, keeping the state always at the ready to step in and reassert control. He has reduced former oligarchs to obedient servants ever so keen to oblige him. He has seen his old friends rise to riches knowing that he can rely on their unquestioning loyalty – the one quality Putin appears to value particularly highly. The question about Putin’s own wealth misses the point – above a certain threshold, money turns into raw power, and in these terms the Russian president has few, if any peers.
An autocrat with the consent of the governed, Putin has preserved the essential personal freedoms that the Russian people first earned with the demise of the Communist system. People can worship and travel freely; Facebook and Twitter are essentially unrestricted; there are even overtly in opposition to the Kremlin. Political freedoms, however, are more tightly circumscribed, so as to leave no chance to potential “colour revolutionaries” or politically ambitious exiled oligarchs. For the bulk of the population, this matters little; the relatively few activists have a choice of taking it – or leaving.
Putin once described himself as Russia’s top nationalist. He has also proclaimed patriotism to be Russia’s national idea. On his list of values, the Russian state features at the very top. Since day one as president, he has been following Yeltsin’s parting request: The Soviet Union was one of Russia’s historical names, and so it’s little wonder that, to Putin, its downfall was a great catastrophe. His basic frame of reference is Russia’s rich history. Once Putin quipped that there was no one in the world worth talking to after the death of Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, he talks with many, but he truly keeps company with Russia’s past rulers: tsars, emperors and party leaders. He is just the latest in a long line.
Having no peers in the land and very few abroad is a heavy psychological burden. One needs to look to a much higher authority. To Putin, however, religion is more than a personal matter. Christian Orthodoxy, in his view, is a spiritual and moral guide, the essence of Russia’s unique civilisation, and without it the country’s history and its classical literature and the arts cannot be fully understood. To Putin, the “Byzantine symphony”, an alliance of the state and the established religious organisations, first among them the Russian Orthodox church, is the core of national unity.
Next year, Russia is due to hold . Virtually everyone expects Putin to run, and no one has any doubt about his victory. The only question is how many people will come to the polling stations, and how many of them will vote for Putin. The Kremlin is now shooting for 70% in both cases. This fourth term in the Kremlin – fifth, if one counts Putin’s regency during Dmitry Medvedev’s stint – may be Putin’s last, not so much because he will turn 72 after the next six-year term expires, but rather because he was loth to change the constitution previously.
It is unlikely, however, that Putin will leave the stage even in 2024, after nearly a quarter of a century in power: his job is in fact a mission that will not be done as long as he is active. His challenge in the long term is to pass on leadership to a new generation of Russia’s leaders, and make sure that this works. Right now he is busy identifying people, most of them in their 40s and even 30s, who might form that group. Some have already been appointed to senior positions as ministers, governors, or other high officials. All will be tried and tested and given tasks to fulfil. Putin himself, a father figure to his proteges, would then become a pater patriae, or, to use a Singaporean formula, a president mentor.
It is much too early to pass final judgment on Putin. He has kept the country in one piece and restored its global status. He continues to be a formidable figure, and is always ready to surprise. He has made a deep impact on his country. It is Putin’s Russia – largely because he is Russia’s Putin.