Shadow Economy and Media Control Russians Fed Up With Putin's Manipulations
Part 3: Putin Loses His Bearings
How capable of changing is someone who has ruled a giant country like Russia unchallenged for the last 12 years? Someone who is now forced to realize that even close associates are losing faith in him? Putin came into power in 1999, when his own understanding of politics coincided with Russia's needs. When he said that Russia would kill all Chechen terrorists, "even if we find them in the toilet," most Russians agreed. They even approved of the arrest of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which, to them, felt like compensation for the injustices of the post-Soviet privatization era. But the voters of 2012 are not the same as those of 1999.
Moscow native Nikolai Slobin, 53, is an historian and journalist who has taught in Washington and at Harvard University since 1993, but he also meets regularly with Putin in Moscow. He draws a sobering psychological profile of the Russian prime minister. Putin, says Slobin, is sure of himself and convinced that he is always right, and he is not a reflective person. According to Slobin, Putin has the feeling that he alone controls the system he created, and that the system is not viable without him. The opinions of the people or the elites are of no interest to Putin, says Slobin.
After his most recent encounters with Putin, Slobin concluded that Russia's strongman has lost his bearings. He is like a sprinter going into a long-distance race, says the political scientist. "He runs 100 meters, then another 100, and then he looks around to find out where he is supposed to continue running to. He may have a goal, but he doesn't know how to get there." Putin is also "a very lonely person," says Slobin.
Yuri Ryzhkov, the ambassador to France under Yeltsin, has a more drastic take on Putin. Installing this "man full of complexes," a man convinced of "the absolute freedom of all his actions with respect to the people," was Yeltsin's biggest mistake. Worst yet, says Ryzhkov, it was "a crime."
Many who know Putin fairly well say that he is not a reformer but a preserver of the status quo. He is convinced that Russia's "stability depends entirely on him," says German historian Alexander Rahr, and yet he lacks "a global idea."
Putin's Final Victory?
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who is on friendly terms with Putin, has met with the premier three times since the protests began. He too says that Putin has yet to "comprehend" the new reality, and that he flatly rejected Kudrin's proposal to redo the rigged parliamentary election in a year and a half. So what is in store for Russia?
The opposition will continue its protest marches on March 5. If the number of people taking to the streets increases, the legitimacy of the election may be called into question. If there are fewer protesters, Putin will be able to feel confident in his victory. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory.
To be sure, there has been no one in the opposition to date who could take Putin's place. There are not even any clear ideas about what would happen if the president were to step down.
Besides, Putin will not give up power voluntarily. It was not something Russian czars would ever have done, and it has only happened once before -- in the case of Gorbachev in 1991. But Gorbachev was a special case. He did not cling to power, nor did he line his pockets while in power. Putin, on the other hand, has the backing of a mafia state staffed with his confidantes, people who have a lot to lose.
Nevertheless, Russia will be a different country after March 4.
The Beginning of the End
Former Deputy Prime Minister Alfred Koch, who once organized the takeover of independent television station NTW by Gazprom on Putin's behalf, has outlined a scenario of what could happen in the coming months.
Putin faces unpopular reforms, says Koch. But he no longer enjoys the confidence of the people, and his approval ratings are likely to plummet even further. The most pragmatic among his supporters, people in the judiciary and the press, will likely seek contact with the opposition.
By the end of next year, says Koch, Putin's reputation won't be worth a kopeck. He will be blamed for all of Russia's afflictions, and no one will do his bidding any longer.
Whether Putin will be finished by 2013, as Koch believes, is debatable. Worrisome, however, is that he apparently plans to arrest his decline by even more confrontation with the West.
But eventually the same thing could happen to Putin that happened to the embattled Yeltsin on Dec. 31, 1999, when he resigned, hardly voluntarily. On that day, before the eyes of the shocked nation, Yeltsin handed the reins of power to a nobody: Vladimir Putin.
It is getting dark at Boris Akunin's country house, as the writer and opposition leader prepares his return to Moscow. There are only a few days left until the election. "Perhaps it sounds paradoxical," he says, "but I would prefer it if the Putin regime did not collapse all too quickly." Russia's civil society isn't ready for that, says Akunin. "But it's the beginning of the end for Putin. No one can say when and how his rule will end, whether it will be in two months or five years, and whether it will be peaceful or bloody."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Russians Fed Up With Putin's Manipulations
- Part 2: Novosibirsk, The Media and the Public
- Part 3: Putin Loses His Bearings