Shadow Economy and Media Control Russians Fed Up With Putin's Manipulations
With Russia set to vote on Sunday, SPIEGEL continues to explore the atmosphere in the country in part two of its preelection coverage. Vladimir Putin looks set to win the presidency, but residents are growing increasingly resistant to corruption and media control.
This is part two of SPIEGEL's story on the upcoming Russian presidential election. Part one was published on Thursday.
The port city on the Pacific, Moscow's Far-Eastern outpost, 9,289 kilometers by rail from the capital, is a place of beautiful bays and short distances -- to Tokyo, Beijing and Pyongyang. By contrast, it turns its back on the enormous Russian realm. The issues creating turmoil in the western part of the country are a faraway echo in Vladivostok.
Disparaging remarks about Putin, protests against election fraud? There were "many fur coats to be seen" during the demonstrations in Moscow, at least according to the rumor mill in Vladivostok, says Larissa Belobrova, 46. "Perhaps these people should try driving out of Moscow and sweeping streets or helping the babushkas, instead of spending their winter vacations in Courchevel," she says. Belobrova, a trained actress and the governor's wife, doesn't wear a fur coat. Only a ring studded with diamonds reveals that she has done tolerably well for herself in the Putin era. Her annual income in 2010 was 27 million, or about twice as much, according to the tabloids, as Hollywood diva Angelina Jolie earned.
She couldn't care less about the "crap" that's being reported about her, says the prima donna of Vladivostok's Gorky Theater. She has better things to do, she adds. In addition to acting, she runs, at least on paper, a business empire that includes a fishing fleet. This allows her to support her husband Sergey Darkin, the governor and most powerful man in the region, who is poor by comparison according to his tax return.
'A Hornets' Nest of Organized Crime'
At Putin's pleasure, Darkin has served as governor since 2001. If popular sentiment is to be believed, he would be the first to be voted out of office if the direct election of governors were reintroduced. But despite allegations of corruption, Darkin remains in office in Vladivostok until further notice.
During the post-Soviet era, the port city has acquired a reputation throughout Russia as a bastion of the underground economy. Darkin himself laid the foundation for his rise to power with a company that officials at the Interior Ministry in Moscow characterized as a "hornets' nest of organized crime." At the time, his current wife was married to Igor "The Carp" Karpov, an underworld figure well known in the city. When snipers shot and killed "The Carp" in broad daylight, Belobrova agreed to marry the governor.
"What is happening in the Russian Far East is, in a grotesque way, characteristic of all of Russia," says Vitaly Nomokonov, a law professor at the University of Vladivostok and the author of a textbook on organized crime in the Far East. "The most criminal area of all here is big business, which really ought to be clean, given its close ties to politics."
For this reason, says Nomokonov, there is absolutely no doubt that the top brass in Moscow know perfectly well what is going on in Vladivostok, though they continue to support Darkin. Because of his past, he is susceptible to blackmail and is easily manipulated. He guarantees the "otkat," or commission for high-ranking officials.
During the Putin era, the total amount of bribes being paid in Russia has increased from $33 billion to $400 billion. "Even President Medvedev has admitted there has been no progress," says Professor Nomokonov. "Why is this the case? Because the people in power lack the political will."
Setting the Stage
Even if a vice-governor or a customs director is occasionally arrested on corruption charges, the pickings are still abundant for gold-diggers in Vladivostok. The APEC summit of Asia-Pacific nations will be held in September 2012 on Russky Island, off the coast of Vladivostok. For this reason alone, 15 billion will have been spent on bridges, new construction and infrastructure by then.
When Governor Darkin looks down from his office in Vladivostok's "White House," he doesn't just see a city that is cleaning itself up for the big event in the best of Potemkin traditions with a few improved streets along the route to the airport, or fresh paint on buildings that line the streets.
He also sees heavily loaded ferries breaking through the ice near the half-finished bridge across the Zolotoy Rog Bay. On the island across the bay, which barely had enough drinking water for its residents until recently, some 15,000 construction workers from around the world are working furiously to complete the set for the summit, which is intended to win the respect of US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and other world leaders.
A project that is deeply Russian in its mixture of energy and pomposity is taking shape on the island. While the champagne glasses for the Obamas are already standing on the dining table in the presidential suite, only a few kilometers away Gennady Paskotin, a retired army officer, is complaining about what was sold to him as a "townhouse." He was forced to leave his former apartment due to the construction. Now he is checking the new 57-square-meter (613-square-foot) dwelling, with its plasterboard interior walls, for crooked alignment. The developer billed the government 150,000 for this drafty alternative housing. "A joke," says Paskotin, who makes ends meet on a small officer's pension.
"Our entire system is so unbelievably corrupt," says an official with United Russia in Vladivostok, "that the only way to save it would be to shoot officials, as they do in China."
Has Putin Changed His Tune?
It might seem as though abuses like the ones in Vladivostok had finally penetrated Putin's consciousness. Surprising sentences have begun appearing in his campaign statements. One, for example, reads: "We will guarantee the government's accountability to the society for which it works."
Since January, the premier has had his staff publish weekly essays that seem to point the way ahead. Suddenly he mentions "vestiges of the Soviet legal system," or writes that "political competition" is advancing democracy. He even wants to liberalize the election laws.
Gleb Pavlovsky, 60, a round-faced man with a crew cut, conceived Putin's successful election campaigns in 2000 and 2004. He was a dissident during the Soviet era, and he later helped Boris Yeltsin prevail against the communists. Pavlovsky fell out with Putin after publicly backing a second term for current President Dmitry Medvedev.
After reading Putin's weekly articles, Pavlovsky asked himself an important question: "Why should the same team now be charged with cleaning up the very things it introduced in the first place?" In his view, people must be under the impression that Putin has been living in a different country for the last few years.
Anyone who reads Putin's essays more closely in hopes of ruling out a schizophrenia diagnosis for the prime minister will notice that he misleads and deceives. In one article, Putin calls for the "reestablishment of the authority and power of the state." The word "state" appears 14 times in the article, while the word "people" only appears twice.
There is no mention of citizens being allowed to participate in future politics. Instead, Putin spends entire paragraphs lamenting the "destructive forces" allegedly using violent methods "to attempt to export" their form of democracy to Russia, thereby threatening the country's stability. He also writes that "the pursuit of revolutionary changes by a portion of the elite" is dangerous, and that the people should not allow themselves to be distracted by the "evocative slogans of a minority."
Manipulating Public Opinion
"This is the position of a man who wants to preserve the status quo," says Pavlovsky, not of a man who truly wants to bring about change.
The hawks have taken over Putin's campaign committee. Since Surkov was forced out, they have targeted a class of voters that is more easily influenced than the protest movement in Moscow. They have their candidate ignite sparkling promises on a daily basis.
Putin has announced the doubling of salaries for teachers and scientists. Childcare allowances and stipends are to be increased, the May holidays to be extended, the zero tolerance limits for drunk drivers introduced by President Medvedev are to be reversed, and women will be able continue retiring at 55 and men at 60. Putin has also promised 10 million new high-tech jobs.
In light of declining productivity and a serious labor shortage, this, too, is deceptive. Even the Communist Party, when it promised the people communism, spoke of this noble goal in an indirect way, the newspaper Moskovskij komsomolets wrote derisively. Igor Nikolayev of FBK, a management consulting firm, calculated that the economy would have to grow by 20 percent a year for Putin's campaign promises to become reality.
Most of all, Putin's campaign staff is vilifying the opposition. Although its leaders are invited to meet with the president, blogger Navalny, for example, the most popular resistance figure among young Russians, was depicted in a photo montage looking chummy with Boris Berezovsky, the Jewish oligarch who has fled to London. The intended message is that sinister characters control the opposition.
Many, even in Siberia, are no longer willing to put up with the way Putin manipulates public opinion.