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.

Novosibirsk, The Media and the Public

It is 9:35 on a Friday morning. An announcer reads out local reports in the studio of the Novosibirsk television and radio station: The army has defused old munitions on the city's outskirts, military exercises are underway in the region, and all cultural facilities are being re-registered in Novosibirsk. A short film about the construction of the city's second waste incineration plant follows.

Nine times a day, a window on the first government TV channel is opened up for the local station, and nine times a day the station broadcasts regional news for the 1.5 million residents of Novosibirsk. On this Friday, there is no mention of the upcoming election.

The station on Rimsky-Korsakov Street is part of the government television network in whose name chief reporter Andrei Kondrashov declared: "When 100,000 people demonstrate in Moscow, it isn't even 1 percent of the city's population. It is not our job to participate in a revolution against the democratically elected government."

Kondrashov can say this because he has sensed, in recent weeks, that there will be no change in media policy, not under Putin.

At Ekho Moskvy, a radio station critical of the Kremlin, the editor-in-chief and his deputy were forced to resign from the supervisory board, which is controlled by energy giant Gazprom. Meanwhile, the public prosecutor's office launched an investigation against Dozhd TV for broadcasting the anti-Putin protests live. The opposition paper Novaya Gazeta is also under pressure.

Changing Atmosphere

The government has to tread more carefully in Novosibirsk, a city with a liberal spirit. There are dozens of universities in the Siberian capital on the banks of the mighty Ob River, which flows past the city on its way to the Arctic Ocean. Novosibirsk is home to 150,000 students, giving it the third-highest level of Internet usage in the country, after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Not surprisingly, only 27 percent voted for Putin's party in Novosibirsk.

Novosibirsk television stations tried to ignore the atmosphere for a long time. Every pro-Putin rally is broadcast by the government station, but when 3,000 retirees occupied the city hall to demand a reduction in public transportation tickets, it wasn't worth a second of air time.

"We can't report on every little protest," says station director Svetlana Voitovich, 51, in defense of the decision. But Voitovich, a short woman with black hair who says that for three years a station in the neighboring Kemerovo district refused to hire her as an editor because of her Jewish background, is well aware of the fact that "the atmosphere has changed."

She talks about how officials in Novosibirsk make calls to the capital, pressuring her to make sure her station favors the government. "I hope that in Moscow they'll eventually understand the new things that are happening," she says. This is a big acknowledgment for someone who works for a state-owned television station.

History student Stanislav Sakharkin isn't surprised that Putin's media targets people like him. He is one of the online resistance organizers. After the rigged Duma election, he and his fellow students protested by forming human chains at the Oktyabrskaya metro station. On Jan. 14, at temperatures of -27 degrees Celsius (-17 degrees Fahrenheit), he launched an "ironic performance." He and a group of friends kneeled on the ground in front of Putin's local party headquarters and performed hymns of praise for the "all-powerful and beloved" government party. Because of this event alone, he spent six hours in court and was ordered to pay a fine of 1,000 rubles.

Changed By Power

Sakharkin, 22, is writing his master's thesis on the Brezhnev era. It's titled "The Moral Orientation of Urban Soviet Residents in the Era of Stagnation." He chose it himself, because he wanted to refute Putin's claim that the 1960s and 70s were a wonderful time in the Soviet Union. After analyzing books and films from the era, as well as interviewing contemporary witnesses, Sakharkin says: "This claim is simply false. Collectivism was often a sham, and the Russians were already searching for individual freedoms at the time, just as you did in the West."

There are other places where a sort of alternative public is taking shape, where people go to get what they are denied by the state-owned media. One such place is the Red Torch Theater, among the most respected theaters in Russia.

On the evenings following the Duma election, the studio group of the Moscow Art Theater gave a guest performance of a play called "Otmorosky," or "The Frozen Ones." The play is about the generation of adults who grew up in the 1990s, people who are searching for authenticity and justice and, in doing so, clash with the powers that be. After each performance, the room exploded with applause, and the audience stood up to sing along with the closing musical number.

Vladimir Lemeshonok, 55, one of the stars at the Red Torch, prefers playing background roles, like the one he plays in "The History of the City of Glupov," by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. The word "Glupov" translates roughly as "City of Fools." The play is a portrait of an 18th century city in which power is continually transferred from one incapable mayor to the next. "It's a malicious satire of the old and new Russia," says Lemeshonok. "But it's also an experiment, because hardly a word is spoken for three hours. But everyone understands that it's about the Russians' relationship with power."

The way the Kremlin treats his people is nothing but "insulting," says Lemeshonok. "Power has changed Putin. As an actor, I'm used to putting myself in other people's shoes. But in Putin's case, I can't do it anymore."

The next performance of "The History of the City of Glupov" at the Red Torch is on Friday, two days before the presidential election.

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
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