Putin power: will he try to stay in office beyond 2024?
Dangers abound in ‘the autumn of the autocracy’
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images
When Vladimir Putin flew into the Khmeimim military base in Syria early this month, a group of SU 30 fighter jets, the pride of Russia’s newly modernised air force, sprang into view, gliding wing to wing alongside the incoming aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea.
For security reasons the pilots had not been told who they were escorting, and in the blazing sunshine could not see the dark-suited figure waving at them from the civilian aircraft that was coming in to land.
But Kremlin-controlled television networks that follow the Russian president’s every public move were in the know and ready to broadcast news of Putin’s triumphal arrival in Syria to declare victory over Islamic State and call at least some of his forces home.
Those pictures, beamed on to Russian TV screens hour after hour, provided the perfect backdrop to the start of a presidential election campaign that will almost certainly extend Putin’s 18-year-long rule into a fourth presidential term.
Putin’s third term has been defined by bold geo-strategic moves that have challenged the US-led world order to allow Russia to reclaim what it sees as its rightful place as a major global power. He has grabbed Crimea and encouraged a violent separatist movement in east Ukraine that undermined the country’s strategy to move out of Russia’s orbit and integrate with Europe.
In Syria he has faced down US resistance to intervene in the civil war, tipping the six-year long conflict decisively in Kremlin ally Bashar al-Assad’s favour.
There has been a price to pay. Kremlin relations with the West have sunk to Cold War lows, and the US and Europe have been piling on economic sanctions.
But in Russia’s sprawling heartlands there are signs that public morale is rising. Recent polls show that three-quarters of the population consider Russia to be a great power, the highest level in more than 20 years.
However, while Putin has pursued a daring foreign policy in his third term, he has recoiled from any assertive reforms in Russia that might offer his people hope of a better future.
The collapse in world oil prices in 2014 removed the mojo from the Russian economy, which had thrived through most of Putin’s earlier terms on the back of soaring energy export revenues. Too little has been done to modernise and diversify into other industries, leaving Russia stranded in a low-growth mode that is dragging down living standards.
Even the most conservative estimates indicate that 20 million Russians, or 14 per cent of the population, are now living below the poverty line and there are signs of growing resentment that so much of the nation’s wealth is monopolised by billionaire businessmen and government officials who owe their privileges to Vladimir Putin.
As the election campaign gets under way Putin has donned his paternalistic hat as he promises, like a kindly tsar, a range of one-off welfare benefits – from tax breaks for pensioners to cash for mothers of newborn babes.
But palliative measures are no solution to Russia’s deep-seated ills. For all his authority and iron nerves, Putin appears unwilling or unable to reform the corrupt, sclerotic system that is stifling the country’s political and economic life.
“This is the autumn of the autocracy,” says Ekaterina Shulman, a Russian political scientist. “The regime is low on resources and concerned with survival.”
Putin developed ruthless survival skills growing up in destitute post-war Leningrad – now St Petersburg – where, determined to beat bigger boys in street fights, he studied judo in his spare time. Determination also won him a job at the KGB – the Soviet secret services had turned down his first application – the career of choice for ambitious, patriotic men at the time.
Putin was working as a secret agent in East Germany when the Soviet Union collapsed 1991, an event he was later to describe as a “geopolitical catastrophe” – not because he lamented the demise of communist rule but because Russia lost control of its empire.
Putin got a job at the mayor’s office in St Petersburg, where he developed a network of friends among business associates and former spies, who would swim in the wake of his meteoric rise to power.
When the ailing Russian president Boris Yeltsin named Putin his chosen successor in 2000, many liberal Muscovites were appalled, saying nothing good could happen to a country that voted a former KGB officer into power. But the majority of Russians are highly conservative and had seen the chaos of their country’s lurch into a particularly brutal form of capitalism under Yeltsin as a humiliating, unmitigated disaster.
Putin’s popularity largely rests on the strongman image he built during his first term, restoring stability to Russia, taming the hated oligarchs and subduing the violent separatist conflict in Chechnya.
Western leaders were prepared to give Putin the benefit of the doubt in his first term, as the Kremlin pushed ahead with market reforms launched in the Yeltsin era and courted foreign investors. But even in the early years, Russia’s new president revealed an authoritarian streak, clawing back state control over the oil and and banking sectors and clamping down on independent media.
To consolidate power Putin handed top government, security and corporate positions to associates from his past life in St Petersburg, a group of men whom he has allowed to grow fabulously wealthy in exchange for unwavering obedience and loyalty.
Over time the system has become increasingly rigid, with Putin positioned as sole arbiter, like a “nail in the wall that if pulled out would bring the whole edifice down,” as Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian political scientist, puts it.
At the same time a muted dualistic battle is going on, with liberal-minded officials advocating reforms to change the personalised vertical power structure that crushes all serious opponents.
Although Putin has weakened the parliament and sidelined civil society, he still allows some vestige of democratic process to balance interests and let some air into the system.
Independent media can get away with censuring Kremlin policies, but mentioning Putin by name in a critical context is strictly not allowed, says Andrei Okara, director of the Centre for East European Research.
“Putin is a soft authoritarian, not a dictator. If he was, the political system he created would have broken apart by now.”
Russia’s constitution bars national leaders from holding more than two consecutive terms in office, so Putin stood aside in the election in 2007, taking up the post of prime minister as Dmitri Medvedev, a former deputy chief of the Kremlin administration and one of his closest allies, assumed the presidency. When the next election came round in 2012, the two men swapped jobs.
Putin’s return to a third term was overshadowed by massive anti-government street protests in Moscow, sparked by a rigged parliamentary poll, which sent ripples of alarm through the Kremlin. Law enforcers cracked down, detaining hundreds of activists, while the parliament got busy drafting a raft of repressive legislation to curb freedom of speech.
Putin’s growing intolerance of dissident voices has been stoked by a conviction that the US, having backed pro-democracy movements that overthrew authoritarian leaders in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in the so-called “colour revolutions”, now has Russia in its sights for regime change.
That view only intensified as months of peaceful protests in Kiev’s Maidan erupted in violence in 2014, toppling Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich and ushering in a western-leaning government.
Putin was incensed, but used the chaos of the moment to seize Crimea after a hastily organised referendum in March 2014, gaining control of not only Russia’s most beloved holiday destination but the home of the Black Sea fleet.
Alliance with China
US and European Union sanctions to punish the Kremlin for destabilising Ukraine have prompted Putin finally to abandon plans for Russian-European integration and instead to pivot east and bolster a strategic alliance with China, which shares his aversion to the US-dominated world order.
Chinese and Asian investment have in large part taken the sting out of western sanctions, but with Washington fuming over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election – charges Putin flatly denies – there are more, tougher penalties on the way as the Kremlin gears up for the March 18th election day.
Putin is widely admired in Russia and would almost certainly win the election even if the line-up of competing candidates were not so tightly controlled.
Polls indicate that Putin can count on the support of the elite, government employees and the sprawling bureaucracy. Elderly people nostalgic for the Soviet era and the poor will also vote Putin, seeing him “as the best hope that their lives won’t get worse”, says Lev Gudkov, a Russian sociologist and radio commentator.
For the Kremlin, the main concern is not that Putin might lose the election but that voter turn-out will be too small to provide a sizeable mandate for the president’s fourth term.
Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader who is Russia’s most popular opposition politician, has been calling for a nationwide election boycott to protest against a Kremlin decision to bar him from the ballot.
Constitutional limits mean that Putin’s fourth term will probably be his last and will define his legacy.
For the elite, the election is merely a distraction from the looming political transition leading to a post-Putin Russia.
Shulman warns that the coming years will be overshadowed by a fierce battle over who replaces Putin and how the successor is named. “Once the political machine decides the final hour has come, rival groups will fight very actively over every last morsel – ministerial positions, companies, oil fields, media resources and financial flows,” she says.
Putin, at 65, still sticks to a tough work schedule, appearing on an almost daily basis on Russian TV, grilling ministers and governors, visiting factories and hosting foreign dignitaries. But when it comes to recreation, he’s taking it comparatively easy, preferring fishing trips now to the earlier tiger hunting, trekking and deep-sea diving exploits that burnished his macho image.
Some say Putin, who told workers at a pipe factory last year that he relished the thought of retirement, is tired and wants to escape the gruelling life of president.
But in these deeply uncertain times there’s a possibility that social upheaval, elite battles or even war might persuade him to over-ride the constitution and stay in power beyond 2024.
“They could extend the end of the fourth term to a later date or cancel it altogether,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a Russian political commentator told the Echo Moskvy radio station last month. “After all, control over all legal processes is in the hands of people who by and large consider themselves unbound by any restrictions.”