Sochi throws a spotlight on the dark side of Putin’s Russia

The Winter Olympics have focused attention on the achievements and failures of reign

Russian president Vladimir Putin stands with a gun at a shooting gallery of the GRU military intelligence headquarters  in Moscow. Photograph: Reuters

Russian president Vladimir Putin stands with a gun at a shooting gallery of the GRU military intelligence headquarters in Moscow. Photograph: Reuters


Whether he likes it or not, the Winter Olympics that opened in Sochi yesterday are being seen as “Putin’s party”, a showcase for everything he has done, and failed to do during almost 14 years as Russia’s paramount leader.

The Olympics come after a good year for Putin. At home the mass protests that accompanied his election to a third presidential term in 2012 have fizzled out and his approval ratings are reassuringly high. Confident of his grip on power, he has pardoned his arch foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon jailed a decade ago, and the Pussy Riot protesters who sang an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral in 2012.

Overseas, Putin scored points staving off a western military strike against Syria and brokering chemical weapons talks. Moscow’s ally Bashar-al-Assad is still in power. He has bullied and cajoled Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, into ditching plans to sign a European Union trade pact and instead move closer into Russia’s orbit. Yet the Sochi games have thrown a spotlight on the dark side of Putin’s Russia.

Islamist rebels based in the North Caucasus, where Russian federal forces are battling an escalating insurgency, have set a goal to disrupt the event.

If that was not enough to drive away visitors, a string of western statesmen from Barack Obama to his German counterpart Joachim Gauck and the UK prime minister David Cameron have decided to skip the Sochi games, apparently in protest at the Kremlin’s suppression of human rights.

To crown these problems, opposition activists are presenting the Olympics as a poster child for the corruption and cronyism corroding Putin’s Russia. According to their allegations billions of dollars have been misspent in preparations for a games that, costing more than $50 billion, will be the most expensive Olympics ever.

Fear of instability
Ruled for centuries by Imperial Tsars and then Soviet communist dictators, Russia does not lend itself to reform. The world’s biggest country is deeply conservative, fearful of instability and afflicted with a deep-seated low self-esteem.

Putin has built his popularity on the contrast with the chaotic 1990s when Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s western-leaning first president built the basis of a democratic, market economy from the ashes of the Soviet Union. Millions were thrown into poverty and violent conflicts erupted in the North Caucasus threatening to tear the country apart.

Kremlin aides say that the transformation of Sochi from drab Soviet-era seaside resort to a modern sports capital fit to host the Olympics is a matter of “personal pride” for Putin and a symbol of the progress Russia has made under his rule. For his part Putin has denied he’s on an ego trip, instead presenting the Sochi games as a shot in the arm for Russian morale.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the dark and, let’s be honest, bloody events in the Caucasus, the public attitude in Russia became very negative and pessimistic,” he told reporters in Sochi last month. “We have to pull ourselves together and realise that we can deliver large-scale projects on time and with high standards.”

Western officials say Sochi is about more than that. “Putin is driven by two things,” says one European diplomat in Moscow. “A strong belief about Russia’s place in the world and the conviction that only a strong state can ensure stability.”

For a man who is constantly in the public eye, Vladimir Putin remains an enigma to many. Even his enemies tend to direct criticism not at the president himself, but at the flaws of the regime.

The Kremlin has a team of public relations experts working on Putin’s image, led by Dmitry Peskov, a moustachioed former diplomat who has served as the president’s press secretary since 2000.

Russians are fond of conspiracy theories and many believe Putin has a double or two. Indeed some of his macho, action-man media appearances have stretched the bounds of credibility. Over the years he has been photographed piloting warplanes, fishing and horse riding while stripped to the waist, or shooting a tranquiliser dart into a wild tiger.

Putin has admitted that some of his stunts – such as the time he donned a wetsuit and dived to the bottom of the Black Sea to retrieve a supposedly ancient Grecian urn – were staged to flag his pet projects from Russian history to healthy lifestyles or wild life conservation.

Western media greet each incident with hilarity, ever ready to poke fun at the 61-year-old Russian president’s pecs. But if Putin’s adventures provide entertainment in the West, they get a better response from many of his fellow countrymen.

Many Russians were alarmed and embarrassed by the frequently erratic behaviour of Boris Yeltsin who, in one famous incident in 1994, was too drunk to get out of his plane to meet then taoiseach Albert Reynolds on the tarmac at Shannon airport. So even if Putin’s image makers sometimes go over the top, it’s a relief by contrast to have a super fit – and sober – president in charge of their country with its daunting problems and nuclear arsenal.

Putin’s private life, however, is a closed book. He and Lyudmila Putina, his wife of 30 years, announced they were separating last year in what they presented as an amicable divorce. Mrs Putina put on a brave face saying her husband’s hectic work schedule meant they rarely even met. The couple have two grown-up daughters who have rarely been seen in public.

Inevitably Putin’s divorce revived earlier rumours that the president was dating former Olympic gymnast and State Duma deputy Alina Kabayeva, who is 30 years his junior. Peskov brushed aside suggestions that his boss had secretly remarried, saying the president worked so hard there was no time romance.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in Leningrad – now called Saint Petersburg – to a factory foreman and his wife in 1952, shortly before the death of Josef Stalin. The family lived in one room of a kommunalka - the communal apartments that housed millions of urban Soviets at the time. Leningrad had endured a gruesome, 900-day siege by Nazi forces in the second World War and, although honoured by the Soviets as a “city of heroes”, was run down and traumatised. Amenities at the Putin home were basic, the place stank and rats lurked in the stairwell. Although small for his age, Putin had a reputation at school for getting into street fights. He took up judo and excelled.

Putin set his heart on a career in the KGB after reading a novel about an intrepid Soviet spy who infiltrated Nazi lines. In First Person, a collection of interviews published in 2000, he said that as a boy he knew little about the secret service’s involvement in Stalin’s brutal purges and was a “pure and utterly successful product of patriotic Soviet education”.

A bright student, Putin enrolled in the law faculty at Leningrad State University, then a favourite recruitment ground for the KGB.

After a few years as a junior spy in Leningrad, Putin was transferred to Moscow for foreign intelligence training and then posted to East Germany.

Aged 32 he settled into what was to be a seven-year stint at the KGB office in Dresden right next door to the local branch of the Stasi, East Germany’s dreaded secret police. Code-named “the Moth”, he was promoted twice, reaching the mid-level rank of lieutenant colonel.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Putin’s job in Dresden collapsed with it. He returned to his home city the following year as Germany was reunited. The Soviet empire was crumbling.

Putin met up with Anatoly Sobchak, his former law professor, who had become a driving force in Russia’s reform movement. Sobchak was elected mayor of the newly named Saint Petersburg in 1991 and invited Putin to head the foreign relations department.

When Sobchak was ousted at an election in 1996 Putin swore loyalty to his colleagues and refused to join the new city administration team. Sobchak became embroiled in a corruption inquiry. Putin moved on.

Boris Yeltsin, a blustering, boozy, larger-than-life character, had little in common with the hardworking, steely-eyed official from Saint Petersburg who joined the Kremlin administration’s property department in 1997. Yet Putin rose rapidly, first to deputy head of the Kremlin administration and then chief of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. He was still a largely unknown figure when Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in August 1999.

Putin took control of the government at a time when confidence in Yeltsin was plummeting. Foreign investors had fled after Russia defaulted on billions of dollars of foreign debt in 1998 and more than two-fifths of the population were living below the poverty line. Rebel separatists in Chechnya had dealt federal forces a defeat in a war in the mid-1990s and were terrorising neighbouring republics in the North Caucasus. Yeltsin was ailing and Russia was in danger of falling apart.

Putin served as prime minister for less than five months, but he made his mark as a ruthless strong man, pledging in the raw vernacular of the prison camps to “soak the rebels in blood in the toilets”.

When Russian forces launched a fresh offensive in Chechnya, his approval ratings soared.

In a move that shocked the nation, Yeltsin resigned on the last day of 1999 and named Putin acting president, and his preferred successor, with elections due the following March.

“There will be no power vacuum, even for a moment,” Putin declared in an address to the nation on New Year’s Day 2000. He has been Russia’s pre-eminent leader ever since.

Many in Moscow’s liberal intelligentsia were appalled that the majority of their fellow countrymen would consider voting in a former KGB official as president. “What do they expect if someone from that terrifying organisation is in charge,” said one of my friends who was working in an art gallery in the Russian capital. “Repression of course.”

At first western diplomats and businessmen gave Putin the benefit of the doubt. “He was very smart, courteous and businesslike . . . not a polemicist, not ideological at this time,” says ambassador James F Collins, director of the Russia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who headed the US diplomatic mission in Moscow from 1997 to 2001.

“What he said made a lot of sense . . . He understood power and he knew his interlocutor.”

Demanding loyalty
At a high-level gathering in the Kremlin palace a few weeks after coming to power, Putin demanded undivided loyalty from all sections of the elite, saying that only unity could save Russia from collapse.

In public, he sent mixed signals positioning himself as a liberal, business-friendly reformer at the same time as promising to uproot corruption and restore order with a “dictatorship of the law”. His first act as president was to sign a decree guaranteeing Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.

To consolidate authority, Putin struck a deal with Russia’s powerful oligarchs who had grabbed the crown jewels of the economy in murky privatisations. In future they were to stay out of politics or lose their assets.

While cutting the oligarchy down to size, Putin gave many of his former friends and colleagues from Saint Petersburg top jobs in government and business. Distrusted by Yeltsin, the secret services, or siloviki, had been sidelined in the early carve-up of Russian assets. They now had an opportunity to make up for lost time.

Broadly speaking, Putin made it his role to act as an arbiter over all sectors of the elite from the government, to the oligarchy, the bureaucracy and the defence sector. But he increasingly relied on the siloviki to get things done.

In Russia’s new state history textbook, Putin is described in glowing terms as a strong leader who restored order after the “wild 1990s” and established a much-needed authoritarian system called the “power vertical”.

But the book, which will be incorporated in Russia’s school curriculum this year, omits to mention some disturbing events that were to define Putin’s development.

School children will not read about the Russian navy’s hopelessly delayed response to the sinking of the Kursk submarine that claimed the lives of 115 seamen in 2000. Independent media showed Putin sunning himself on holiday in Sochi at the time of the disaster and his seeming indifference sparked outrage in Russia.

Another disaster left out of the history book is the capture by rebels of a school in Beslan in the North Caucasus in September 2004. Again law enforcers were accused of bungling, and 380 people, many of them children, died in a shoot-out that ended the four-day siege.

As Beslan prepared to bury its dead, Putin delivered a tough statement on television: “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Kremlin beefed up the powers of law-enforcement agencies and clamped down on independent media. In a move to centralise authority, Putin signed a law abolishing direct gubernatorial elections.

Beslan was a “searing experience” that marked Putin’s final retreat from political reform, says Steve Lee Myers, Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times, who is writing a biography of the Russian president. “Democracy died at Beslan,” he says.

By this time most of Russia’s oligarchs had either fled or acquiesced to the new order where politics was out of bounds. However, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the hugely successful Yukos oil corporation and Russia’s richest man, challenged Putin and began funding opposition groups.

It was not long before state tax inspectors uncovered what they said was evidence of massive tax evasion and fraud at Yukos. After a politically charged trial, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Yukos was dismantled and sold off at bankruptcy auctions. Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, scooped up the best assets.

Khodorkovsky does not feature in Russia’s new history book. Yet among Kremlin critics his case was to become emblematic of the rise of state capitalism in Putin’s Russia and the abuse of the rule of law. The dictatorship of the law might have helped restore order but it relied on a compliant judiciary.

It was sheer good luck that Putin’s rise to power coincided with the start of a prolonged rally in world oil prices that ushered in a new era of prosperity fuelled by Russia’s abundant natural resources.

Russians wearied by the tumult of the Yeltsin years welcomed the economic and political stability that Putin represented. Never mind if the Kremlin rolled back individual freedoms, Russia was resurgent and living standards were better than ever.

But oil is a curse as well as a blessing.

Control of vast oil and gas supplies in an energy-hungry world has inflated the Kremlin’s sense of power.

Across the periphery of the old Soviet empire, Putin has made enemies using energy to bully Moscow’s former allies into doing his bidding.

Repeated gas disputes with Ukraine and Belarus have had negative consequences for relations with the European Union where policymakers are scrambling to reduce energy dependence on Russia.

As often happens in petro-states, Russia’s stash of windfall oil profits has fostered corruption and relieved pressure to modernise and develop more sustainable industries. The country with the fourth biggest currency reserves in the world still has bad roads, poor hospitals and hellish prisons.

“Russia is still heavily reliant on volatile revenues from natural resources” said OECD secretary general Ángel Gurría last month.

“It would do well to invest more in infrastructure, human capital and innovation, so that larger segments of society can partake in Russia’s transformation.”

Many of the autocratic rulers in newly independent Soviet states have flaunted the law to retain power. Putin deserves credit for standing down in the 2007 election and respecting rules limiting the number of consecutive terms a president can serve.

Instead, Putin named his friend Dmitry Medvedev as his chosen successor. Once elected, Medvedev, previously the chairman of Gazprom, Russia’s state gas monopoly, returned the compliment, appointing Putin prime minister.

Opinions are divided on whether Medvedev was really serious when he pledged to modernise Russia or if he was simply keeping the Kremlin seat warm for his powerful mentor’s eventual return.

Whatever his intentions, Medvedev was the weaker partner in Russia’s ruling tandem, playing “Robin” to Putin’s “Batman”, according to commentary in US diplomatic dispatches from Moscow released by WikiLeaks. It came as no surprise to Kremlin critics when Medvedev announced he would not run for a second term, leaving the field open for Putin. The two men eventually swapped jobs and Medvedev became prime minister.

Russia had seen no mass protests since Putin first came to power. So the Kremlin was taken by surprise when after a falsified parliamentary election in December 2011, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Moscow took to the streets demanding political change.

‘Demented printer’
For the most part the demonstrations that continued through the months leading to Putin’s inauguration to a third term in May 2012 were peaceful, but they were to trigger an unprecedented crackdown on dissent.

In Moscow the Duma has earned the nickname “the demented printer”, churning out laws that restrict freedom of assembly and expression and discriminate against minority groups from gays to migrant workers. Non-governmental organisations that receive international funding have been ordered to register as “foreign agents”, an eerie echo of Soviet era xenophobia.

In the approach to the Sochi Olympics, abuse by federal law enforcers in the counterinsurgency campaign in the North Caucasus has intensified. Across Russia, police have rounded up thousands of mainly Muslim migrant workers for deportation in the name of a campaign against “extremism”.

“Putin is not a risk-taking man,” says James Collins, the former US ambassador.

“When confronted he has fallen back on the Soviet default mode. If you don’t keep order and minimise risk, ‘they’ will burn the manor down.”

Intellectually, Putin knows Russia has to modernise if it is to play in the league of western countries and even China. But modernisation is not the central goal.

Instead he has focused on the restoration of “traditional” social and spiritual values that set Russia apart as a bulwark against what he presents as moral backsliding in the West.

The president, who began his rule with a call for unity, appears to have given up seeking common ground with Russia’s intellectual elite, let alone the West. Instead he’s looking for support from conservative groups, the Russian Orthodox Church, the siloviki and the politically unsophisticated masses who are not interested in western values.

Gay rights activists
As foreign gay rights activists demanded a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, Putin scrambled to defend Russia’s new law banning the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors, stressing that he has nothing against gays personally and even admires Elton John.

Yet the Kremlin has done nothing to silence religious and media leaders issuing statements that demonise gays and play to deep-seated homophobia in Russian society.

“Civil and LGBT activists are deliberately painted as enemies of the state,” says Tatiana Lokshina, head of Human Rights Watch in Russia. “We believe that the Kremlin is trying to shift the direction of public discontent away from itself and on to someone else.”

Putin appealed to voters in the 2012 election with an undertaking to raise pensions and government salaries. But with world oil prices flat, Russia’s economic growth is faltering. Putin’s populist promises could yet prove unrealistic.

A paralysis has settled on policymakers, with liberals in Medvedev’s government calling for Russia to open up and modernise and conservatives, mainly represented by the siloviki, favouring state control and protectionist measures.

Chris Weafer, senior partner at Macro-Advisory, a Moscow-based business consultancy, thinks 2014 will be a make-or- break year for the Russian economy. “The main problem is the Kremlin’s reluctance to support changes which might be short-term painful and lead to a drop in public support or create uncertainty,” he says.

Putin has a tendency to accuse outside forces – often the US – of causing Russia’s problems – a refrain that plays to lingering Cold War hatreds in his country.

However, in his annual speech to the nation last month, he admitted that Russia only had itself to blame for the economic downturn, saying the oil-rich country must find “new factors” to invigorate growth.

Yet Putin is not minded to spare the strained budget in his mission to re-establish Russia as a strong player in the global arena. Far from it – defence spending in his third term has been stepped up.

Putin has used a combination of soft and hard power to draw neighbouring states into a Eurasian Union that will rebuild economic ties sundered when the Soviet Union fell apart and act as a counterweight to the European Union. As part of this strategy, the Kremlin has offered billions of dollars for a share in industrial assets in Belarus and Ukraine.

“The whole Eurasian Union thing is totally wrong-headed,” says one western diplomat in Moscow. “There’s no sense in buying assets in near bankrupt states. Russia should not be bailing out Belarus and Ukraine when its own economy is stalling.”

The prospect of moving back into Moscow’s orbit does not appeal to everyone in the Eurasian Union zone. Escalating unrest in Ukraine is an ugly reminder to the Kremlin of what can happen if authoritarian leaders lose control.

A repeat of last year’s mass protests are unlikely at least until the next presidential election in 2018, says Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Centre, an independent, Moscow-based polling agency. “The overwhelming majority of Russians see politics as a ‘dirty game’ and don’t want to be involved.” Recent opinion polls provide a mixed picture. Respondents gave Putin a high 67 per cent approval rating, but almost half of those polled said they wanted a change of president after the next election.

“If there was an illusion before that Putin was standing up to corruption and clan infighting, it’s gone. In the best case Putin is trapped in the system he has created,” says Mr Gudkov.

Putin is not to blame for everything that is amiss in Russia, he adds. “Don’t forget, the system demands total loyalty. It’s not all about Putin. There are lots of alligators in the water.”

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