September 25, 2011 3:40 pm

Back room deal signals return to the Putin era

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Rather than heralding a westward, liberalising trend in Russia’s post communist history, Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency looks to be little more than a footnote in the decades-long “Putin era”.

Vladimir Putin, who served as Russian president from 2000 to 2008, could now rule for two more six year presidential terms, giving him a quarter-century reign in power, as long as Josef Stalin or Leonid Brezhnev.

The manner or his return of Mr Putin’s return, in a back room deal with Mr Medvedev, both demonstrates his political omnipotence and undermines the very existence of political institutions in Russia, in favour of a cult of personality set to flourish for 12 more years.

Mr Putin will run against token opponents and will almost certainly win in next year’s presidential election.

Mr Putin has been at pains to break with the past and reinvent himself as an economic moderniser and as an interlocutor whom the west can trust, rather than a symbol of confrontation and authoritarian rule. But his silence on the subject of political liberalisation - which would threaten his absolute power - indicates that it is a step he is not prepared to take.

The Russia Mr Putin will inherit is very different from the Russia that breathed a sign of relief when the hard line ex-KGB colonel first assumed the presidency 11 years ago. Then, the country was reeling from a decade of chaos under President Boris Yeltsin. Ordinary Russians craved stability and order, and were prepared to sacrifice democracy to get it.

Today, after decade of increasing oil prices, Russians are more prosperous on the back of doubled real incomes, but they are looking for more of a voice in the governing of their country.

Mikhail Dimitriev, president of the Center for Strategic Research, a Moscow think tank, calls Russia’s growing urban middle class – which he estimates is 40 per cent of the population of Moscow and 20-30 per cent in other major cities – is “a political detonator which cannot be unscrewed.”

“The lack of genuine political representation has led to stronger feelings of protest, more radical opinions, and widespread unconstructive opposition to the government,” he wrote in a seminal commentary in Vedomosti newspaper earlier this year.

Their patience with a one-choice political system, according to Mr Dmitriev and other sociological research, is running thin. The system faces a “crisis of legitimacy” which could see a growing protest movement in the near future.

Mr Putin will have to take steps to dismantle a system of cronyism that has flourished in recent years, as hitherto little-known allies and friends have captured a huge swathe of the country’s cash flows and secured access to the choicest assets. Otherwise, bankers and businessmen say, he could face a mounting backlash.

“The key question is whether he is going to reign in the massive corruption. There are people that are very close to him that ….used his name to become incredibly wealthy,” said one senior western banker speaking on condition of anonymity.

If he does not take steps to change the system, “there are going to be some very smart people who are just going to leave the country because they’re fed up” he said.

In any case, Mr Putin’s and Mr Medvedev’s approval ratings have slipped since the start of the year. That is a sign, says Sergei Markov, a parliamentary deputy from the hegemonic United Russia political party, that the public is growing tired of them.

Mr Markov says the declining popularity of the Kremlin’s political machine was one of the reasons that Mr Putin decided to step back in. “Medvedev’s popularity was falling, and this might have been seen as dangerous” he said.

With an keen eye on his popularity, Mr Putin has undertaken a sometimes bizarre PR makeover, riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle to show off his macho side, while last Decemember, at the piano, he sang an off-key version of 1950’s hit “Blueberry Hill” for a live audience.

Instead of democracy, Mr Putin has applied a veneer of pluralism and choice using skilled spin-doctors, pollsters, and TV men collectively known as as “political technologists”, whose craft is epitomized by Mr Putin’s job swap with Mr Medvedev announced on Saturday: a back room bargain presented to the country as a democratic choice.

But despite the Kremlin’s desire for a tidy stitch up, the rest of Russia may not play along as public frustration with Mr Putin’s dominance bubbles to the surface. The Kremlin “corridor games” between Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev which have so captivated political observers in Moscow and abroad, may turn out to be a sideshow compared to the emergence of new forces in the Russian political scene, which may demand their own voice in the way the country is run.

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