Vladimir Putin, the man named by Forbes magazine as the second most influential person in the world, has attracted quite a stream of criticism lately. You can imagine how much stick he’d get if he occupied the No 1 slot.
Most of the broadsides against Putin used to come from the west – at least they did until September 24 this year, when Russia’s current prime minister was all but crowned its next president at the United Russia party congress. Now Putin is under fire in his homeland, and we Russians don’t do things by halves: once we go in for the kill, there’s just no letting go.
This time, it’s in a different league from previous run-ins. In 2008, for instance, it was reported that Putin was getting divorced, was about to marry a 28-year-old gymnast and that his daughters had left Russia. When questioned on a visit to Italy, Putin quashed the rumours. Meanwhile, the owner of the Moscow newspaper that printed the allegations closed the paper down. It seemed as if Russia’s media would never recover. These days, it’s a story remembered only by journalists and Kremlin-watchers.
What’s going on now is completely different. There have been no shocking revelations: indeed, the only thing revealed at the United Russia party congress is the true nature of Putin and Dmitry Medvedev – or rather, their hunger for power.
The implications are far greater this time, however. Strange as it may sound, September 24 might just have marked the return of the kind of freedom Russians have not seen since the days of Boris Yeltsin. A good internet posting can easily be read by hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people, giving the blogosphere and print media an audience at least as big as the number of television viewers. (TV itself, meanwhile, has had nothing to say – though that will soon change as it is forced to compete with the internet and stop ignoring the mood of its audience.)
I think I understand why Putin is clinging on. His goal isn’t power for power’s sake – that would be too simple. I think he has genuinely looked for a successor and simply hasn’t found one. At some point he decided no one else was up to the job.
That’s how I see it. But I’m not the only one. The question came up when western journalists and Russia-watchers met recently at the Valdai Club (whose annual forums are a sort of Russian answer to Davos). Nikolai Zlobin, a senior research fellow from the Washington-based World Security Institute, pointedly asked Putin to spell out why there had been no new blood in Russian politics for so many years.
“You’ve made yourself so central to the running of the country that no one can see how you could ever cease to be part of it,” Zlobin said. “It would fall apart without you – isn’t there something wrong with a system like that?”
And what exactly, he was asked, was it about the present system that he so objected to? Zlobin reiterated that for the past few years there had been no new faces capable of rising to the challenge of Russian politics at a national level. Putin sounded surprised: “What do you mean ‘no new people’? What about Dmitry Medvedev?”
“How can you call Dmitry Medvedev a fresh young face in politics?” Zlobin asked. “He’s already been the country’s president.” Putin seemed thrown. He paused. “Well, there is also,” he said, “...Dmitry Medvedev.”
A while ago I too had a brief exchange with Putin in a corridor of Moscow’s “White House” – the main government building. I asked him several questions, and suddenly he looked at me and said: “Can you imagine? If I based my decisions on what people might say about me, I would never get anything done!”
On matters of principle such as whether to seek another term as president, the only person Putin trusts is himself. It is a very long time since he has paid the slightest attention to what anyone else has to say. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.
Andrey Kolesnikov is a special correspondent for Kommersant newspaper.
Translated from the Russian by Paul Gould