President Vladimir Putin can be a master of deception. But his empire is not what it seems to be. Remove smoke and mirrors and the former KGB agent has clay feet.
Russia is always in the news.
Russia has intervened. Russia has supplied. Russia has killed.
But, when we say Russia, we mean Putin.
He controls the four main parliamentary parties of Russia. He owns the regional governors. His minions run the banks and the big companies.
His kleptocracy, the government of the corrupt, has cancerous control of the courts, the police, the media, the military and educational systems.
And yet, Putin is anxious.
It is out of play.
It seems to be at the pinnacle of its power. He dominates the world stage. He has an extraordinary relationship with the president of the United States. His troops filled the power vacuum in Syria after an American withdrawal. Its influence extends as far as Iran, Venezuela and Taiwan.
But, if the 66-year-old man and his family stay healthy, rich and alive, he needs power.
That power has a time limit.
He is constitutionally limited to two terms as president.
But Putin is not ready to leave.
So he simply surprised his own government by introducing the most dramatic changes in the Russian constitution since 1993.
He wants to strip the power of the presidency to parliament in Moscow. It will be put in the hands of the State Council and the prime minister to direct it. Putin wants the power to choose who that prime minister will be.
The entire Russian government resigned immediately once Putin raised the idea.
That is not necessarily a bad thing for Putin.
He replaced his old, but discredited and unpopular, henchman Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister with the little known but very loyal head of the tax office Mikhail Mishustin.
For now at least.
The tribulations of the tyrant
President Putin’s “tough guy” act is getting old. So is the president himself.
Plastic surgery may be deferring its appearance. But age is getting tired?
The passage of time certainly worries him.
The constitution of Russia only allows him to remain in power until 2024.
It is not that the constitution means a lot. But it does satisfy Putin’s deep desire for political legitimacy. He could have arrested and intimidated all opposition to oblivion. Appearances, however, are all for the former spy.
After more than 20 years in power, his smoke is dissipating and his mirror fogged.
The songs of “Putin’s resignation” and “Putin’s free Russia” sounded in central Moscow last year when a series of demonstrations expressed public frustration in the manipulated elections. Riot police responded quickly. But the message from the crowd came home.
Putin’s cheerful smile has been less frequent. His carefree wave does not appear in so many adventure photos driven by the stage.
“Putin’s regime itself can be understood as a hybrid,” Russian anti-corruption lawyer and opposition leader Lyubov Sobol told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Formally, Russia has a constitution that guarantees the rule of law, defends the separation of powers, establishes an independent judiciary and grants maximum authority to the people. But in reality, the Russian people have no influence on the authorities; all branches of government respond to Putin and his inner circle. “
The problem is that President Putin is not President Xi.
In the authoritative bets of strong men, Putin must balance the growing demands of the corrupt systems he has established. It’s quid-pro-quo, or it goes away.
And shut up your people.
While Russia is indeed a one-party state, China is built as one from scratch.
Putin’s oligarchic allies have a personal interest in their power. But only as long as he remains powerful.
Xi has full power over the oligarchs of China. They know what Xi gives, Xi can take away.
Putin built his power on a thick tapestry of lies, promises, fear and charisma.
Xi has built widespread surveillance, a rigid doctrine and a centrally controlled economy.
Putin needs political legitimacy.
Xi has declared himself the supreme leader for life.
In August, Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption lawyer Alexi Navalny was arrested and his house registered. The Moscow protests were in full swing.
“The authorities reacted to these protests with a wave of repression, arrested several thousand people and filed criminal charges against pro-democratic groups,” says Sobol. “Night searches were conducted in our homes and dozens of people were jailed.”
Then, Navalny suddenly fell seriously ill.
He had suffered an “allergic reaction” that produced “severe facial swelling and red skin rashes,” police said.
They were classic things from Putin’s playbook.
Putin wants people to know that he will hurt them if they oppose him. But shameless lies give him room for diplomatic maneuver.
That’s why Russian nerve agent Novichok was used to poison former Russian military officer and UK double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018. It was an open threat to all who oppose him. But there was enough smoke and mirrors to support the Kremlin disinformation campaigns.
Now, Putin realized that such intimidation is not enough.
It has been inspired by President Xi.
Putin is running to consolidate his control of power in a similar way.
Russia is working to separate its internet from the global network. The excuse is national security. But the cause is the desire to control and monitor national conversations, as in China.
In 2019, Putin passed a law that defines anyone who shares foreign media who speak against him as a “foreign agent.” If you insult him, you can be punished, as in China.
Peaceful protesters are being arrested, as in China. Putin has expressed his excuse: “Throw a plastic cup at a representative of the authority. Nothing happens. Then a plastic bottle, nothing happens. Then he will throw a glass bottle, then a stone, and then people will start shooting and sacking stores. We should not allow this kind of thing. “
THE PROBLEM OF PEOPLE
Putin has shown that he can intimidate some of his people on some occasions. But can it scare them all, always?
“Russia is embodied by its 146 million citizens, most of whom only want to live in a civilized world, and in a country where freedom and human rights are respected and sustained by credible independent institutions,” writes Sobol.
That is Putin’s problem.
By taking power in 1999, he quickly neutralized politicians, governors, bureaucrats and corporate oligarchs in competition.
Putin deliberately left the public alone, so he has remained remarkably popular during his reign of two decades. Despite all the blatant corruption.
But the signs are that this is running out.
“External observers might think that the current government has the support of the population. But that is not the case, “says Sobol.” Mass protests in Moscow and other cities in 2019 show that while formal power remains in the hands of Putin and his party, the Russians are ready to enforce their rights and demand democracy. ” .
Putin has been forced to order rewritten popularity polls. It must be seen to be loved.
“I myself participated in elections for the Duma of the city of Moscow,” says Sobol. “Democratically selected independent candidates were forbidden to run on the basis of absurd false charges, such as accusations of falsifying petition signatures to qualify for the ballot …
“After denying them the election of elected representatives, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets.”
The message from the master manipulator is no longer transmitted.
For much of the past 20 years, Russia’s economy had been good for the general population.
While Putin reaped the benefits, he did nothing to sow the seeds of success.
The rise in oil and gas prices led to the economy much higher than any economic policy.
But things have changed.
Russia has been under international sanctions since the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine, revenues have declined. Oil prices have also fallen.
Now, about 20 million Russians live below the poverty line.
Putin has been forced to reduce pensions and increase the retirement age. The austerity measures are spreading throughout the economy.
But the Russians have tried prosperity. Now they are seeing it in the hands of a corrupt elite. This, more than anything else, boosted the 2019 summer street protests in Moscow.
Putin’s long-term plan to avoid internal dissent has been to divide and conquer.
Trolley farms, disinformation agencies and state-controlled media opened social and cultural divisions in the country and abroad.
Nationalism. Homosexuality. Career. Religion. Migration. Everyone empowers supporters of his regime. Everyone else was forced to conform.
It worked, at first. Putin’s approval ratings skyrocketed in 2012, and again after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
But things are changing.
Misinformation and mentality manipulation cannot combat economic reality.
Russia’s budget is in serious trouble.
Putin’s United Russia party was once virtually without opposition. Last year, he began to suffer some serious electoral defeats.
And the violent arrests of 2,500 on the streets of Moscow show that the Kremlin is beginning to realize that smoke and mirrors no longer cut it.
RUSSIA AFTER PUTIN?
Putin has repeatedly said that he would happily retire to agriculture once his term ends.
Tyrants don’t have that luxury.
They annoy too many people. The refund is a b ** ch.
And successors always resent even the slightest hint of intrusion.
So can Putin survive without being loved?
You are about to discover it.
Parliamentary elections will be held in 2021.
And, Sobol argues, he has already lost the popular support he so loudly proclaims: “Putin has come to rely heavily on this myth, for a long time a staple of state propaganda in the country and abroad. The free and fair elections in Moscow would have lied to their claim of legitimacy, and the other regions of Russia would have taken note of what was happening in the capital. “
The book Putin v the town by Graeme Robertson and Samuel Greene argue that its popularity, so far, has been “the only thing that holds the ship together.”
“When the position and power depend heavily on citizens, on their reading of their social environment, their sense of consensus and the breadth of their imagination, this support can disappear almost overnight. Putin’s power will collapse when we least expect it. “
CHANGE IS INEVITABLE
Putin needs a change. But that change should not change anything.
You have already tried the exchange game President-Prime Minister. It didn’t turn out so well.
Therefore, adjusting the constitution to create a new leadership position is attractive.
The constitutional reform with the appearance of the power of divestment in the parliament gives Putin another fault.
It is a popularity game, after all.
“If Putin understands that, and I suspect he does, his persistent inability to improve his grades should be an important factor in his thinking by 2024,” writes former Russian media entrepreneur Leonid Bershidsky.
“Should I try to keep a trick, or should I try to hand over power to a trusted successor, as he did with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008?”
That may be the template of what you are trying now.
If this fails, Putin has only one route left to maintain the appearance of legitimate power.
The Kremlin has been pressuring Belarus to merge with Russia for some time. Putin would become president of this new political entity under a new constitution.
The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has not been interested in the idea.
If the constitutional change fails, there is always the option of an absolute dictatorship.
“Keeping (your) well-funded application apparatus and devising a way to hold on to power after the end of his term seems to be Putin’s best option (if) he, his family and friends will live happily beyond 2024”, Bershidsky concludes.
“Without a doubt, Putin would rather be loved for his successful economic policies, but if this year is an indication, that is the least likely scenario of all.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel