The Putin System-How Russia’s Eternal President Has Changed His Country

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By Christian Esch

Russians will be going to the polls on March 18, but it is already clear who will emerge victorious. Vladimir Putin has been at the helm for almost 20 years — both dramatically changing his country and subjugating it at the same time.

What might Russia look like if someone other than Vladimir Putin was the country’s president? A video making the rounds on Russian social networks recently provided an answer to that question. It’s an advertisement encouraging people to take part in the upcoming presidential election on March 18.

The clip shows a man climbing into bed on the eve of the election and telling his wife that he’s not planning to vote. When he wakes up, Russia has completely changed. At the door is a black soldier who is part of an army unit seeking to conscript the man into the military. The man’s son is wearing a pioneer kerchief of the kind children wore during Soviet times. And in the kitchen is a gay man the state has sent to the family for accommodation.

The whole thing, of course, is a nightmare from which the protagonist awakens with sufficient time to rush to the ballot box after all. He has understood that Russia could fall into dangerous hands if he doesn’t act.

It has now been 18 years since Vladimir Putin was first elected president of Russia. But of all the elections in which he has been a candidate, the one scheduled for March 18 is perhaps the most absurd — something that the video clearly illustrates. It implies that the coming vote is vital for the fate of the country, essentially making a mockery of itself. A Russia without Putin, the director of the video seems to be suggesting, can only be imagined as a joke: with blacks at the door and gay men at the kitchen table. Voters are being called on to prevent a scenario that isn’t even possible in the first place.

In hindsight, the election six years ago seems so different. A wave of protest was crashing over Moscow and St. Petersburg at the time. “Putin is a thief!” the masses chanted at large rallies.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a Russia without Putin at the helm. In the last 18 years, he has become synonymous with his country; he has become just as omnipresent and pervasive to Russians as the country’s flag. Essentially, holding an election is unnecessary, a viewpoint that Putin himself would no doubt agree with. Thus far, he has chosen to forgo anything resembling a campaign. And as if to prove that he no longer sees a difference between himself and the office he holds, he presented his campaign platform last Thursday during his annual address to the two houses of Russian parliament.

There was something in it for everyone. Putin pledged to slash poverty in half, but also promised new miracle weapons for the army, including long-range nuclear missiles that can “reach anywhere in the world.” An animated clip projected on giant screens showed the new weapons destroying their targets, presumably located in America. There was ample applause.

Vladimir Putin has been in power for almost two decades, longer even than Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet general secretary whose tenure seemed eternal. An entire generation of Russians has grown up knowing nothing other than Putin’s Russia. And the country has changed under his guidance, both for better and for worse. It has become richer and more powerful, but also more rigid and more isolated. Russia has flexed its muscles in eastern Ukraine and Syria, but individual Russian citizens once again feel weak and vulnerable.

How has this man managed to stay in power for so long? What is it about the Putin system that makes it so enduring? And will it continue once he is no longer president? Because one thing is clear: According to the Russian constitution, he can no longer run for president in 2024.

The search for answers to such questions leads to the Russian hinterlands, where the Putin years have manifested themselves differently than in the capital and where most of the population lives. Here, it is easier to understand how Putin’s Russia works. Put simply, it’s a trade-off: The state disenfranchises its citizens, but in exchange, they are given a feeling of stability and reclaimed national pride. Don’t get in the way, says the Kremlin, give us a free hand and we will protect you from economic need and ensure that you are respected in a hostile world.

Stability and national greatness: Those are the promises made by Putin’s Russia. Deception and violence are its tools.

SUPPORTERS AND ADVERSARIES IN THE KUZBASS COAL REGION IN SIBERIA

Kemerovo in western Siberia is a good place to begin exploring Putin’s Russia. The industrial city — with its chessboard layout, gray snow and Stalinist architecture — is located in Kuzbass, Russia’s largest coal-mining region. The open-pit mines begin just beyond the outskirts of the city. When explosives are detonated in the mines, tea slops out of cups inside people’s apartments nearby. High above the frozen Tom River, the city’s landmark glows red, the monument known as “The Heart of the Miner.”

But in addition to coal, there is a second resource that is exploited in Kemerovo: Votes. The region is known for its bizarre election results. In 2015, they re-elected their governor with 97 percent of the vote, with turnout almost just as high. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, 87 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots. In Moscow, turnout was merely 35 percent that year, as it was in the neighboring oblast of Novosibirsk.

As such, regions such as Kemerovo are indispensable to the Kremlin. The votes it accumulates there compensate for a loss in popularity in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, where there is less room for manipulating the results. Indeed, the vote business is similar to the coal business: The finished product is exported to where it is needed. The coal goes to China and the votes go to Moscow, where they find their way into the national statistics.

Valentina Trubitsyna and Nina Nilova walk briskly along Spring Street, energetically extending their walking poles as far as their age allows. Nordic Walking is a popular sport among pensioners in Kemerovo, thanks to the local governor, Aman Tuleyev, who distributed the poles to Veterans of Labor. Tuleyev enjoys giving things away. He has handed out children’s bicycles and rubber boots, and at some point, all of the city’s streetcars bore a sign reading: “Gift from Governor Aman Tuleyev.”

When Valentina Trubitsyna turned 80, Tuleyev significantly increased her pension and she now receives 260 euros per month. Trubitsyna says they cried when they heard last year that Tuleyev had to have an operation. But now, she says, she once again hears his honking escort as the governor heads to work in the morning. “Then we know: Papa is coming.”

‘Us Grandmothers Only Vote for Putin’

Tuleyev is a miniature version of the role Putin seeks to play on the national stage: the father of the nation who rescued his people from the misery of the 1990s. He pacified the Kuzbass, which had been beset by mining strikes and mafia wars. He is now 73 years old and his greatest deeds lie in the past, but as long as Tuleyev ensures tranquility and delivers the votes to Moscow, the Kremlin is satisfied. Trubitsyna and Nilova also plan to vote on March 18. Might they opt for the candidate for the Communist Party, which has traditionally been seen as a pensioner’s movement?

“No, Putin. Only Putin. Us grandmothers only vote for Putin!” they say, talking over each other. Although, Nilova relates, she does know a few women who support Ksenia Sobchak, the liberal candidate, because they know her from TV shows. “But then we threatened them with these sticks here,” says Trubitsyna, raising her hand energetically.

“Authoritarianism from below,” is how some people refer to the model in an effort to justify it. In fact, the authoritarianism does come from above. But this is only felt by those who push the envelope, something that hardly anyone here does. Even the Kremlin-loyal opposition is weak. The Communists didn’t even make it into the regional parliament, despite the many working class voters in this mining region.

So, Kemerovo residents were very surprised when politics suddenly reared its head in the city in 2017. The occasion was a visit by opposition politician Alexei Navalny. He was the only one to make an appearance, just as he has been the only one in Russia to lead an election campaign worthy of the name. Navalny is a novelty in Russian politics: He refuses to bow to the Kremlin’s unwritten rules.

In November, Navalny spoke at a rally that was — to the astonishment of the Kemerovo populace — attended by hundreds of people. City officials had only issued a permit for the rally to be held at the edge of the city and then closed down the bus lines heading to the site. “How did you even get here?” was the first thing Navalny said. The crowd laughed in the protective darkness.

It was a typical Navalny appearance: less of a speech than a dialogue. He asked a series of questions: How much do you earn? How much do you have to pay for heating and water? Where does all the money from Kuzbass end up? Is that what you want? Navalny is a charismatic populist. He can get a crowd behind him quicker than anyone else in Russia. And he is a quick study. He now links his favorite issue — the corruption of Putin’s elite — with the growing economic misery in the country.

But then, Navalny returned to distant Moscow and his supporters in Kemerovo had to continue without him. His team is housed in an office building in the city center, with young people constantly dropping by to pick up fliers.

Cheerful Rage

Ksenia Pakhomova heads up Navalny’s team in the city. She was a law student when the opposition leader’s YouTube video about the numerous villas belonging to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev caused such a ruckus. “It was as if something had clicked in my head,” she says. She saw Navalny for herself when he opened the Kemerovo office in March 2017, and, by August, she was leading it. It became a turning point in her life and in the lives of those close to her. Ksenia’s mother lost her job and even her grandmother received a visit from the police. Ksenia herself has been arrested several times and her living quarters searched. She talks about the repression with a kind of cheerful rage.

It was more difficult for her mother. She had spent 26 years working in a state art school, but now makes due as a sales assistant. Natalia Pakhomova tells her story while sitting next to her daughter and she sounds as though she still couldn’t believe what has happened to her. It is the story of an awakening.

The year 2017 began with Natalia giving her daughter a Putin calendar, not realizing that Ksenia was on the verge of working for Navalny. Indeed, she didn’t even know who Navalny was. She was a typical teacher, a “part of the system,” as she says today. For elections, she and her students would organize “concert brigades” in order to “create atmosphere,” as it was called. But she didn’t have the feeling that she was being denied freedom.

In hindsight, she sees things differently. “Politics forced its way into the school,” she says. She was told to force her daughter to come to her senses. Then she was fired as school director. In tears, colleagues sought to justify themselves for having remained silent while others severed all contact. Her best friend didn’t abandon her, but she began taking the battery out of her mobile phone whenever she met with Natalia. Of course, Natalia always knew that the opposition was suppressed, she says. “But I didn’t care. I was for Putin. I was so … amorphous,” she says.

“You were apolitical,” Ksenia corrects her severely. “A perfect citizen of this country.”

Now, though, both of them have become politically active, even if they disagree on some issues.

“Putin is an aging man who missed the opportunity to resign in dignity. I’m sorry,” says Natalia.

“Putin is an octopus who has gripped Russia tightly in his tentacles. We have to tear him off,” says Ksenia.

The Kremlin Defends Its Monopoly

In December, Ksenia was in Moscow along with other delegates to officially nominate Navalny as a candidate. They gathered in a heated tent on the outskirts of the city because they had been unable to find a venue to rent. Navalny arrived in a suit and tie, accompanied by his wife and two children. Everything was supposed to look like a normal political event in a normal democracy. It was as though Navalny wanted to say: If the Kremlin wants to act as though there are free elections, then I am going to act as though I am a candidate.

But the Kremlin, unsurprisingly, has shut him out. The Putin system had to defend its monopoly. It used the tools of heavy-handedness and deception. The heavy-handedness consisted of the Kremlin pointing to a manipulated court ruling against Navalny as the reason for preventing him from running as a candidate. The deception had to do with using the verdict as a way of protecting the elaborate simulation of elections from reality and from real opposition. Putin isn’t afraid of Navalny’s followers. They are in the minority, after all. Rather, he is afraid of the idea that Navalny has infused into the Russian political system — an idea that could destroy the system like a virus.

One day after the event in the tent, the Central Election Commission refused to officially register the opposition candidate, referring to the conviction, against which Navalny has appealed. It was a painful defeat, but predictable. And the pain wasn’t lessened by the fact that other candidates would benefit from Navalny’s exclusion: Ksenia Sobchak, the liberal television journalist, and Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party candidate, would not likely have ended up on the ballot were the Kremlin not concerned that its manipulation of the election might otherwise seem too brazen. Since his omission, Navalny has been campaigning for voters to boycott the election. But many are opposed to the strategy, arguing that it merely divides the opposition without likely having much of an effect on voter turnout.

Putin’s promise to the electorate is the same as it has always been: stability. In a certain sense, it is the core of the Putin brand. And compared with his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin has fulfilled that promise. Under his leadership, there hasn’t been a debt default such as the one that took place in 1998, nor has there been a constitutional crisis like in 1993. Incomes rose along with the price of oil and the country’s leadership managed to soften the blow of the economic crisis in 2008. Under Putin, it once again became possible to plan for the future, and many Russians were deeply grateful to him.

But the feeling of stability has faded once again. Since Putin moved back into the Kremlin in 2012 following a brief hiatus as prime minister, the ruble has lost almost half of its value against the euro. Real incomes have dropped for four straight years and 22 million Russians officially live in poverty.

‘Even More Assertive’

The economic downturn had already begun before the Ukraine crisis, but Putin’s break with the West made it worse. Faced with a choice between foreign policy ambition and domestic stability rooted in economic growth, Putin opted for the former. Not that the Russians minded initially: The annexation of the Crimea was extremely popular in the country.

“He should have been even more assertive. But I would like to see him focus a bit more on his own country,” says Galina Klimenko, a resident of the village of Taylep. Located a three-hour drive south of Kemerovo, Taylep is a collection of low, wooden houses protected by barking dogs. Galina Klimenko isn’t the only one in the village who has the impression that Putin’s focus has wandered. That he has prioritized Syria or international politics above their problems back home.

One day almost three yeas ago, a new open-pit coal mine was opened up next to the village. Since then, the roar of dump trucks and clamor of rock crushers has been the villagers’ constant companion. Detonations take place three to four times per week, resulting in plaster raining down from the ceilings of some of the houses. And coal dust is everywhere; even the icicles in Taylep are black. Sometimes, Klimenko wears a mask while taking care of the housework.

Nobody warned them that the mine was coming, Klimenko says, and complaints didn’t change anything. Last year, they tried calling into Vladimir Putin’s call-in show called “Direct Line.” Once a year, Putin spends hours listening to the complaints of Russians around the country and promising to help. It’s a bit like calling Santa Claus, but Russia is vast and Santa can’t come to the rescue everywhere.

The call from Taylep was never answered. Instead, Galina and her neighbors watched as the president took a Skype call from a boy on the Pacific Coast. He complained of the coal dust blowing over from the port of Nakhodka. Putin jotted something down in his notebook and vowed: “Andrushka, we’ll take a look at the problem with you.”

It was a typical television appearance for Putin. No matter what the issue, the president is never connected to problems, only with their solutions. He is constantly above the fray, never to be blamed yet omnipotent in the face of challenges. The TV show “Direct Line” is there to underline that perception. Viewed rationally, however, the show demonstrates just how poorly the Russian state actually functions. If the president has to get personally involved to clear up a coal-dust problem in Nakhodka, then something has gone badly wrong.

The people from Taylep went to the nearest large city to stage their protest. “But we didn’t chant anything bad!” Klimenko insists, as though she has to justify herself. It was a small protest, one of the thousands that are constantly taking place in Russia, even in the realm of Governor Aman Tuleyev. There is plenty of grumbling beneath the surface of the alleged stability. But the voice of Russian citizens is feeble and weak.

A VISIT TO THE KREMLIN’S SPIN DOCTOR IN MOSCOW

Gleb Pavlovski’s office can be found in a labyrinthine courtyard in the city center of Moscow. The table is covered with statuettes and figurines, including a puppet of the occupant himself. Pavlovski is not a nobody in Moscow, having previously worked as one of the Kremlin’s most influential spin doctors. Now, though, he is a critic of the very system that he helped build, as he says with a mixture of chagrin and pride.

Pavlovski was one of those who helped install Putin in the presidency two decades ago. Within the Kremlin administration at the time, the effort to remove the deathly ill and unpopular Boris Yeltsin without triggering the disintegration of the new state was referred to as “Project Succession.” Pavlovski helped ensure loyal backing in the parliament for the pale successor along with a decent election result. He assisted in constructing the myth of Putin as the omnipotent, solitary decision-maker, an image that proved popular among the electorate.

Putin’s rise to power was a huge success. Only later did Pavlovski begin to understand what he had done. Today, he sounds much like a mechanic who realized only too late that he accidentally removed the brakes from a car. Independent governors, rebellious communists in parliament, critical television stations: All possible hurdles were gradually removed. Today, the system rolls along with no resistance whatsoever — and that is alarming.

After two terms in office, Putin’s authority had already become so great that he easily got Russian voters to elect the uncharismatic prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to the presidency. Whereas the move from Yeltsin to Putin had been filled with challenges, eight years later the transition was completely unproblematic. It was deceptive, though, for Putin never actually stepped down.

One day in spring 2011, Pavlovski’s keycard suddenly stopped working at the Kremlin gates. Even the guards initially thought that it was a technical problem. But it was the sign that Pavlovski was no longer in good standing with Putin. The reason: Pavlovski had said in public that Medvedev should run for a second term as president. But Putin, who had moved over to the prime minister’s office in 2008, wanted to return to the Kremlin. He suspected that a Medvedev conspiracy might be afoot and saw Pavlovski’s comments as evidence.

A Different Man

The Putin of 2012 was a different man. He was unsettled by the street protests that had accompanied his return to the Kremlin. Had the Russians grown tired of him? He was all the more touched when he celebrated his election victory with supporters. A tear even trickled down his cheek. From that moment on, opponents of the Kremlin came to be seen as the enemy within, the fifth column of the spiteful and culturally foreign West. They were referred to as “national traitors” and “foreign agents.” Prison terms for political activists, until then a rarity, became more common.

In the heart of Moscow, not far from the Kremlin, the opposition politician Boris Nemzov was shot to death in February 2015. Putin distanced himself from the crime, but it was never completely cleared up, even if a group of Chechens was later convicted of the murder. It was never determined on whose orders they acted.

From the outside, it looked as though Putin’s system had survived unscathed the biggest tremor it had thus far faced. But it had completely changed, becoming more repressive and more populist. Two years later, Russia annexed the Crimea and sent its troops to intervene in Donbass in eastern Ukraine, events that resulted in an open break with the West. Putin, who often seems so careful and hesitant, had radically shifted his country’s foreign policy and Russians loved him for it. His public approval ratings skyrocketed. Putin T-shirts were for sale everywhere, patriotic kitsch with bizarre slogans printed on them like, “Sanctions? Don’t make my Iskander rockets laugh!” It wasn’t fake enthusiasm: It was real.

Putin’s sudden taste for foreign adventures continued with his completely unexpected intervention in Syria. It wasn’t particularly popular among the Russians because Syria seemed so foreign and far away. But it was the first time in many years that Russia was on par with the United States. It was as though the country suddenly saw itself in a different light. The feeling of renewed importance on the international stage distracted the country from domestic problems and compensated for the numerous minor indignities Russians are constantly confronted with in their day-to-day lives. “Russia has risen from its knees,” people were saying.

The deal on which Putin’s rule has always been based has changed as a result. In exchange for being disenfranchised, the Russians now receive less stability and prosperity, but a greater feeling of national pride. Russia’s economy is stagnating because there has been a lack of reform and too little is being invested in innovation and education. But can Russia really modernize itself while at the same time turning its back on the West and restraining its citizenry?

THE FAILED SILICON VALLEY IN SKOLKOVO

In the southwest of Moscow, the attempt to build a different Russia is on full display. It is a Russia that is open to the world — not the one that prioritizes natural resources over the well-being of its citizens like in Kuzbass, but one that sees people themselves as resources.

Skolkovo, Dmitry Medvedev said during his presidency, was to become the “Silicon Valley” of Russia. It was his pet project. In hindsight, it is symbolic of a modern Russia — the country that it could have become.

Eight years after it was founded, Skolkovo still looks like a gigantic construction site covered in snow. The contours, to be sure, are now visible. The new elite university Skoltech, where classes are taught in English, will be moving into its new campus this fall, a wood-clad circular structure designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. There are townhouse developments and a new subway station will be opening soon. The heart of the project, the Technopark, looks like a vast shopping mall, but instead of shops, it is full of startups.

One of those startups is Tryfit, which produces foot scanners for the athletic shoe industry. The company’s founder went to university in both Ireland and Russia and lives in Silicon Valley in California, commuting regularly to Skolkovo. The company is registered in Dublin. It is a business model that can only work if Russia and the West remain open to each other. But shifting priorities in the Kremlin and estrangement from the West haven’t been good for Skolkovo.

Competition

Nothing illustrates that better than the fates of the two men who have been part of the project since its beginning. The inspiration for Skolkovo came from Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Duma who was forced into exile because he fell out of favor with the Kremlin. In a Skype interview, he says that Skolkovo has become little more than a simulation, with flashy modern architecture but few real companies. He says it serves as a springboard for people who want to emigrate abroad. Ponomarev now lives in Kiev and is banned from returning to Russia. Vladislav Surkov, meanwhile, who once oversaw the project in the Kremlin, has the opposite problem: He is on the West’s sanctions list.

It is Putin’s misfortune that in the attempt to preserve his rule, he is constantly having to cut short alternative developments and destroy new evolutions like a ruthless gardener defending his flower beds. In doing so, he doesn’t just restrict the opposition, but also loyal followers. The strategy has also truncated the most important development of all, one that Russia has no choice but to face: The development toward a post-Putin Russia. The president needs to begin arranging for a successor, given that he’s not allowed to run for re-election in 2024. But it appears he considers himself to be irreplaceable. It isn’t clear which path he will ultimately choose: That of pulling a successor out of a hat on the eve of the election six years from now. Or that of having the constitution amended to either get rid of term limitations or to create a new supreme state office.

What is clear, however, is that Russian society has changed. Nothing illustrates that better than Navalny’s campaign — the most successful startup in Russian politics in the last two decades. Navalny has modernized Russian politics by taking it out of the hands of the Kremlin monopoly. He managed to return the power struggle — which had always taken place behind the walls of the Kremlin — to the streets.

For now, he has failed in his attempt to be recognized by the Kremlin as a politician. But the principle for which he stands has already emerged victorious: The Putin System, in which an informal club of 50 people under the president’s leadership steers the fate of the country, is no longer without an alternative.

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