From China to Tajikistan, the turmoil that has roiled the Middle East in recent months is spoiling the sleep of authoritarian leaders across the world. Not that of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, though. The former president’s popularity held up through both a small war, in Georgia in 2008, and a serious recession, in 2008-2009. Now, with his personal approval rating hovering around 70 per cent, he has said he may run for the presidency in 2012.
Putin has certainly remained front and centre in Russian politics. Roughly a decade after first rising to power in 1999, he still enjoys idol status at home. Admittedly, some of his latest sightings among Hollywood’s glitzy posse may have been a little over the top, even for the Russian public—the PM’s uneasy musical rendering of Blueberry Hill before a beaming Sharon Stone and others at a charity event in St. Petersburg last year apparently didn’t sit well with the home audience. But Putin’s carefully crafted macho-man image, which has seen him hunting in Siberia wearing only green fatigues, whitewater rafting, and even demonstrating judo moves in a popular instructional video, hasn’t tired the Russian public yet.
It projects strength, health and self-discipline. And those virtues are nothing short of inspirational for a nation where a former president, Boris Yeltsin, was drunk in public, where alcoholism and addiction have spread like epidemics, and which came terrifyingly close to social and political meltdown only a decade ago, says Edward Lucas, the author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, whose images as nationalist heroes faded decades ago, Russia observers say Putin is still riding high on political credit for having rescued the Russia of the Yeltsin years from anarchy and near disintegration.
Putin has also proven to be an autocrat of exceptional foresight and sensibility. The tailspin in the commodities markets in 2008 caught other leaders of oil-rich countries, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, completely off guard and with barely a penny to spend on stimulus money. In contrast, Putin had set aside a $150-billion stabilization fund with which he shored up the economy. Moscow “spent a huge amount of money on preventing the ruble from collapsing, and seeing Russia through the hard times,” says Tony Brenton, who served as British ambassador to Russia. And, he adds, Putin managed a successful presidential succession, to Dmitry Medvedev (who was formerly PM), just before the recession hit. His decision to not tamper with the constitution—as Mubarak and other Middle Eastern autocrats did—in order to stay on as president in the spring of 2008 past the mandated two consecutive terms, and to switch to the role of PM instead, also seems uncannily prescient in light of the recent Mideast events. “He didn’t want to be seen as a dictator,” says Brenton.
There was widespread speculation that after serving a term as PM, Putin would want the presidency back. But the top government job may have started to appeal to Medvedev, and the run-up to the election has seen Russia’s political couple engage in some theatrical verbal spats. The most spectacular came last month, when Putin evoked the spectre of ancient Christian wars against Muslims by calling military intervention in Libya a “call to crusade”—a comment brusquely rebuked by Medvedev, who then endorsed the United Nations resolution.
That episode, and the fact that both men have said they’re ready to run for president, has some Russia watchers rubbing their hands about a possible split that will favour Medvedev, the more liberal and pro-Western brain of Moscow’s two-headed political creature. To their dismay, though, Putin’s grip on power still looks remarkably solid. And while the president and the PM have some obvious differences of approach, says ambassador Brenton, they are united by a “cold determination to find a stable way forward,” one that will keep away from anything they think may return Russia to a post-Soviet-like mess, including serious divisions at the top.
Also, some recent bold moves by Medvedev, such as the sacking of high-ranking officials in the Interior Ministry, look like attempts by the president to leave behind some legacy, possibly an indication that he is getting ready to step aside, reverting to the PM’s role or some other lofty public office, says Brenton. And even if Medvedev does run again for president, while his political godfather stays on as PM, “it will be a sign that Putin is at least tolerant or perhaps even supports his more liberal approach,” he adds. For its part, Russia, it seems, would be fine to continue on with that set-up: a year before the election, 60 per cent of Russians believe the duo has been effectively leading the country, and two-thirds think the alliance is long-term, according to a recent survey.
It doesn’t hurt that agitation for things such as human rights and freedom of speech is mostly confined to scattered groups of activists. “There is no demand for democracy” in Russia, says Moscow’s Oleg Shevtsov, 27, “so there’s no supply of it either.” Most of his co-nationals are quite content to live under what he calls “a light authoritarian regime,” where people are largely free to talk, write, blog, and go about their business without too much interference. This apathy, he says, stems in part from the collective shock of witnessing the anarchy unleashed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a chaos that some at the time were calling democracy. “My parents thought, ‘If this is democracy, we don’t like it,’ ” recalls Shevtsov, an analyst at an NGO that evaluates Russian universities.
And if the home front is unabashedly supportive of Putin’s Russia, foreign governments are starting to warm up as well. Despite the occasional anti-West invective, Putin has welcomed a thaw with Washington, launched a charm offensive in the EU, and openly condemned Stalinist brutality against Polish victims. The volte-face, say experts, is aimed at ending the country’s relative international isolation, and attracting foreign capital and know-how. Russians “don’t think of themselves as mere suppliers of oil and gas and nickel to the rest of the world,” says Brenton—they want to become an advanced nation, and to do that they have to engage technologically with the West.
The strategy is already producing results. In December, the EU formally endorsed Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, which Moscow has tried to do for 17 years, and January saw the kickoff of a U.S.-Russia agreement to co-operate on civilian nuclear energy that is expected to boost U.S. investment in the sector in Russia.
With a vast consumer market hungry for Western retail products, and asset costs about one-third what they are in China, Russia is a huge opportunity for foreign businesses, says Brenton. But one big obstacle stands in the way: corruption. Elena Panfilova, director of the Russia chapter of Transparency International, a Berlin-based corruption watchdog, says public officials have come to expect rolls of banknotes and special gifts not only in exchange for preferential treatment, but also for performing basic services.
This new kind of corruption, she says, became entrenched in the early 2000s—under Putin’s watch. It grew rapidly thanks to the large amounts of money sloshing around the economy as oil prices rose, and as a “bizarre side effect” of the centralized system of power set up by then-president Putin, who choked a number of checks and balances that could have helped keep corruption under control. According to Panfilova, the kickback margin in the construction sector rose, from 15 to 20 per cent in 2001, to 50 to 60 per cent of the value of the contracts today. The need for massive bribes goes a long way in explaining why the number of small businesses in Russia is shrinking—in an emerging and growing market, no less. And the costs rack up for Moscow as well: in February, an investigation found that $33 billion has been stolen from the state each year.
Recent Kremlin talk about stamping out corruption, along with a series of anti-corruption initiatives, suggests that Putin and Medvedev are keenly aware of the problem. But truly eradicating corruption would require a serious overhaul of the political system, say experts (Putin himself has been accused of hoarding billions of dollars in offshore accounts, and building a $1-billion secret mansion by the Black Sea).
On the other hand, Russia’s duo also knows it will only stay popular as long as the economy keeps growing, and that might not be the case if modernization proves a mirage, according to the Economist’s Lucas. If Russia stagnates, even Putin might find himself losing sleep.