Putin’s unhappy Russia

The Russian leader is now clear to be president until 2024, but many Russians are voting with their feet

Putin’s unhappy country

Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

In most official democracies, citizens must wait until an election is held to find out who will be running their country. Russia is different.

Last month, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president and its supposed head of state, told a congress of the ruling United Russia party that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would run for president in March, returning to a job he held from 2000 to 2008. At the same conference, Putin proposed that Medvedev lead the United Russia party list in parliamentary elections, and assume the position of prime minister.

The announcements confirmed what many had long suspected: Putin, forbidden by Russia’s constitution from running for a third consecutive term, had simply appointed Medvedev to keep his seat warm for four years until he, Putin, could return to power. Despite claiming earlier this year that he would like to continue as president, Medvedev admitted the two had cooked up the deal “several years ago.” Putin is now clear to hold the presidency until 2024.

Someone will run against Putin, for appearances’ sake. But the election results are not in question. Putin is far and away the most liked politician in Russia. “If there were a genuinely free and fair election—which there won’t be—then Putin would win it. You can’t get around that,” says James Nixey, a research fellow at Chatham House, a British think tank. “The fact that they rig it anyway is a source of continual amazement for me.”

Putin’s popularity owes something to timing and to luck. His presidency coincided with a steep rise in global energy prices that benefited Russia and allowed it to reassert itself in the former Soviet sphere, using oil and gas as a weapon to bully countries like Ukraine and Georgia that sought closer ties to the West.

He came to power following the chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, when Russia’s economy contracted sharply with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That period soured many Russians on democracy, says Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution. “For a lot of Russians, democracy was associated with everything else that happened in the 1990s, which for most Russians was hugely bad in economic terms.”

Putin didn’t offer much in the way of democracy, but he gave Russians order. “Stability was restored. Pensions were paid. There was real economic growth,” says Alex Nice, a Chatham House researcher, now on sabbatical at the German Council on Foreign Relations. But Putin’s autocracy also strangled Russia’s political development, and today there is no viable opposition that might threaten him.

“There’s not enough public space in Russia,” says Denis Volkov, an analyst at the Levada Center, a Russian research and polling institution. “It means not only that the government and the authorities can discredit the opposition—which we see; there are many lies about the opposition—but the problem is deeper. Without public space, without close attention to oppositional parties, it does not help them to evolve. Only under public scrutiny can new leaders evolve and act as public figures.”

Much of the Russian media, and especially television stations, is either run by the state, or by companies with close ties to it. Independent journalists—especially those who probe links between the government, military, intelligence services, and organized crime—risk murder. Five writers for one newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, have died since 2000. Such cases are rarely properly investigated.

In such an environment, it’s difficult for opposition politicians to reach and influence citizens. But democratic uprisings have flourished in countries far less free than Russia. Volkov says some blame must be directed at opposition leaders themselves. “Their low support is partly due to their low performance.”

It’s not that Russians trust their political system. Levada’s polls show widespread cynicism. Most Russians believe ordinary citizens have no effect on the decisions their government makes. And only one-quarter believed the next leader would be chosen in an election, rather than in advance of it. “People feel estranged from decision-making, from politics,” says Volkov. But, he adds, “They just accept the situation as it is.”

A poll last year by the All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion revealed that while more than half of all Russians say alcoholism is one of the national problems they are most worried about, only eight per cent said the same thing about democracy and human rights. And according to Nikolay Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow Centre, some Russians are not even aware that Putin has not officially been Russia’s head of state since 2008.

“There was a myth in the West that Putin was stepping out,” says Petrov. “But here in Russia you can see that he is, and he was, and he will be, master in the house. He will be called in a different way in half a year from now. But that’s all.”

There is some evidence, though, that Putin might finally have pushed at least some Russians too far, that a cynicism-soaked tolerance is giving way to urges to do something about it.

Russia’s widely respected finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, quit after Putin and Medvedev announced their plans to swap jobs. Kudrin said he could not serve in cabinet under Medvedev, who then told him to resign. He did. Two of Russia’s most popular bands, Mashina Vremeni and Chaif—who both played at a massive concert celebrating Medvedev’s election as president 3½ years ago—say they won’t do the same for Putin in March. “They’ve already told us who will be president. The problem is not that it is Putin. Rather, it is the feeling that we’re being robbed of what was left of our electoral rights,” Andrei Makarevich, front man for Mashina Vremeni, told Radio Free Europe.

Hundreds of thousands of less famous Russians are making a quieter, but arguably more consequential, protest: they’re leaving. Some 50,000 go every year, and many more are thinking about it. According to a recent Levada poll, about one in every five Russians considers emigrating. These numbers climb among middle-class Russians who are young and educated. “It effectively constitutes a brain drain,” says Nixey.

The prosperous leave, while those coming to Russia are manual workers from the former Soviet Union. Capital flight is a predictable and damaging side effect. Some US$31 billion left Russia in the first six months of 2011, compared with US$30 billion in all of 2010. “The mood in the country [is] not particularly upbeat,” says Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia who advises corporations working in the country. “In fact, it’s distinctly, in some places, almost apocalyptic. And the idea that Putin is going to come back certainly isn’t going to change that.”

Russia’s economy remains overly dependent on oil and gas exports, making it fragile. It needs the young, educated and ambitious who are plotting their futures somewhere else. Ironically, perhaps, while their departures weaken Russia, they don’t hurt Putin, and won’t do much to push Russia toward democracy. “Open borders have strengthened the regime,” says Nice, “because many of the people who might have formed the classes of discontented elites are simply abroad.”


Putin’s unhappy Russia

  1. So, we’re doing our best to snap them up, right?


  2. Michael Petrou must get paid by the Russia cliche.  By the way, emigration from Russia is at an all time low and Putin’s approval rating is ~65%.And talk about misrepresentation!  This article is full of it!  For example, Kudrin resigned because of Medvedev’s fiscal policies, not Putin’s return, as this article states.
    Journalism schools just aren’t turning out talented reporters who care to do research or fact check.  Then again, the pay isn’t that good either :)

  3. Wow! What a one-sided and ignorant piece of propaganda!
    Hopefully anyone reading it will use a bit of personal judgment.

    “In most official democracies, citizens must wait until an election is
    held to find out who will be running their country. Russia is different.” – in Russia – same thing, what Medvedev said it that he proposes that Putin runs for the president.Yes, he is expected to win by most, but that’s only expectation.

    “…using oil and gas as a weapon to bully countries like Ukraine and Georgia that sought closer ties to the West…” – this is a huge stretch to anyone familiar with the facts. Georgia is not related to any oil/gas contract disputes at all.

    It amazes me every time (well, if we are to believe it) that Western Democracies insist on establishing a “democracy” before evolution of a civil society takes place (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt). It doesn’t work, can’t you see? There is limited democracy in Russia right now, but it will change with time (Russia was never democratic before 90’s). By the way, in the West, in US in particular, democracy appears to be controlled not by ‘demos’, but by big economic interest (5 or 9 lobbyists per congressman or something similar?).

    Could the life be better in Russia? Sure it could. I still think Putin is the best bet for Russia so far.
    Looking at US and Europe, situation could be better over there too. There are problems everywhere and democracy is not always a panacea. 

  4. >> many Russians are voting with their feet

    Does kgb allow people to vote with feet? I thought that kgb agents break legs
    of those who adores Putin less than 100500% of their souls.

  5. I agree with almost everything the author of the article has said, but I will also add a few more thoughts:

    As a Russian, I am truly ashamed that this pathetic little man, Putin, controls the entire country and that the Russian population just accepts it with no visible opposition. The latter is hardly surprising taken decades of  “unnatural selection,” when the best and the brightest were either physically eliminated or forced to leave. This brain drain does continue now indeed and there is no question that it will continue at a higher rate in the near future, until no progressive ambitious people are left at all. We are pretty close to this state of affairs and indeed the ruling criminal “elite” in Russia only benefits from this trend, as the author correctly points out. 

    The modern Russia is a sad, sad place. There is no manufacturing. The health care system and education are in terminal decline. Science has been completely destroyed. The basic infrastructure is falling apart. Civil liberties are nearly non-existent. Opposition has been has been painted into a corner.  The corruption is everywhere, at every level. The population is declining and the life span is going down, in part due to wide-spread alcoholism, drug-use, AIDS, etc. The Russian language has deteriorated into various forms of unrecognizable slang. There is a massive dumbing-down of the entire population. 

    Putin presides over this unbelievable decline, pumping gas and oil from the ground, which has been the only activity he has ever cared about. He has no broad vision, nor desire to improve things in Russia, where his only goal is to hold on to power and retain status quo with those criminals around him. His modus operandi in international policy involves nothing but blackmailing Russia’s neighbors over gas prices. His “international policy” with stronger countries seems to rely on a different kind of blackmail with threats involving nuclear technologies developed back in the old Soviet times. He boasts economic successes during his first time in office (formally so, as he obviously has been in control all along, having picked the weakest and the most pathetic “successor”), but these relative and temporary economic improvements after the anarchy of the 90s had nothing to do with Putin, as he was just riding the bubble of high energy prices and also was benefiting from the initial illusion of democratization of the Russian society. Now, only a complete lunatic will invest in Russia on the eve of and after these fake “elections” and in the current economic and political climate. 

    Another scary thing about Putin is that he appears to genuinely believe that he is a mighty leader and a savior of Russia. He clearly has completely lost touch with reality and his recent carefully selected photoshoots (exposing to the world his aging torso) and archeological discoveries show that he is simply delusional and is obsessed with his personality. To have such a delusional leader is a dangerous road we have been on before.

    To me, Putin’s rise to power is an inexplicable glitch of history that looks much like a recurrent nightmare. I pray that there arises a true leader among the grey crowd, who can finally put an end to this. But some help from the West would not hurt. What we need is an open and unequivocal denouncement of the abuse of power by Putin by all progressive Western leaders and such a denouncement should be backed up by real action, including economic sanctions perhaps and other methods (e.g., boycott of the Olympics in Sochi). It may hurt at first, but it will help the Russians recognize how wrong the things are and will help all in the long run.

    • You real stupid shit.

      • Wow – such intelligent rebuttal! If you disagree with what was said, how about offering up some counterpoints?

      • Haha, you must be a Russian who knows Putin can’t cure any of the above problems and the depression of that realization has made you lash out with mere insults instead of you know, actually analyzing the problems. How Putin-esque of you.

    • This is well said by sadsadrussian, and I join you in being ashamed of where Putin is leading our country. He was in the right place at the right time, and perhaps his rash leadership was needed 12 years ago, but right now is the time to move forward, not backward. I thought perhaps Medvedev might make some progress, but as many expected, he was just holding Putin’s seat for him and continued to perform his regressive policies. Now we are addicted to gas and oil money, with no real plan for what we will do when the prices drop. Foreign investment is leaving Russia because they do not trust our leaders. Young, intelligent Russians are also leaving Russia, because they have no faith that democracy will progress enough to allow them to start new businesses and new families in freedom and peace. 

      I often hear many people say how popular Putin is, including Putin of course ;), but here is a question…If Putin and United  Russia are so secure in their belief that the Russian people truly want them, then, why must they go to such lengths to eliminate credible competition, restrict organized campaigning and peaceful protests, and forbid sufficient numbers of impartial election observers. If they are so sure of themselves, why are they struggling to make sure that they have no opposition except those who have no real ideas and no real support. 

  6. We were all very glad when democracy reached Russia.  What it actually meant was that most of Russia’s resources came to be owned by a dozen man, none of whom was actually an ethnic Russian, and the people were pauperized.   One of the dozen gifted ones acquired 5-6% of the world’s oil reserves for the price of a Donald Trump beach house. (He then tried to bribe most of the parliamentarians which was represented in the West  (let’s call it PR)   as funding democratic parties)

    {Russians are not so lucky as Americans,  at least 14% of whom think that Congress is doing a good job.  Americans’ only gripe is that they do not get a list of lobbyists to vote for, and wish that there was a Lobbyist Chamber}

     No wonder Russians are emigrating to the US.  The prospect of full employment, having the value of your house increasing by 55% in two years,  your pension fund stratosphering  not to mention free medical aid when you need it,  must seem extraordinary attractive . Oh yes, and learning Spanish effortlessly.

    What Mr Petrou seems to forget is that some nations are just lucky  and others aren’t.  Russia belongs to the latter group. Even more unlucky is China  They haven’t got  the Rep/Dem  system which the US has. They haven’t got people like Sharpton  at the sidelines  saying that if no more money is printed to give to his unskilled unemployable and work-shy followers, they’ll walk down the streets. China lacks all this and the US credit rating agencies correctly assesses the US, the world’s highest indebted nation as more credit-worthy than China, the country with the world’s largest  reserves 

  7. 50,000 go every year. Out of 143,000,000. (And 300,000 come in).What an unabated apocalypse. Putin = total fail.

    // *sarcasm*

  8. I can’t comment on the veracity of other points in the article, but the capital flight point does ring true to me.  A food friend of mine works for a large Swiss Bank in Zurich, and he tells me that these days, the big money coming in there is all Russian money.  Russians who have substantial amounts of money are moving it out of Russia. 

  9. Paragraph 13- “There was a myth in the West that Putin was stepping out…” No, there wasn’t. Nobody in the West believed that laughable myth, only the Russian media did.

  10. Which city is reported to have the most billionnaires?

    Moscow, believe it or not

  11. In most official democracies, citizens must wait until an election is
    held to find out who will be running their country. 

    There is one idea in the society that people go abroad for money, not
    for democracy.

    Actually, there immigrants face a lot of problems: money (in Moscow the salaries
    are higher, and the taxes are lower, than in EU), language, adaptation. But
    there a lot of advantages, supported by democratic institutions of UE, for example:
    living standard, well developed economy, demand for professionalism, social
    stability, human right respect and the rule of law. All these are side effects;
    however, unfortunately Russia has not even one of these parameters to offer their
    citizens. Take Germany, which have struggled for democracy and reached a
    certain level of democratization, and through liberalization have developed its
    economies, at the same time deterred law violence with strong punishment system
    (not selectively  – for the officials and
    bureaucracy’s children, like in Russia). Not everybody is satisfied, but if you
    are a citizen of the country, you should not watching TV, listening to the
    politicians explanations about your choice. You already have this choice
    without explanations. This is democracy. This is not just a proud of being a “superpower”,
    based on nothing. When you’re poor, being rude by police, officials, bureaucracy,
    you live in a corrupt country, but the lord of the country has a new palace, and
    you’re proud of it, this is not democracy. Democracy is a dialog – between the
    power and people. People have also to be responsible. Or to become.


  12. Putin is the new Hitler.

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