Pre­par­ing for a postPutin Rus­sia

Marlborough Express - - COMMENT&OPINION - GWYNNE DYER

WORLD VIEW Why wait an­other month to re­port on the Rus­sian elec­tion (March 18) when we can wrap it up right now?

Vladimir Putin is go­ing to win an­other six years in power by a land­slide – prob­a­bly be­tween 60 and 70 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote. The real ques­tion is what hap­pens after that, be­cause he will be 72 by the end of his next term and will not legally be al­lowed to run for pres­i­dent again.

Putin doesn’t take chances, so he has barred op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny from stand­ing in the elec­tion by hav­ing the obe­di­ent courts con­vict him of fraud on a trumped-up charge.

Not that Navalny ever threat­ened to beat Putin, who is gen­uinely pop­u­lar in Rus­sia, but none of the other pres­i­den­tial candidates in this elec­tion are even se­ri­ous con­tenders. Their only func­tion is to make the elec­tion look le­git­i­mate.

First up is Kse­nia Sobchak, a for­mer ‘re­al­ity’ TV show host whose wealth and es­tab­lish­ment links (her fa­ther Ana­toly was the mayor of St Peters­burg and Putin’s po­lit­i­cal men­tor) have earned her the mock­ing ti­tle of ‘Rus­sia’s Paris Hil­ton’. She’s lib­eral, pro-gay, all the things that Putin isn’t, but she is nev­er­the­less seen as his pre­ferred op­po­nent, and not to be taken se­ri­ously.

Cer­tainly the youth­ful Com­mu­nist can­di­date, Pavel Gru­dinin, the boss of a for­mer col­lec­tive farm en­ter­prise called Lenin State Farm, is not to be taken se­ri­ously. Nei­ther is Vladimir Zhiri­novsky, a rav­ing ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist car­i­ca­ture of a man. Putin will win in a walk – and yet Rus­sia is a modern, welle­d­u­cated coun­try with a demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion. It must one day take charge of its own af­fairs, but when and how?

Rus­sia is in an un­end­ing po­lit­i­cal hold­ing pat­tern, for­ever cir­cling the des­ti­na­tion of democ­racy but un­able to land. It’s easy to ex­plain how it got into this dead-end, much harder to see how it gets out of it.

The col­lapse of more than 70 years of Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship in 1987-91 left most Rus­sians in a state of shock. The young felt lib­er­ated, the older gen­er­a­tion was ap­pre­hen­sive, but no­body quite knew what to do next. The first and last truly com­pet­i­tive elec­tions were held in that pe­riod, but by the mid-1990s the oli­garchs (mostly ex-Com­mu­nists) were back in the sad­dle.

The oli­garchs had ‘pri­va­tised’ the for­merly state-owned econ­omy into their own pock­ets (with a lit­tle help from the lo­cal mafia), and they had co-opted Pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin as their front-man. Freely elected and once pop­u­lar for his dra­matic de­fence of democ­racy in the at­tempted Com­mu­nist comeback coup of 1991, Yeltsin was a drunken and corrupt wreck of a man by the time of the 1996 elec­tion.

He ‘won’ that elec­tion thanks to mas­sive West­ern and par­tic­u­larly US in­ter­ven­tion in sup­port of their favoured can­di­date (the traf­fic goes both ways), but his mis­man­age­ment of the econ­omy wiped out the sav­ings of most Rus­sians and brought democ­racy it­self into dis­re­pute. Down to this day many Rus­sians as­so­ci­ate the word ‘democ­racy’ with the law­less and vi­o­lent chaos of the 90s.

Putin, Yeltsin’s cho­sen suc­ces­sor, has main­tained his pop­u­lar­ity through 18 years in power be­cause he has pro­vided Rus­sians with what they wanted above all: a fair de­gree of sta­bil­ity and pre­dictabil­ity in their lives.

Liv­ing stan­dards for most Rus­sians are prob­a­bly still be­low what they were in late Soviet times, but they were slowly but steadily ris­ing from their 1990s nadir un­til the col­lapse of oil prices three years ago.

Putin’s for­eign ad­ven­tures (Ge­or­gia, Crimea, east­ern Ukraine) are es­sen­tially de­fen­sive from a Rus­sian point of view. Coun­tries that were once part of the Rus­sian em­pire and the Soviet Union are known as the ‘Near Abroad’, where dif­fer­ent rules of con­duct sup­pos­edly ap­ply, but West­ern fears of a Rus­sian mil­i­tary am­bi­tions against NATO coun­tries are largely self-serv­ing myths ped­dled by West­ern mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial-po­lit­i­cal com­plexes.

In fact, Rus­sia is far too weak

Rus­sia is in an un­end­ing po­lit­i­cal hold­ing pat­tern, for­ever cir­cling the des­ti­na­tion of democ­racy but un­able to land.

eco­nom­i­cally and too frag­ile po­lit­i­cally to em­bark on a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with any of the ma­jor pow­ers. Putin is a deeply cau­tious man whose con­ser­vatism have given Rus­sia a des­per­ately needed respite from con­tin­u­ous and ru­inous po­lit­i­cal up­heavals.

He is for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses a dic­ta­tor, of course, al­though by Rus­sian his­tor­i­cal stan­dards a fairly non-vi­o­lent one. And he has al­ways metic­u­lously ob­served the con­sti­tu­tional rules, even leav­ing the pres­i­dency and serv­ing as prime min­is­ter in 2008-12 in or­der to com­ply with the ban on more than two con­sec­u­tive pres­i­den­tial terms.

It some­times feels like Putin, for all his faults, sees him­self as a care­taker leader un­til Rus­sia is strong and sta­ble enough to try democ­racy again. He has cer­tainly been care­ful to leave the en­tire le­gal struc­ture of democ­racy in place, al­though he ma­nip­u­lates it ruth­lessly for his own short-term pur­poses.

And the great unan­swered ques­tion is: how would a postPutin Rus­sia re­vive the demo­cratic ex­per­i­ment it em­barked on in 1989-91, in the face of cer­tain op­po­si­tion from the oli­garchs who ben­e­fit so greatly from cur­rent ar­range­ments?

We may find out in the 2024 elec­tion, when Putin again comes up against the two-term limit.

Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

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