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.”

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