Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Putin prepares to step down - at least formally

28th April 2007 16:48

When Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state-of-the-nation speech last Thursday in the

Kremlin’s imposing Marble Hall he was, as usual, feted like a latter-day Tsar.

The president of the world’s largest country was on his feet for just over one hour yet frenzied rounds of

applause forced him to pause on no less than forty-four occasions.

His audience, Russia’s entire political elite, couldn’t get enough of him; they hung on his every

word, they studied his face for clues as he spoke, and they loyally reacted to his words in precisely the way

his speech writers had intended.  The event was more significant this year than usual –

Mr Putin is due to step down as president next march after serving two four-year terms in office.

Under the Russian constitution, he is not allowed to serve three consecutive terms though the country’s

political elite and most of its 144-million strong population would dearly love him to do so.

For his supporters the event was therefore shot through with poignancy.

And though nobody said it aloud, it represented the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of an era,

the Putin era. It is an era that has seen Russia claw back a large

measure of its Soviet-era influence while revitalising its economy.

Mr Putin, who has evolved into a consummate performer over the years, did not disappoint his audience.   

The former KGB spy’s face flushed with pride when he reported that Russia was now among the world’s ten

largest economies and that real incomes had more than doubled since 2000, the year he formally took charge

of the Kremlin. “Russia has now not only completely overcome its long

period of declining production, but has become one of the ten biggest world economies,” he announced

proudly.

“The situation in the country is gradually, slowly, step by step, starting to change for the better.”

Russia, he continued, was now the world’s largest producer of oil outstripping even Saudi Arabia, his

famously controlled face tightening a little with yet more pride.   

He promised that the government would invest billions of its petrodollars -- on raising  pensions, on

building new housing, and on reviving parts of Russia’s heavy industrial base that withered with the

collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  His words were characteristically cocksure,

uncompromising, and -- when it came to Washington and the West – combative.

He railed against US plans to locate parts of a controversial missile defence system in Eastern

Europe, lashed out at unnamed foreign governments for meddling in Russian politics, and boasted repeatedly

of how his country was on the up. Carefully orchestrated and tightly controlled with a

ready supply of clapping yes men, the scene could have been a vignette from a Communist Party Congress.

Only there was not a hammer and sickle or red flag in sight; those props have long since been replaced with

the white blue and red national Russian flag and the country’s striking Tsarist double-headed eagle symbol.

However appearances can be deceptive  -- more than fifteen years after the USSR imploded, Mr Putin has

re-established the same highly centralised form of government favoured by the Communist Party.

Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union mark two; Communism as an ideology has been buried,

Russian-style capitalism has engendered rampant consumerism, and Russia is more open to the West and

the outside world than the USSR ever was. But what is undeniable is that Mr Putin has slammed

the door shut on the often anarchic freedoms and chaos of the 1990s, relentlessly consolidated his own power,

and ruthlessly clamped down on the media and political opposition.

In the Soviet era there was only one political party – the Communist party. Despite a token pretence that

there is genuine plurality today there is also only really one power in the land, Mr Putin’s United Russia

Party.   His love of central state control and his intolerance of any form of dissent has seen Mr Putin derided in

the West as a dangerously authoritarian leader with little real love of democracy.

He is the shadowy former KGB spy who has rolled back the democratic reforms of his Western-friendly

predecessor, the late Boris Yeltsin, and stoked the embers of a new Cold War.

That, at least is how the mantra goes. Yet inside Russia Mr Putin is seen in a very different

light. Even allowing for the fact that he has all the levers

of power at his disposal and almost total control over the mass media, Mr Putin is genuinely popular.

Opinion polls regularly give him a personal popularity rating of between seventy and eighty percent. 

In the eyes of many ordinary Russians he has brought back much-needed ‘poryadok’ (order), nurtured the

country’s renaissance, and given Russians something to be proud of after years of feeling humiliated.   

When Boris Yeltsin died of heart failure last week some Russians remembered his time in office with

nostalgia. The sense of optimism that accompanied his coming to

power, the dramatic break with the country’s Soviet past, and the unfettered freedom that was suddenly

unleashed.

Yet if given the choice few Russians would choose Yeltsin over Putin.

“At least we now have a president we can be proud of,” is a familiar refrain.

“Yeltsin was an embarrassing drunk who dragged our country’s name through the mud and sold off our

national wealth to a few oligarchs behind closed doors,” says Misha Ilyukhin, a shop assistant.

“What we have now is a dictatorship pure and simple but at least there is stability and people respect us

again.”   

The charge sheet against Mr Putin is however, a long one.

Since Mr Putin assumed the Russian presidency on the last day of the last century, at least twenty

journalists have died in suspicious circumstances. Shot, stabbed or poisoned, they have two hings in

common: no one has been convicted, or in most cases even arrested, after their deaths and all of them had

angered powerful vested interests. In 2004 American journalist Paul Klebnikov died in a

hail of bullets on a Moscow street while in October of last year investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya

was gunned down in the lift of her apartment block. Nobody has been brought to justice for either murder.

That media freedom has been steadily eroded in the past seven and a half years is beyond question.

All nationwide TV channels are under state control and the nightly news has come to resemble the Soviet

newscasts of old. Changing channels doesn’t help; the news is the same

on all of them. Mr Putin giving instructions to his ministers, Mr

Putin visiting a factory, Mr Putin shaking a foreign leader’s hand or Mr Putin on holiday and so it goes

on. Newspapers, though a bit freer, have also come under increasing Kremlin control.

In the last few years many of the country’s most influential titles – Izvestia, Kommersant and

Nezavisimaya Gazeta—have been taken over by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs.

Political freedoms have been gradually curtailed, often under the pretext of clamping down on

‘extremism’ or fighting terrorism.  Whereas in the past regional governors (who form a

vital part of the system of governance in such a vast country were elected they are now appointed by local

parliaments who almost always do what the Kremlin tell them to do.

Kremlin opponents also face serious obstacles when it comes to staging protests.

In the last month two opposition rallies, in Moscow and St Petersburg, have been brutally disrupted by

baton-wielding riot police who claimed they were provoked by “extremists.”

Not that the opposition enjoys widespread support; those rallies only attracted around two thousand

people apiece, hardly a groundswell of popular discontent in a country of 144 million people.

The Kremlin seems unready, however, to even tolerate poorly attended public displays of opposition.

Equally anyone who gets too big for their boots and looks like they might be a political threat is

neutralised, often by being ridiculed in the press. In the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s

richest man and the head of the Yukos oil firm, the penalty was a good deal stiffer of course.

His political ambitions saw him sentenced to eight years in jail for various white-collar crimes; he is

now serving time in a remote Siberian prison camp. Foreign and domestic human rights organisations have

also had a rough ride. A new law gives the Kremlin unprecedented oversight of

their activities and the power to shut down them down at will.

Under Mr Putin, racist violence has exploded. Last year 53 people were killed and 460 injured in racially

motivated attacks, according to the human rights centre Sova.

At times Mr Putin’s desire to make Russians feel good about themselves has appeared to promote an alarming

‘Russia for the Russians’ mentality. New laws that took effect earlier this month banned

non-Russians from working in the country’s food and clothes markets for example.

Critics also contend that high oil and gas prices have given Russia a weapon with which to bully disloyal

neighbours. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been left in the cold

temporarily by an indignant Moscow in recent years. And then there is Chechnya. It was Mr Putin who

prosecuted the second Chechen war in 1999 as the then Prime minister, a hard line policy he continued when

elevated to the presidency. That war is all but over but tens of thousands have

died or simply disappeared in the intervening years. But what are negative points seen through a

Westerner’s eyes are often plus points when filtered through a Russian prism or at the very least a price

worth paying for stability and prosperity. In truth most ordinary Russians are more interested in

their next foreign holiday, buying a new car, or securing a mortgage than human rights abuses or

Chechnya.

Nor do many have much of a yearning for democracy; the concept was discredited in the 1990s when living

standards plunged.  The question now then is will the man who has presided

over a feel-good economic boom really stand down next year as promised.

Uncertainty has crept in after some of Mr Putin’s supporters called for the constitution to be changed

to allow him to stay on; he insists he is really going.

Either way his legacy is assured. The two men in the running to succeed him are from his inner circle and

would be certain to keep Russia on the course that he has set it.

Most Russians believe that even if he does keep his word and step down he will not be far from the centre

of power anyway, a sentiment he appeared to encourage in his final state-of-the-nation speech.

“It would be premature,” he said “to deliver my last political will and testament.”