Andrew Osborn








Vladimir Putin’s obsession with Roosevelt is more than a little sinister, 10th September 2010 10:05

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow

At first glance, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vladimir Putin don’t seem to have much in common. The former spent much of his life in a wheelchair, while the Russian prime minister revels in displays of full-bodied vitality. But Mr Putin’s advisers and, it now seems, the man himself, believe that he is “the Russian Roosevelt”. It would be a curious analogy if it was not one that cast such a long shadow over Russia’s political future.

For the FDR comparison has been carefully selected. With four consecutive terms under his belt, President Roosevelt was the longest-serving president in US history. He was also the man who led the United States out of the Great Depression and through the Second World War. Opinion polls show Americans consistently rate him as one of the greatest presidents they ever had.

For Mr Putin’s supporters, the similarities are striking and, more ominously, incredibly convenient – from both a practical and an ideological point of view. Mr Putin has so far served two presidential terms (from 2000-2008) but is clearly mulling a return to the Russian presidency in 2012 at which point he would be entitled to serve a further two terms if he wanted, matching FDR’s record.

Like FDR, Mr Putin, in his supporters’ eyes, has successfully grappled with his fair share of crises. The 57-year-old former KGB spy is credited by his supporters with nothing less than saving Russia from anarchy and disintegration in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Russia slowly clawing its way back from the global economic crisis, the only problem for the pro-Putin lobby is that Russia is not currently embroiled in the kind of crisis that would necessitate a trouble-shooting FDR/Putin-like figure to save the Motherland once again. At least not yet.

But that has not stopped them invoking the FDR comparison as a crude tool in an attempt to legitimise a scenario which may or may not unfold. It is, in essence, all about keeping options open.

When asked earlier this week whether his potential re-election to the presidency in 2012 would jeopardise Russia’s political system, Mr Putin publicly likened himself to FDR for the first time. “In his day, US President (Franklin) Roosevelt was re-elected four times in a row because this did not contradict the American Constitution,” he noted. “Neither I nor President (Dmitry) Medvedev will do anything that contradicts existing Russian legislation and the country’s basic law,” he added.

Interestingly, the last time Mr Putin’s spin doctors referred to FDR was in 2007, the year when Mr Putin was considering whether or not he would flout his own country’s constitution and serve a third consecutive presidential term. In the end, he decided to play it safe and chose instead to nominate a handpicked loyalist to nominally succeed him as president, while he became prime minister.

Vladislav Surkov, the publicity-shy official widely regarded as the high priest of Putinism, fell over himself that year to liken Mr Putin to FDR. A big conference to commemorate the 125th anniversary of FDR’s birth was incongruously organised at Moscow State University at which Mr Surkov did his best to make the comparison stick. “In the 20th century, Roosevelt was our military ally. In the 21st he is our ideological ally,” he enthused.

“Like Roosevelt during his presidency, Putin has to consolidate administrative control and use presidential power to the maximum,” he added. “The ideas and emotions that are putting our society in motion seem surprisingly similar to those that moved America in Franklin Roosevelt’s epoch.”

Considering the Kremlin spent much of its time during Mr Putin’s presidency ensuring state TV pumped lurid anti-American propaganda out like a stuck record embracing FDR seemed then, as it does now, an odd move. But then there is a subtle difference. The anti-American mush transmitted on state TV was for ordinary Russians. But the FDR comparison is for the consumption of the Western political elite who fret about Mr Putin’s autocratic tendencies and need a little reassurance in case he does decide to take his old job back. It seems unlikely that FDR, were he alive, would have appreciated the comparison.