One man versus the people

Vladimir Putin has stifled dissent throughout his political life. But as he prepares for another pre

Putin vs Russia
Vladimir Putin addresses his supporters during a rally at the Manezhnaya Square just outside the Kremlin in Moscow, late on March 4, 2012. Photo :Getty Images

Vladimir Putin has stifled dissent throughout his political life. But as he prepares for another presidential term, Russia’s disaffected middle class are no longer willing to stay silent.

In September 2003, Vladimir Putin rose to address the World Climate Change Conference in Moscow. He had summoned some of the world's leading environmentalists to Russia and, they were sure, this could mean only one thing: that the Russian president would support the Kyoto Protocol.

Owing to the treaty's complex mathematics, the future of this centrepiece of the fight against climate change depended entirely on Russia. The hall, packed with delegates, was silent as Putin rose to speak. Journalists had phone lines open. Officials leaned forward slightly to listen.

Looking back at the transcript now, it is hard to recall the tension in the hall, because Putin said nothing of any substance. He thanked the participants, acknowledged the importance of the issue, and that was it. It was bizarre. He had brought everyone to Russia - for this?

The assembled environment ministers and United Nations officials were disappointed. They whispered to each other and then, one
by one, rose to chide Putin for not doing the decent thing.

When they finished, Putin delivered an unscripted reply. No one was expecting it and even his press aide failed to turn her tape recorder on in time. That was a shame, because his response gave a brief glimpse into the depths of his mysterious soul.

“Russia is a northern country," he said. "It's not scary if it's two or three degrees warmer. Maybe it would even be a good thing. We'd have to spend less money on fur coats and other warm things."

Putin was already known for his iron control and precise command of the facts. But, confronted by mild criticism spurred by understandable disappointment, his response was petulant, boorish, ignorant and inappropriate.

Putin has built a system in Russia where he never faces opposition. It is rare, indeed, for anyone to sight a human behind the screen of public relations he has erected around himself. By way of illustration, Masha Gessen has called her new biography of the leader The Man Without a Face.
The Russian media has been gutted since he came to power in 2000 and his public appearances are scripted. Photo opportunities are tightly controlled: Putin meeting dignitaries

or engaging in manly outdoor activities, and so on. Compare this to how it was under Boris Yeltsin, who first made Putin prime minister and then appointed him acting president. All the classic pictures of Yeltsin are impromptu: his dancing with a chorus line in 1996; his conducting an orchestra in Berlin in 1994; his standing on a tank before the crowds defending Moscow's White House in 1991.

From Putin's first days as acting president, after Yeltsin's decision to mark the new millennium by standing down and handing over the nuclear briefcase, he demonstrated that he would have a different style of leadership.

His campaign for the elections of March 2000, like all his campaigns since, was deliberately low-key. He refused then and still refuses now to take part in public debates. He does not engage with the electorate except in carefully scripted, televised phone-ins. What little the Russian people could find out about his past before he became president of their country came from an official biography that was produced in a matter of weeks.
Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), a city that was then still devastated from the near-900 days of Nazi blockade. His father was a conscript in the Soviet navy and his mother a factory worker. Putin grew up in a communal apartment and has boasted of his past as a street fighter. He finished school with decent grades, studied law and joined the KGB on graduation in 1975. His career as a spy in the old German Democratic Republic was a failure.

The country he was guarding for communism turned capitalist on his watch after the Berlin Wall fell and he returned to a very different Soviet Union. Back in his home town, renamed St Petersburg in 1991, he resigned from active service to take up a job as deputy to Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, whom he had known as a professor in the 1970s.

Sobchak lost his job in 1996, after which Putin refused to work for his replacement. Instead, he went to Moscow, where he eventually rose to be head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor agency to the KGB.

Putin took time off in 1997 to spirit his old boss out of the country when Sobchak was threatened with criminal charges. It was a display of loyalty that impressed Yeltsin, who feared that he might also face trial for corruption after he left office. In August 1999, Yeltsin, who had grown increasingly erratic through the 1990s, appointed Putin as prime minister. On the eve of the new millennium, Yeltsin stepped down and made the little-known former spy acting president in his place.

Putin's popularity had already been boosted by his ruthless approach to the war in Chechnya and Yeltsin praised him in his New Year's address as a "strong person who deserves to become president and to whom virtually every Russian has linked his hopes for the future". Putin signed a decree promising his predecessor immunity from prosecution and Yeltsin barely appeared in public again.

Just four months into his political career, Putin was in charge of the world's biggest country. At that time, though it is hard to imagine it when watching television in Russia now, the main channels were lively places of competing viewpoints, controlled by businessmen who had grown fat feasting on the Soviet Union's corpse. Even before Putin won 53 per cent of the vote to become president in March 2000, there were signs that the media moguls might turn against him.

Days before the poll, NTV, a channel controlled by the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, broadcast a talk show speculating that the FSB might have been behind a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that killed 293 people, and which were officially blamed on Chechen rebels.
NTV had been running a Spitting Image-style puppet show, which caricatured Putin as everything from an evil gnome to God. Putin's response to the criticism was ruthless. Less than a week after his inauguration on 7 May 2000, police raided Gusinsky's headquarters in Moscow. Soon afterwards, the oligarch fled the country and lost his empire; the ownership of NTV was transferred to Gazprom, the state gas company.

The same fate befell Boris Berezovsky, another oligarch now resident in London, when his ORT channel criticised Putin over how he had responded to the sinking of the Kursk submarine in his first summer as president. Putin had stayed away from the site of the disaster in the Barents Sea, while officials had refused offers from Norway and Britain to rescue the stranded seamen. All 118 men on-board the submarine died, their deaths finally confirmed when Russia allowed a Norwegian team to access the wreck.

Then, in October 2003, less than a month after the Moscow environment conference, came the downfall of the most powerful oligarch of them all: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia's richest man and head of the Yukos oil company.

Khodorkovsky had infuriated the Kremlin by using his wealth and power to stop parliament passing changes to the tax code. Even more dramatically, he had used a Kremlin meeting to tell Putin that several top aides were corrupt. Putin responded as badly as he always did to criticism, even though Khodorkovsky apparently intended no slight against the president himself, and raised the oligarch's own murky past.

State media began hinting of a campaign against Yukos and several of Khodorkovsky's subordinates were arrested. The oligarch - perhaps because he had suddenly discovered a conscience - did not flee. Instead, he toured the country, lecturing Russians of the danger of a resurgent Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky may have believed himself untouchable. Under Putin, Russia had changed so quickly that he could be forgiven for being behind the times. Oligarchs who had bailed out the Kremlin just five years earlier were now threatened with arrest.

Khodorkovsky had been so powerful that he had, in effect, his own foreign policy but, on 25 October 2003, he was led away in handcuffs, to be tried and convicted on tax evasion charges. The banishment of Russia's once richest man to Siberia sent an unmistakeable message that politics should be left to the professionals.

In the 1990s, under Yeltsin, the oligarchs controlled most of Russia and could demand extraordinary concessions from the state - they bought oil companies cheaply in exchange for loans and political support. Now, Putin had felled the tallest of them and scared the rest into silence.

By the time of Putin's environment conference, therefore, criticism was not something that he expected. That explained his crude response when the international experts chided him and his even cruder responses to foreign journalists who quizzed him on his trips abroad. He offered to have one French reporter circumcised "so nothing grows back".

Under Putin's rule, Russia regained much of the confidence it had lost in the 1990s, when it was reduced to begging the International Monetary Fund for aid. On the world stage, he teamed up with France and Germany to block US attempts to punish Saddam Hussein through the United Nations. At home, he crushed organised Chechen resistance, brought back symbols of the Soviet past, such as the national anthem and military emblems, and neutered rival state institutions, such as parliament and regional governors. His officials proposed a Russian style of government called "managed democracy".

First as president and then, after 2008, when he stepped down to become prime minister, having served the constitutional maximum of two consecutive terms, Putin offered Russians stability and cash, as well as a renewed sense of national purpose. Aided by high oil prices and an economic boom, he paid off Russia's huge debt burden early. He improved tax collection rates and used the money to pay pensions and wages on time. There is no doubt that for most Russians, life got much better under Putin.

I moved to Russia in September 1999, less than a month after Putin first became prime minister. A friend and I rented a flat close to central St Petersburg for $150 a month and I could live comfortably on a monthly salary of just $200. Today, that same flat would cost ten times as much and that salary would leave me destitute. I did my shopping in a ragged market that was muddy in summer and frozen in winter. Now, on that same street, there is a choice of two supermarkets, full of western brands and their Russian rivals.

In the 2000s, luxury showrooms pushed out competition in central Moscow, selling Bentleys, Maseratis and Prada to the new rich. For those who could not afford to shop in these showrooms, Ikea, the brand of the global middle class, spread across Russia.

When Putin first came to power, parliament was packed with uppity independents who had been elected from first-past-the-post constituencies. By clever manoeuvring and by playing the system, his Kremlin replaced the recalcitrant chamber that had frustrated Yeltsin with a compliant parliament dominated by his United Russia party.

In 2000, Putin was just one among many politicians of clout. Yuri Luzhkov, then mayor of Moscow, or Vladimir Yakovlev, the man who had overthrown Putin's mentor as mayor of St Petersburg, had as much power as the presidents of decent-sized countries. After Putin abolished elections for regional governors, however, local power bases came second to loyalty to the Kremlin and the fortunes of the regional barons waned.
In 2008, anxious to avoid giving a rival a chance to consolidate his position, Putin delayed for as long as possible naming who would succeed him. He finally chose Dmitry Medvedev, a lawyer who had served under him in St Petersburg and in the Kremlin administration. Putin became prime minister, leaving many of his top advisers in the Kremlin. Med­vedev appeared to be his puppet.

All of this is the context to the wave of protests that swept through Moscow this winter. Putin had brought stability but, for the kinds of Russians who shopped at Ikea and holidayed abroad, stability was beginning to look a lot like stagnation.

Cynicism spread through the middle classes. Putin's photo opportunities and public relations stunts (he rode a fire-fighting plane; he tranquilised a tiger; he found some Greek amphorae in the Black Sea) looked increasingly ridiculous to voters exposed to the more subtle techniques used elsewhere.

Putin is not a politician in the western sense. He does not campaign as our politicians campaign, by talking directly to voters and trying to persuade them. He has made a virtue of not campaigning and, by scrapping elections for regional governors and independent members of parliament, has made it all but impossible for anyone else to do so.

After 2008, political analysis, which in the early Putin years had focused on the fate of top businessmen, power-hungry officials and significant policies, was largely reduced to one question: would Medvedev stay in the Kremlin for two terms or only one? Or, to put it another way, how long would Putin tolerate being part of a two-man team? The answer came in September last year, when Medvedev, president of Russia, was made to humiliate himself before the world by backing Putin for his own job.

That announcement decided March's presidential poll. It also seemed to put an end to Russian politics for the foreseeable future. Thanks to changes in presidential terms, Putin would be governing for the next 12 years. A new Putin age was being ushered in, more sinister and perhaps more protracted than the last. Gessen, who may now be regretting having finished her biography of Putin when she did, summed it up with what must have looked a reasonable judgement at the time: "The transformation of Russia back into the USSR was, for all Putin's intents and purposes, complete."

She was wrong, as were most other analysts, because she did not take into account ordinary Russians who, in Putin's neutered system, had come to resemble pieces to be moved around in a game of Risk, rather than sentient players of their own.

The Ikea-goers did not like Putin's decision. In Soviet times, at least the state made a play of consulting the people, down to the lowest party cell. Now, the election featured one man, and he had voted, and voted for himself. He had taken the people for granted, and they would not stand for it.

It is hard not to conclude that Putin's miscalculation was a result of the system he had created and how it had in­sulated him from criticism. If you do not hear any criticism, there is a dangerous chance that you will come to think no one is criticising you.

Without a free media, without opposition politicians, without independent businessmen, he is surrounded by sycophants. They pass on his commands without his having to engage with the people they affect. Between that environment conference in 2003 and September 2011, I cannot think of a single time when he faced criticism in public.

But it did not last. In November last year, Putin appeared at a martial arts tournament. He stepped into the ring to congratulate the winner and the crowd booed him. It was unprecedented. This was supposed to be his turf.

There had always been opposition activists, who united around issues such as corruption and protecting the environment, but they were a tiny minority, easy to dismiss. The public anger over Putin's arrogance sparked political consciousness in the very people who were supposed to be happy with the stability he had brought to Russia. The egregious techniques that the Kremlin then used to rig December's parliamentary poll fed into the anger and created a movement.

Weirdly enough, the change in political consciousness that followed can best be observed on the Russian celebrity Ksenia Sobchak's Twitter feed. She and Putin go back a long way. Her father was the mayor of St Petersburg who gave Putin his first job in politics. Putin saved her father from prosecution, first spiriting him out of the country and then allowing him to come home. When Sobchak died in 2000, Putin looked genuinely bereaved at the funeral. They are almost family.

As a professional socialite and television personality, Ksenia has benefited as much as anyone from the economic boom of the Putin years. Before the elections, the tweets she sent to her 300,000 or so followers discussed her hair, her TV show, celebrity gossip and the like. But then even she was swept up by the mood of the moment. On 3 December, the eve of the poll, she wrote this appeal: "Vote as you like. The main thing is to come. If you don't come, it will be easier to rig the voting."

By tracking forward, you can see her political education, compressed into a few delirious weeks: delight when exit polls showed that United Russia would get less than half the votes; disgust when they did; outrage as more and more cases of fraud were uncovered by ordinary Russians with cameras on their mobile phones; exultation as she saw her people rise up and rediscover their dignity.

On 7 December, she wrote: "The country is seething. I have a feeling that we are at the end of the 1980s again. And soon it will be 1991. The main thing is to make sure we are not in 1917."

Then, in the early hours of 10 December, on the eve of the biggest protest since the end of the USSR, with perhaps 50,000 demonstrators, came this: "I cannot sleep at all. I feel that tomorrow, or more accurately today, will decide the destiny of my country."

The change in her did not go unnoticed. One of her Twitter followers implored her to go back to being the old Ksenia: "I'm tired of reading ur polit position! I want ur pix and advices what to wear and how to behave! And no curse! Cmon ur my idol!"

But she ignored such appeals. By the time of the next mass protest, on 24 December, she was up onstage with its organisers. "My slogan is: let's fight not for power but for in­fluence on power," she tweeted after she addressed the crowd.

Appalled by the treachery of his middle class, Putin responded with a series of lengthy explanations of his plans. Although they are, in effect, unreadable in their entirety - a total of 35,000 rambling words have appeared under his name since mid-January - they still present a political programme of sorts. He may have been refusing to take part in debates as usual but at least he was explaining something about what he would do, to the people who would be electing him.

This may not seem like much and it should be said that the protests have revealed his petulant side far more than they have spurred good in him. He has attacked the remaining free media for "pouring diarrhoea" on him and accused the protesters of serving the interests of Hillary Clinton.

Putin will win on 4 March, with none of his four opponents currently polling above 15 per cent, but he will not win cleanly, whatever the vote tally. He will realise that a sizeable proportion of the population wants things to be different and that means he will have to govern in a different way.

Russia faces huge problems. Its population has fallen by five million since he came to power, with mass alcoholism driving a demographic catastrophe. The global economic crisis has revealed the country's dangerous dependence on oil revenues.

Russia now needs an oil price of over $100 a barrel to balance its budget. Its foreign policy, including its unstinting support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has left Russia dangerously isolated in an unstable world.

Putin cannot sort this out on his own. One day very soon, he will have to begin to trust his people - or face the consequences.

Oliver Bullough is the author of "Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus" (Penguin, £12.99)