Vlad the Great

Putin has dismantled the fragile democracy of the 1990s, but has never been more popular. The New St

Russia is creeping towards dictatorship. The imminent parliamentary elections will be another step towards the re-establishment of a one-party system in Russia. No one doubts that the Kremlin-backed United Russia will dominate the next Duma - its propaganda dominates the media. To make sure, however, the Electoral Commission has raised the threshold for winning seats from 5 to 7 per cent of the vote and barred many of the weak and divided opposition parties from participating in the poll, using complicated registration laws. Opposition meetings are regularly broken up by the police.

Vladimir Putin may use United Russia's victory to break the constitution by standing for a third term in the presidential elections in March 2008. He has spoken ominously of his "moral right" to remain in power. Rallies "For Putin and For Russia" have been organised in a number of towns to encourage him to stand. A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that Putin will simply move from the post of president to that of prime minister, and that a corresponding shift of power will take place; or that he will get one of his cronies elected president (the newly appointed prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, is the obvious candidate) and replace him when he steps down for reasons of "ill-health". Either way, it doesn't really matter what the outcome of this intrigue is: Putinism is here to stay.

What is Putinism? First, it is a reassertion of the state, a counter-revolution against democracy, which in the eyes of the president's supporters brought Russia to the verge of ruin during the 1990s. The men behind this counter-revolution are the siloviki (from the Russian word for power) - men like Putin from the old KGB (reformed as the FSB), or the armed forces and the "power ministries", which together formed an inner cabinet in Boris Yeltsin's government and brought in Putin as his replacement in 2000.

The siloviki have taken over government. Their clients rule the regions, cities and towns and control the police and courts. They have steadily increased the staff and powers of the FSB, which today has 40 per cent more officers per citizen than the Soviet-era KGB. They have carried out a systematic assault on freedom of speech and information, intimidating independent newspapers and turning a blind eye to the contract killing of dozens of journalists, not to mention many more suspicious "accidents" over the past seven years.

The emerging political system is not yet a dictatorship, but nor is it democracy in anything but formal terms. Opposition parties can exist - but only within certain bounds. Elections are held - but their results are a foregone conclusion and the power-holders chosen in Kremlin corridors long before the polls open. There is no real political debate in the public media, and no broader culture of democracy to foster diversity of opinion. In many ways the problem is not the growing power of the Putin state (it could be argued that it is not as strong as it appears), but the chronic weakness of civil society. Sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, there are still no real social organisations, no mass-based political parties (except perhaps the Communists), no trade unions, no consumer or environmental groups, no professional bodies, and only a very small number of human rights associations, such as Memorial, to counteract the power of the state.

No need to pay

The second element of Putinism is the intimate connection between politics and business. Senior state officials control and own the public media, sit on the boards of state-owned corporations and enrich themselves from it, have lucrative connections with the oligarchs, and own large shares of the country's banks as well as its oil, gas and mining companies. At a lower level, in many Russian towns, politics and business are closely intertwined with the police and organised crime. Much of this goes well beyond corruption in the conventional meaning of the term (businessmen offering bribes to officials). In Putin's Russia the politician is usually a businessman, too, and perhaps an FSB official as well, so he doesn't need to pay a bribe. Political connections are the fastest way to become rich. The most successful oligarchs are shadowy figures in the presidential entourage. And all the country's senior politicians are multimillionaires, their money safely stashed abroad for them by Kremlin-favoured businessmen.

Thanks to the high price of oil and gas, Putin has overseen a strong upturn in the economy, which accounts for much of his popularity. The core of his constituency is the fast-growing middle class - the eight million Russians in 2000 and some 40 million today who are doing well enough to own homes and cars and go abroad on holiday. But Putin is also popular among a broader section of the population that has been lifted out of poverty by the recovery of recent years. The hyperinflation and economic instability of the 1990s are a fading memory. The rouble is strong; reserves are huge; public sector salaries are paid on time and, like pensions, have increased under Putin; and the government is at last starting to invest in the country's creaking infrastructure, hospitals and schools.

Yet there are serious economic vulnerabilities, not least Russia's heavy dependence on the export of its natural resources and the weakness of its manufacturing, services and hi-tech industries. The most serious concern is an imminent demographic crisis, largely brought about by high death rates (in particular among men, the main vodka drinkers) and westward emigration from Russia by large sections of the young and talented. Since 1991, the population has fallen by ten million to 140 million. A UN report estimates that it could fall below 100 million by 2050. Already there are shortages of students at universities and of staff in the workplace in many areas.

Meanwhile the Muslim population, with its historically high birth rates, continues to grow, in part as immigrants from central Asia fill the gaps in the labour market. There are 25 million Muslims in Russia today (demographers predict that they will be the majority within 50 years). Like the Jews in previous times, Russia's Muslims have become the focus of a rising wave of xenophobic Russian nationalism that is only partly satisfied by Putin's increasingly nationalist rhetoric. If it weren't for him, millions of Russians would vote for an ultra-nationalist - for instance, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party is expected to come second, or perhaps third behind the Communists, with roughly 10 per cent of the vote.

Humiliation

Nationalism is the third main element of Putinism, and perhaps the key to its success. Putin's nationalism is more complex than the reassertion of Russia's influence in the "near abroad" of former Soviet satellites (notably against the pro-western governments of Georgia and Ukraine, see Thomas de Waal, page 38) or the flexing of Russia's oil-pumped muscles on the international scene. At its heart is a long historical tradition of imperial rule and resentment of the west that has shaped the national consciousness.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was felt as a humiliation by most Russians. In a matter of a few months they lost everything - an empire, an ideology, an economic system, superpower status, national pride. They lost a national identity connected to the official myths of Soviet history: the liberating power of October 1917, victory in the Great Patriotic War, Soviet achievements in culture, science and technology. Within months of the Soviet collapse, the Russians had fallen into poverty and hunger and become dependent on relief from the west, which lectured them about democracy and human rights. Everything that happened in the 1990s - the hyperinflation, the loss of people's savings and security, the rampant corruption and criminality, the robber-oligarchs and the drunken president - was a source of national shame.

From the start, Putin understood the importance of historical rhetoric for his nationalist politics, particularly if it played to popular nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Polls in the year he came to power showed that three-quarters of the Russian population regretted the break-up of the USSR and wanted Russia to expand in size, incorporating "Russian" territories such as the Crimea and the Don Basin, which had been lost to Ukraine. Putin quickly built up his own historical mythology, combining Soviet myths (stripped of their Communist phraseology) with statist elements from the Russian empire before 1917. In this way his regime was connected to and sanctioned by a long historical continuum, a Russian tradition of strong state power, going back to the founder of the empire, Peter the Great, and Putin's native city, St Petersburg.

Integral to this is the idea, fostered by Putin, that Russia's traditions of authoritarian rule are morally the equal of democratic western traditions. Indeed, his supporters often say that Russians value a strong state, economic growth and security more than the liberal concepts of human rights or democracy, which have no roots in Russian history.

The rehabilitation of Stalin is the most disturbing element of Putin's historical rhetoric - and the most powerful, for it taps into a deep Russian yearning for a "strong leader". According to a survey in 2005, 42 per cent of the Russian people, and 60 per cent of those over 60 years of age, wanted the return of a "leader like Stalin". At a conference last June, Putin called on schoolteachers to portray the Stalin period in a more positive light. It was Stalin who made Russia great and his "mistakes" were no worse than the crimes of western states, he said. Textbooks dwelling on the Great Terror and the Gulag have been censored, historians attacked as anti-patriotic for highlighting Stalin's crimes.

All this comes as a huge relief to most Russians. Brought up on the Soviet myths, they felt ashamed, uncomfortable and resentful when, for a short time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were suddenly confronted by these awkward truths about their past. Now they needn't feel ashamed. With Putin's rewriting of Soviet history, they can feel good about their nation and themselves (as if, by way of a comparison, the postwar Germans had been told that the Holocaust had never taken place). Thanks to Putin, the Russians can move on and live their lives without asking awkward questions of themselves. It is how they lived in the Soviet Union.

Interviewing hundreds of survivors of Stalin's Terror for my book The Whisperers, I encountered many legacies of the Stalin period that affect the way Russians think and act today. One of the most striking is a strong political conformity, a silent acceptance and lack of questioning of authority, which was born of fear in the Stalin period but then passed down the generations to become part of what one might call the post-Soviet personality. No doubt this conformism will play a part in the elections, and in the resolution of the power question in the months to come. If Putin chose to sweep away the constitution and declare himself a dictator, I doubt many Russians would protest.

Orlando Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia is published by Allen Lane (£25).

Russia’s election by numbers

number of seats in the Duma: 450
number of parties eligible to stand: 11
number of parties likely to win seats: 4
number of registered voters: 108m
total who voted in the last elections in 2003 (56 per cent of those registered): 60.7m
proportion of voters who feel they have little or no influence over what happens: 94%

Research by Craig Burnett

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad