In 1989-90, the Communist bloc’s rapid collapse and German reunification cut short Vladimir Putin’s promising KGB career in Dresden. Just a decade later, he was president of Russia and, excepting Dmitry Medvedev’s (2008-2012) interim puppet regime, he has been ever since.
Yet despite his regularly reported high approval ratings, not everyone in Russia supports Putin’s rule. The Moscow-based Levada Institute indicates that Putin’s current approval rating is just above 60 per cent, while his disapproval rating is hovering at about 35 per cent. There is an undercurrent of support for his removal.
Footage of him as a macho action figure, astute international statesperson, pious man of the people, and so on, diverts observers away from the pressure that someone in his position must be feeling. Demonstrations in 2014 against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war with Ukraine followed large protests against electoral fraud in 2011-2012. Knowledge of coloured revolutions and US-engineered downfalls of villains such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi magnifies the already unsettling nature of domestic unrest.
When some dictators and other unsavoury political detected that their tenure, and potentially their physical existence, was threatened, they managed to find refuge with regimes and individuals that shared similar qualities: Idi Amin in Saudi Arabia, Charles Taylor in Nigeria (at least before it surrendered him to an international court), Kyrgystan’s former leader, Kurmambek Bakiyev, in Belarus.
A French government deceived itself into thinking it was providing sanctuary for an “asylum seeker” when it accommodated the Ayatollah Khomeini for some months in 1978-79. The following decade, the US provided hospitality for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, and 2,000 pairs of shoes. A Ukrainian court found Viktor Yanukovych, former president of the country, guilty of treason and sentenced him in absentia to 13 years imprisonment. He is today under Putin’s protection in Russia.
Yanukovych is one of those absconders who, before their hasty departures, had accumulated vast sums of wealth, fleeced from the people they purported to represent. Putin has also been very effective in accumulating wealth – some estimates are up to $200bn – and, to the present, better at controlling a population. During his nearly 20 years at the top of the power vertical, the crackdowns, deaths and disappearances of political challengers or troublesome journalists, and aggressive foreign policy behaviour, have all had one ultimate aim: to prevent regime change and an unpleasant personal fate.
Yet there are signs that Putin is feeling pressure: for example, in 2016, his government established a national guard for various internal security tasks, directly subordinate to him. More protests, against governmental and presidential corruption, and the raising of the pension age, occurred throughout 2017 and 2018. In 2019, the underground group Agit Rossija (Agitation Russia) used social media and posters in public spaces to attack the government and the head of state. They created ironic memorials mourning Putin’s virtual death. A large physical portrait with the inscription “V. V. Putin 1952-2019” appeared outside a cathedral in St Petersburg. Others exist in cyberspace.
Putin basked in a role as host of the 2018 World Cup. Yet who among the football nations and various invited “friends” would provide sanctuary if Putin got into trouble? Unlike other autocrats, warlords, non-state terrorists and fanatics who did manage to find someone to oblige with a haven, it is very unclear where Putin would go in the event that he was deposed. Russia was the likely destination for Bashar-al Assad should he need to depart Syria. Putin said as much to the German tabloid Bild in 2016. Yet if Putin himself had to leave Russia in a hurry, he would surely not go to Syria.
Indeed, no place comes readily to mind. Even with so much plundered wealth, which respectable state and political leadership would accept such a fugitive? Putin does not get on well with Alexander Lukashenka, the dictator of neighbouring Belarus. Central Asian states could fall under foreign influence. Venezuela would be a risk. The People’s Republic of China? Perhaps not.
We can exclude liberal democracies – or can we? Putin has associates in a few, and these states are obliged to offer asylum to persons fleeing persecution or “serious harm”. Maybe a Pacific island, like Nauru, might make an offer.
There are not many, if any, obvious options for this unlikely but possible exigency. Where would Putin go?