In the first week of the New Year Russia started winding down on the vacation period, but Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, was not shown on any ski slopes and remained in charge of urgent problems. Putin controlled the rescue operation in the Sea of Okhotsk and called the captains of the ships frozen in the hard ice and the captain of the icebreaker; he also instructed governors and the energy minister to work extra-hard in restoring electricity supplies for villages blacked-out by the icy rain. Putin’s New Year greetings to the Russian people were very short with the rather unusual key point: “I wish all of us to be satisfied with ourselves,” which he obviously is.
This view might not be shared by a growing number of entrepreneurs, intellectuals and even bureaucrats who are tired not only of Putin’s bossy style, but also and perhaps more importantly of the lack of direction in his leadership. For some, the main irritant is the increase of taxation on business, which is certain to have an adverse effect on Russia’s sluggish recovery (Vedomosti, December 27). For others, a major concern is Putin’s damaged reputation in the West where his name is directly associated with the regime of defective democracy polluted by rampant corruption (Vedomosti, December 30). And for remarkably many opinion makers, from popular authors to the veteran of numerous political battles, Anatoly Chubais, the decisive moment was the shockingly harsh sentence for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in the crudely fabricated court case (Ekho Moskvy, January 3). This discontent manifests itself in the rising intensity of street rallies in Moscow, and more clearly in the shift in political fashions, so that among the rich-and-glamorous expressing any sympathy towards Putin has decisively gone out of vogue (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, www.gazeta.ru, December 30).
An obvious alternative to the irksome “national leader” could have been President, Dmitry Medvedev, who positioned himself as a smart modernizer with international connections and a Twitter-blog. On at least three occasions recently, Putin has distinctly undercut Medvedev’s far from inspiring performance. The most severe blow to the credibility of the junior member of the duumvirate was certainly the “guilty-as-charged” verdict for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, particularly since Medvedev had reprimanded Putin for expressing strong views about the ongoing trial (Novaya Gazeta, December 24). Another putdown was the apprehension of Boris Nemtsov (who was swiftly sentenced to 15 days in jail) after the legitimate opposition rally on December 31 that resembles a “special operation” in response to Medvedev’s acknowledgement of Nemtsov as a “well-known politician” (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 8). Finally, Medvedev instructed the chiefs of three central TV channels that their news coverage “should not be strikingly different from what we read on the Internet,” but there was not a word about Nemtsov’s incarceration on TV, while the Russian blogosphere exploded with comments expressing outrage (www.besttoday.ru, January 8).
Besides casually compromising Medvedev’s integrity and authority, Putin now and again steps out of his impenetrable cocoon to rub shoulders with ordinary people; for that matter, he attended a Christmas service in the small church in the village where his parents had been baptized (RIA Novosti, January 7). The point of this PR exercise is not in refreshing the support from the electorate, because the outcome of the current political ambiguity will definitely not be resolved by voting. Putin seeks to demonstrate to the wavering elites that he is the only one who can communicate with and, more importantly, control the mob. This message came out most clearly from his meeting with football fans after the nationalist riot in the Manezhnaya square, which so scared the Moscow glitterati; Putin, however, has managed to discharge the tensions and even traveled by bus in rather unglamorous company to the cemetery where the fan murdered in an after-match brawl was buried (Moskovsky Komsomolets, www.gazeta.ru, December 22).
There is a distinct contradiction between the optimistic official rhetoric on overcoming the crisis and Putin’s skillful exploitation of the fear factor, but the elites know better than to believe in propaganda and are in no doubt that the trickle down of prosperity has dried out because of their own greed. They foresee the need for a “firm hand” but have reasons to doubt whether Putin still has what it takes. Putin’s standing with the military has been undermined by the painful and badly mishandled reform, and the law enforcement system is so rotten by corruption that it can hardly be relied upon to contain the brewing discontent. Even the special services that used to be Putin’s solid support base are now concerned more about their own business interests and seriously discredited by the ridiculous spy scandal in the US (Kommersant, December 27). Putin’s reputation for toughness is now sustained mostly by his trademark blunt remarks, yet the news about palaces constructed outside Moscow and Sochi but abandoned after media coverage tells a rather different story (Vedomosti, December 30).
The trump-card that Putin still holds close to his chest has two words written on it: “Who else?” Medvedev aside, the top echelon of the Russian political hierarchy is indeed hardly a stable of “dark horses.” Sergei Ivanov is forever branded as a loser in the 2007 contest, Aleksandr Khloponin is engaged in a hopeless task of stabilizing the North Caucasus, Sergei Sobyanin has not scored any points as Moscow’s Mayor, and Igor Shuvalov is held responsible for the rising costs in the impossible to reform communal sector (Kommersant, Vedomosti, December 28).
Most importantly, there is a strong disinclination in the bureaucracy to rock the political boat in these troubled waters as the ugly events in Minsk served as a reminder that every “color revolution” was triggered by elections. It means that Putin can shrug off the resentment among the higher middle class and the irritation further up – and manage the reconfiguration of the leadership as he sees fit. It does not mean, however, that he is safe for six years afterwards, because the disposition for easing (or, alternatively, kicking) him out of the picture would only strengthen in the ruling class as the recession continues into the post-election period.