With the Election Charade Over, What Next for Vladimir Putin?
The opposition was eliminated in advance, ballots were stuffed and Vladimir Putin duly “won” the farcical Russian “election”, with a share of the vote slightly above the 70% percent he had modestly decreed for himself beforehand. Now that charade is over, attention turns to what next for Putin. He may have less choice in the matter than he would like.
Not for the first time, informed rumours persist that Putin would like to make this his last term in office. Such stories circulated previously in 2007 before Putin handed over the Presidency to his mini-me, Dmitry Medvedev. At that time in Moscow, Putin’s motorcade was seen less often speeding from his suburban mansion to the Kremlin. When he did appear, he seemed disengaged with the wearying day-to-day business of despotism.
The suggestion was that Putin wanted to retire whilst he was still young enough to enjoy the immense wealth he had accumulated (as documented by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and in the Panama Papers) and the pleasures of his private life.
The problem was that escape was not that easy and Putin felt he had little choice but to keep pulling the strings as Medvedev’s nominal Prime Minister, before returning to the Presidency in 2012.
His authority largely depends on being the all-powerful arbiter
Putin himself was anointed by the oligarchs around his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, on the understanding that he would protect their position and interests. Once in office, Putin turned on the likes of Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, appropriating their riches for his own cronies in the process. Most leading figures from the Yeltsin era ended up in jail, exile or the cemetery. Consequently, Putin knows better than anybody that the promises of a supposedly pliant successor are unlikely to be kept once he has his hands on the levers of power.
This conundrum remains the same. By stepping down in six years-time, Putin would put himself at risk of prosecution, asset appropriation or worse.
Even seriously suggesting that he is planning to leave office at the end of his term could create problems for Putin. His authority largely depends on being the all-powerful arbiter between competing clans and members of the elite, as they squabble over the spoils of the Russian economy and state. Putting a date on his departure would see his power steadily slip away as his elite associates begin fighting over the succession.
This, incidentally, is also the reason why personal sanctions targeting the assets the Russian elite have stashed in London and elsewhere are such a powerful tool in response to the nerve agent attack on Britain. If Putin’s actions begin to damage rather than protect their interests, they may press him to change his behaviour or be deposed.
Even in power, Putin’s problems are likely to mount steadily over the coming years. Whilst blanket propaganda and the suppression of any alternative candidates means he retains the support of many Russians, new ways will have to be found to maintain this backing.
being bogged down in Syria could come to symbolise the declining power of late-period Putin
Putin’s original pact with the people was that he would ensure stability and an improving economy in return for them staying out of politics. For many years, this promise was mostly kept, largely thanks to high oil prices but also some solid economic management, colossal corruption aside. It is in this commitment that the genuine element of Putin’s popularity originates.
The trick is now getting harder to pull off. World oil prices have been lower than Russia needs for several years now. The economy is stagnant and average incomes are down.
To some extent, Putin’s failure to use the fat years to diversify the economy from its reliance on natural resources is coming back to bite him. But the biggest problem he faces is the “Catch-22” nature of the actions he adopted when providing economic security began to falter as a means of maintaining public acquiescence to his rule.
Putin instigated Russia’s undermining of Western democracies, invasion of Ukraine and intervention in Syria to emphasise his country’s resurgence as a great power. Using these actions to stir up ugly nationalism in Russia became Putin’s substitute source of public support.
In those terms, the plan has been largely successful so far. But the problem is that Russia’s aggression makes its economic situation worse. The international economic sanctions already imposed have hurt. Further measures adopted in response to the nerve agent attack on Britain will do more damage. The West must push back hard to deter further Russian aggression, as Putin strives ever more desperately to stoke domestic support.
Support for Putin’s wars could also start to wane with the Russian body count increasing and becoming harder to cover up. As the 1980s Afghan War did for the Soviet Union, being bogged down in Syria could come to symbolise the declining power of late-period Putin.
Even on a personal level, Putin’s oft-ridiculed image of masculine vigour is becoming harder for him to maintain, as he visibly ages and the plastic surgery becomes ever more obvious.
Whilst Putin is no doubt satisfied with his spurious re-election, he must know deep down that ruling Russia is getting harder for him and that he is trapped in office. Rather than choosing to depart after one more term, he is unlikely to leave the Kremlin until he is dragged out feet first.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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