Why Putin still has a lot to learn from Machiavelli

The catcalls that greeted Vladimir Putin when he appeared at a sports event in Moscow show that for many Russians, the once fearsome leader has been turned into a largely ludicrous and contemptible figure. For Daniil Kotsyubinsky, the blame for such a damaging collapse can be placed firmly at the feet of Team Putin itself. Their strategy of creating a loveable character out of the old steel grey Putin ignored all the lessons of authoritarian master, Niccolo Machiavelli, and left the leader open to ridicule.

Political life in Putin’s Russia, which for so long resembled a tedious remake of a Brezhnev era soap opera, has finally livened up and diverged from the scenario dreamed up by the Kremlin.

Among the sensations of the last few days were the catcalls from sports fans that greeted Premier Vladimir Putin at the Olympiisky Arena when he went to address them. Even more shocking was the reaction of the Russian Internet, which picked up the news and turned the boos and whistles (which were in reality not that loud) into a national chorus to be compared to the trumpets at the walls of Jericho...

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, hastened to announce that it was not Putin that the fans were heckling and that Russia’s head of government would continue to appear at public events. However, three days after the Olympiisky incident Putin failed to show up at ‘No to Narcotics’, a youth charity concert held at the same venue, despite the fact that the Premier’s support for this event had been trumpeted on the billboards and everyone expected him to be there. His press secretary had to once again come up with some lame explanation, and the internet was once again alive with malevolent whooping…   

So what has happened?

What has happened is that the last few weeks have seen the collapse of the Russian ‘national leader’s’ familiar political image. And paradoxically this is the result not of ‘political sabotage by the opposition’, but of systematic work carried out by the Kremlin’s spin doctors to radically ‘rebrand’ this very image.

Putin

Vladimir Putin believes he will be able to hold on to his power and avoid a repeat of Brezhnevite political and social stagnation. His critics are afraid that the future consequences of such a belief will be dramatic (photo: premier.gov.ru).

Until very recently Putin’s image had not changed since the beginning of his stellar career, when he soared to the top of the popularity polls and straddled the presidential throne like a latter day ‘Vladimir the Terrible’ – a tamer of terrorists, journalists and oligarchs, cloaked in the mystical aura of the spy.

And so long as he stuck with this fantastical ‘Terminator‘ image, Russians continued to believe that the power of the ‘leader of the nation’ lay not in the political institutions on which he formally depended, but in himself  alone. And also in his close ties with the people, whose equally mystical unflagging support he enjoyed.

‘For over a year – from his first appearance on a three-wheeled motorcycle among a group of bikers in the summer of 2010 – the Kremlin worked hard at persuading the populace that Putin was totally lovable. His familiar steel grey was gradually transformed into a shade of soft pink.’

Behind the Kremlin’s decision to radically alter this generally effective image lay the so-called ‘2012 dilemma’ – in other words, the need to answer two questions that, given the formal pretence that Russia is a parliamentary democracy, presented certain difficulties. Why was Dmitry Medvedev not going for a second term as President? And why should it be Vladimir Putin who would reoccupy the presidential seat in 2012?

The Kremlin came up with two possible solutions to this pre-election charade. The first was to design a ‘controlled fear’ scenario. This would entail creating some kind of national emergency in Russia, where people would automatically conclude that what was needed was a strong arm to control the situation. And since no one but Putin could fill that role, Medvedev would resign ahead of schedule, and Putin would take his place as President.

The second option was to act out a ‘controlled love’ drama (this was the option eventually chosen). The idea here was to present Putin’s return as the natural expression of the people’s love for their leader, akin to the ‘routine’ act of intimacy of a long and devotedly married couple.

Both these options had their obvious downsides and pitfalls.

The chief disadvantage of the ‘national crisis’ option was that it was only to be expected: Russia had been there before, in 1999-2000. And an ‘expected emergency’ is a somewhat less than credible scenario. And even if the plot line was different – a financial or economic crisis, for example, instead of bombed blocks of flats and a war in the Caucasus, it would still leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, which might in the future develop into a vague dissatisfaction with Putin, who had made them ‘fed up with his interminable emergencies’.

This already uncongenial prospect was complicated for the Kremlin by a further negative factor. According to a well-worn axiom in the world of politics, even the most attractive and charismatic political leader has a maximum shelf life of around eight years. After that he starts to pall and get on the voters’ nerves. Usually this is also connected with the inescapable fact that as he ages physically he gets ever closer to his sell-by date.

All this meant that Putin’s already long outdated Terminator image would make the ‘emergency’ scenario doubly risky.

This was probably the reason why the Kremlin spin doctors persuaded the Russian hero, standing at the pre-election crossroads, to reject the ‘national crisis’ option and go down the ‘controlled love’ road. And the campaign took off at full blast.

For over a year – from his first appearance on a three-wheeled motorcycle among a group of bikers in the summer of 2010 – the Kremlin worked hard at persuading the populace that Putin was totally lovable. The leader was permanently in the public eye. His familiar ‘steel grey’ image was gradually transformed into a shade of soft pink.   

Strange international prizes began to rain down on the Premier’s head, and he could be seen indulging in ever more bizarre and unlikely publicity stunts: raising antique amphorae from the sea bed, piloting a fire fighting plane, having ‘intimate chats’ with cultural figures and so on.  

‘The Kremlin spin doctors were completely out in their calculations. Putin’s advisers probably thought that the people had loved him all these years, as indeed they had, precisely because he was macho, a sex symbol, a sportsman, a spy, a pilot, a global politician etc. etc. Whereas in fact they loved him – inasmuch as it is possible to ‘love’ a charismatic dictator – chiefly for his air of enigmatic menace.’

Presumably Putin’s PR people thought that if they could successfully manage this radical rebranding exercise, then they could also outsmart the law of political cycles and completely ‘rub out’ Putin’s previous image. ‘Tired of the stern old father of the people? Have a kind one instead! Your tiredness will vanish overnight!’  - this was probably the logic behind the Kremlin’s unspoken message for the public.

But events were to show that this proposed rebranding was not only unsuccessful for Putin, but actually disastrous.

The strongest catalyst that turned the public’s hidden weariness with this tiresome       ruler, and his clumsy attempts to win their favour, into open discontent was undoubtedly the United Russia congress in September, where Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev publicly announced their role reshuffle planned for the spring of 2012.

This story instantly and conclusively destroyed the entire public image on which Putin’s authority had traditionally rested. Suddenly it turned out that Putin’s power did not reside in himself or even in his close links with the people. Instead, it was all a question of private deals. With Medvedev, or with someone else... From the nation’s father, floating in the clouds above the fray, Putin turned into a completely mundane bureaucrat whose calculation was not only crude and obvious but also flagrantly egotistical.

Putin_woos

A chorus of boos met Vladimir Putin at Olimpiysky Arena in Moscow when he climbed to the boxing ring to congratulate the victor of the fight. It was the first time that a Russian national leader had been humiliated in such a way. According to Levada Center poll commissioned last month, Putin’s support stands at 35%, considerably less than obtained in older polls.

Putin’s subsequent behaviour only served to intensify the impression left by the PR disaster of 24th September.  Having demonstrated to Russian voters that he had no need of their support, since everything was decided in advance without their involvement, Putin continued to actively ‘show his love for the nation’ as though nothing had happened.   

Let’s imagine for a moment a husband returning home, obviously the worse for wear after a night on the town, putting on an innocent face, handing his wife a bunch of roses and saying, ‘my darling, I love you so much!’ We all know what will happen the next moment, both with the flowers and the ‘surface image’, presented for a kiss, on which can be seen the traces of another woman’s lipstick. This is approximately what happened to Vladimir Putin at the Olympiisky Arena on 29th November, when the ex-Terminator who suddenly appeared to the public in a Santa Claus outfit was greeted by catcalls.  

How could the Kremlin have made such a mistake? 

I think this was an example of the elementary government incompetence that has become a trademark of Putin’s Russia, and that surfaces time and again when a spacecraft yet again fails to launch, a power station explodes or a satellite or plane falls into the sea.

As we can see, the Kremlin spin doctors were completely out in their calculations. Putin’s advisers probably thought that the people had loved him all these years, as indeed they had, precisely because he was macho, a sex symbol, a sportsman, a spy, a pilot, a global politician etc. etc. Whereas in fact they loved him – inasmuch as it is possible to ‘love’ a charismatic dictator – chiefly for his air of enigmatic menace. The public’s love for Putin was a kind of ‘Stockholm syndrome’ and survived just as long as the fear and trepidation that inspired it.

Niccolo Machiavelli, the author of the classic textbook on authoritarian populism, wrote that a ruler who wants to feel secure should make sure he inspires fear, rather than love, in his subjects. And he should aim to appear terrible, rather than merciful. Because subjects take a merciful ruler for a weak one: ‘they love rulers at their own discretion, but fear at the discretion of their rulers, therefore it is better for a wise ruler to rely only on that which depends on him, and not on others’ Niccolo Machiavelli. Il Principe.  But a weak ruler is not forgiven for his slightest transgression, and in this situation the road from love to hate is a very short one. And a ruler who is hated is, according to Machiavelli, the most unhappy of all men: ’it is important ….to avoid at all costs inciting the hatred of your subjects’ (ibid).  

‘Here is Putin destroying with his own hands (or rather, the hands of his PR people, who have probably not read their Machiavelli with sufficient attention) the two pillars on which his powerful image rested all these years. He ceased to be either menacing or mysterious. Everything that was mysterious became clear as day, everything menacing, ludicrous and contemptible...’

But is there a surer way to become a hated ruler than to start out being secretive and terrible, and then suddenly become benevolent and deceitful? When this happens the ex-terrible ruler’s subjects are bound to recall all his former abuses of power, and the awe he recently inspired becomes first vague discontent, and then open hatred, carrying the threat of a popular uprising against a hated government…

And here is Putin destroying with his own hands (or rather, the hands of his PR people, who have probably not read their Machiavelli with sufficient attention) the two pillars on which his powerful image rested all these years. He ceased to be either menacing or mysterious. Everything that was mysterious became clear as day, everything menacing, ludicrous and contemptible...

On the eve of the 2012 presidential election the Kremlin of course has found itself in a no-win situation. And all because of two evils – ‘national crisis’ and ‘image rebranding’ – the lesser one for the Kremlin (although probably the greater for the country) was the first. Because in the ‘crisis’ case the mood of discontent among the public would have grown gradually, and they could have tried to control it. But the ‘radical rebranding’, and especially the ‘tandem shuffle’ led to the instant collapse of the leader’s authority at the grass roots, among people who until recently had no interest in politics.  

There is still some time, of course, before the elections. The Kremlin has a chance to recognise its mistakes and try to alter course. If all else fails they can try to revive the ‘national crisis’ scenario, to return Putin’s image to that of ‘stern saviour of the nation’. 

But in some ways Putin’s ship has sailed. It is not possible to reawaken the public’s former perception of the ‘national leader’. Authority, love, fear and awe – all these only happen once in the story of a charismatic leader and his people. When they suddenly disappear, they leave behind only a crescendo of boos and whistles from the crowd. And when the rotten tomatoes start to fly as well, the booed performer can either leave the stage early himself, or be removed by force…  

About the author

Daniil Kotsyubinsky is a Russian historian and journalist based in St. Petersburg

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‘Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.’

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince