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Will Citizen Putin learn to bark?

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Hugh Barnes is a journalist who has covered conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He was formerly a director of democracy and conflict program at the Foreign Policy Center.
The curious incidents surrounding Vladimir Putin's Ostankino broadcast 3 days before the election were just the latest in a number of Russian dogs that have failed to bark in the night. His mysterious decision to record the speech at an outside television studio, instead of in the Kremlin, as usual, sparked feverish speculation that he was finally about to answer the so-called "2008 question". Will Putin stay in power or will he go? A bit of both was the preferred option of Sergei Mironov, the leader of Russia's upper house, the Federation Chamber. Mironov was the leading proponent of a "leave and stay" option whereby Putin could exploit a loophole in Russia's constitution, which prohibits three "consecutive" terms, by quitting before the presidential campaign got under way and then - hey, presto! - emerging from his mini-break to run again. Conspiracy theorists saw the Ostankino connection as a clear signal that Citizen Putin would use the broadcast to show he was no longer the Kremlin's incumbent.

Well, it didn't quite pan out that way. Not only was the speech a relatively dull affair, urging voters to get out and vote, in Sunday's parliamentary elections, for United Russia, whose number one candidate on the party list is the non-partisan president himself. The speech also followed an announcement in the official newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta that the Federation Council had nominated March 2 next year as the date of the presidential poll. In other words, "leave and stay" is now officially scuppered, because the presidential campaign effectively begins with the naming of election day. (Just while we're on the subject of Putin's lack of involvement with a party that attracts, in his own words, "all kinds of crooks", it's amusing to note that the link to his speech on Kremlin.ru takes you directly to the United Russia website.)

The Western media has portrayed Sunday's election to the Russian Duma as mostly a product of the Kremlin's machinations, and it's clear that the vote is being manipulated by the siloviki in Putin's inner circle to ensure a landslide victory for United Russia. Other parties, with the exception of the moribund Communists, will struggle to reach the controversial new 7% barrier you need to get candidates into the 450-seat lower house. A significant impact on the results will have come from are known as "administrative resources" a set of assets (including the state-controlled national television networks) that are open to abuse by officeholders. But the Kremlin is also planning to rig the results by means of fraud, intimidation and bribery, according to a report in today's Guardian.

Local administration officials have called in thousands of staff on their day off in an attempt to engineer a massive and inflated victory for President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Voters are being pressured to vote for United Russia or risk losing their jobs, their accommodation or bonuses, the Guardian has been told in numerous interviews with byudzhetniki (public sector workers), students and ordinary citizens," write the paper correspondents Luke Harding and Tom Parfitt in Moscow.

The same concerns are highlighted in this week's New Statesman, which has a Russian election special. Here Lilia Shevtsova points out that Sunday's vote isn't really an election at all; it's just a referendum on the outgoing president.

She writes, "The authorities openly admit that manifestos and policies have no meaning at all and Russians have only to say "Yes" or "No" to Putin ( better "Yes"), as he heads the party list of the Kremlin's United Russia. At the same time, Putin has refused to join United Russia and declared that his party lacks ideology and attracts "all kinds of crooks". It would be hard to find a more effective way to discredit the parliament and multiparty system."

Yet, in a way, all this talk of Russia's democratic deficit misses the point, as does the Western media's obsession with the Putin personality cult. The president himself is well aware that the period between now and March will probably see the culmination of his eight-year plan to claw back Kremlin control of Russia's regions, economy and media after the katastroika of the Yeltsin years. "In the next several months, a complete renewal of Russia's highest state power will take place," Putin said in a sphinx-like speech last week, but nobody knows exactly what he meant.

Russia's great achievement over the past eight years has been to increase gross domestic product sixfold from $200 billion in 1999 to $1.2 trillion this
year, but if you take away the rocketing prices of oil and gas, the actual growth rate is less impressive, at only 6.7%, annually compared to 11% in some of the Eurasian tigers from China to Estonia. Putin and his old comrades from the KGB era have seized oil and gas assets on behalf of the state, but they haven't really done very much to invest the money in improving Russia's education, health or transport infrastructure or building a knowledge-based society. Now it seems that Putin may be spectacularly implicated in the self-enrichment of this small Kremlin elite. According the pundit and Kremlin insider Stanislav Belkovsky, in an article with Die Welt, Putin owns 37% of Surgutneftegaz (worth $18 billion), 4.5% of the giant gas monopoly Gazprom ($13 billion) and half of a company called Gunvor through a proxy Gennady Timchenko' (possibly $10 billion). Do the math, and you end up with Putin's personal fortune totalling more than $40 billion, easily securing him a place in the Top Ten of the world's Rich List.

I like the point made by Anders Aslund in his article on Wednesday in the Moscow Times

He writes: "If these numbers contain any truth, Putin would be the most corrupt
political leader in world history, easily surpassing Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Zaire's Mobutu. The elites presaged economic ruin. Within the next few years, the Russians will face declining oil and natural gas outputs and will need help from the outside to preserve their current economic growth - which, of course, is also preserving public support for the Kremlin."

But corruption on such a grand scale will only exacerbate the difficulty of preserving Russia's current economic growth, particularly if a plunge in the oil price triggers collapse as happened under Gorbachev in 1986 and under Yeltsin in 1998. Does Putin know this? Certainly it would explain yesterday's Ostankino coup that wasn't. Sometimes, as most Sherlockians know, a non-barking dog is actually the clue that helps you solve the case.


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