Vladimir Putin wasn’t the only post-Soviet leader to celebrate his 60th birthday over the weekend. On Friday, Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan, marked his diamond jubilee and invited Putin to the party in Dushanbe. Putin gave him a sniper rifle and promised to leave Russian troops in Tajikistan until Rahmon turns 90.
If the two presidents keep up their health and legendary popularity, there is no reason to believe they won’t be around to renew their military agreement in 2042. After all, Central Asian rulers like Rahmon prefer to stay in office once elected, and Putin is proving to be as indispensable to Russia as Nursultan Nazarbayev is to Kazakhstan or Islam Karimov to Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan’s President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov gave up power only by dying.
The procedures of democracy – as opposed to the democratic process – were of vital importance to Putin when he returned to the presidency for an unprecedented third term this spring. Yet Putin sought out the company of despots himself, making his first foreign visit to Belarus instead of the U.S. and declaring the formation of a “Eurasian Union” the centerpiece of his new foreign policy.
Besides Putin, few Russians see the country’s future with Central Asia. To them, the leader worship practiced in most of the region appears as shabby and ridiculous as it does to most anybody else.
A successful cult of personality depends on a combination of intimidation and propaganda – instruments of state power that only really work when a country is locked in isolation. After the fall of communism, Russians opened up to the outside world like never before. Even if he wanted to, Putin couldn’t close his country’s borders anymore.
Irony, poison to any dictatorship, already exceeds critical mass in Russia.
So while Putin certainly has the requisite vanity, contemporary Russians can’t be scared or brainwashed into accepting him as a dear, or even great, leader. There are no Putin postage stamps or Putin ruble notes. Putin’s face didn’t even appear on his own campaign posters in the March elections.
Such false modesty was displayed by the Kremlin press service, which published a single announcement on Putin’s birthday Sunday: “The President of Russia had telephone conversations with leaders of foreign countries. In addition, Vladimir Putin received written congratulations from leaders of practically all countries of the world.”
Two birthdays ago, female journalism students from Moscow State University caused a ruckus when they undressed for a lingerie calendar dedicated to Putin.
Six birthdays ago, muckraking journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building.
This year was less scandalous. NTV, the channel Putin brought to heel during his first term in office, promised a hard-hitting documentary of a week in the life of the president. Instead it delivered a highly sympathetic portrait of a leader who typically meets ministers until 1 a.m., swims 1,000 meters every morning and doesn’t get around to eating breakfast until after noon. I was most surprised to learn that Putin hides a thermos filled with tea under his desk.
Only one part of Russia actually follows a cult of personality – though it isn’t Putin’s. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Chechen strongman, celebrated his 36th birthday on Friday.
Kadyrov threw a huge party in Grozny, ostensibly to celebrate City Day. According to one Chechen government press release, stars including French actor Gérard Depardieu attended a gala concert, which ended with Kadyrov dancing a “fiery” Chechen lezginka with Italian actress Ornella Muti.
Another government press release maintained that “Kadyrov is celebrating his birthday only with members of his family and close relatives.”
(Disclosure: At present, Lucian is mentally but not physically in Dushanbe and Grozny.)