Putin’s Loneliness

On the twelfth hour of the twelfth day of the twelfth year of the new millennium, a web site went online to launch Vladimir Putin’s bid to lead Russia for another 12 years. Less than a month earlier, Putin had said that if the authorities were unhappy about something on the internet, the appropriate response was to make their case online, only “more creatively and interestingly.”

The campaign web site putin2012.ru was Putin’s chance to answer his online opponents, who last month mobilized the largest anti-government protests of his political career. It was his chance to explain why he thought he deserved to be chosen president for a third term in the March 4 election.

The homepage features a banner photograph showing Putin looking not unlike actor Daniel Craig, the current incarnation of James Bond. Putin wears a black open-collar shirt, blue eyes fixed on a distant object, lips slightly parted. It appears to be raining, but Putin isn’t wet. Steam seems to rise from his body. The signed quotation below the photograph reads: “If I start something, I try to carry it through to its logical end, or, at a minimum, to bring out its maximum effect.” Presumably Putin means a second set of two presidential terms, ending in 2024.

“If I start something, I try to carry it through to its logical end or to bring out its maximum effect.”

There are six buttons in the navigation bar above Putin’s head: Platform, Biography, Experience, Interests, Events and Information Center. As it turns out, Putin’s platform is in fact a repackaged version of the campaign platform his ruling party, United Russia, presented at the end of November when it nominated him for president. Well before the December parliamentary elections – when United Russia lost its absolute majority despite alleged ballot-stuffing – Putin had been distancing himself from the party. There is no link to the United Russia site on the web site of its presidential candidate. There is only a link to the site of the semi-official, amorphous People’s Front, which Putin founded last May in anticipation of United Russia’s crash landing.

“Mama baked pies filled with cabbage, meat, rice or curd. They were very tasty.”

The biography section is filled with family photos, beginning with Putin’s modest beginnings 60 years ago in Leningrad, today St. Petersburg. “Mama baked pies filled with cabbage, meat, rice or curd. They were very tasty,” reads one pull quote. “I was always running late for school, that’s why I never managed to dress properly, even in winter,” says another. There are two pictures of his wife of 28 years, Lyudmila, and one childhood photo of his daughters Maria and Katerina.

Putin’s interests are sports, animals and cars. (Pull quote: “I used to be a speed demon.”) On the banner photograph over this section, Putin doesn’t look like a studly movie star but an aging man wearing a hockey helmet.

Lucian Kim

An online suggestion box invites readers to send comments to the candidate. Within hours after the site went up, Russian media reported that the most popular suggestion was for Putin to withdraw his candidacy. But when I checked for myself, I found only messages from citizens thanking Putin for all he had done for the country. Apparently Putin’s webmaster was faster than me.

In order to submit a suggestion, visitors are required to provide their name and other personal details, including “social position.” The choices, listed alphabetically in Russian, appear in the following order: homeless, unemployed, military, state employee, housewife, prisoner, migrant, undetermined, retired, retired military or law enforcement, entrepreneur, worker, agricultural worker, priest, intelligentsia, student, farmer, other. Members of Russia’s rebellious urban middle class will have a hard time identifying themselves with almost any of these categories.

“Friedrich the Great once said: ‘The more I know people, the more I love dogs.’ This is in no way connected to my relationship to my ministers, friends and colleagues. I just love animals.”

But even people who consider themselves Putin’s friends and supporters will have trouble finding themselves on the campaign web site. There is hardly any information about Putin’s family, his team, his party and the people who inspired him. Putin is in a league of his own, he is all alone.

Besides the link to the People’s Front, there are only four other links on Putin’s web site: the threatened species projects he heads to preserve the Amur tiger, the beluga whale, the snow leopard and the polar bear. When asked a couple of years ago about his interest in wildlife conservation, Putin said: “I believe Friedrich the Great, the Prussian king, once said: ‘The more I know people, the more I love dogs.’ But this is in no way connected to my relationship to my ministers, friends and colleagues. I just love animals.”

* * *

Putin got a second chance to formulate his ideas on Monday, when he published an article on the front page of Izvestia entitled “Russia Gets Focused: The Challenges We Must Meet.” (I have consulted the original Russian text. The official English translation can be found here, on the prime minister’s web site.) Putin calls the article an “invitation” to a dialogue about Russia’s future with the country’s middle class – an indication just how seriously he took the December demonstrations after initially mocking the protesters. Of course it’s a stretch to call the article an invitation, especially to a dialogue, since it ends up being a rambling, 3,400-word monologue.

Dialogue is not Putin’s style. His annual televised “conversation” with the nation largely consists of preselected questions that he answers and comments at will. Meetings with citizens and even the press are usually vetted in advance. In the article, Putin indicates that he won’t participate in presidential debates because his opponents (“who have no hope of winning”) will promise voters the moon, while he can only offer real, mundane policies.

Putin is intelligent, articulate and perfectly capable of defending his ideas. But in the controlled political environment he created over the past decade, he is unaccustomed to doing so in public. Probably the toughest questions to which he subjects himself are posed during an annual gathering with foreign experts – behind closed doors.

Putin is intelligent, articulate and perfectly capable of defending his ideas. But in the controlled political environment he created over the past decade, he is unaccustomed to doing so in public. 

In his Izvestia article, Putin demonstrates his ability to analyze objectively, though his conclusions often seem to contradict his own policies. At times, he sounds like an opposition politician, dispensing prescriptions for making Russia a better place to live, in particular for the middle class. He uses the word “should” 15 times.

“Above all, people should feel positive changes and the widening of their own horizons,” Putin writes. “But the engine of growth should be the initiative of citizens. We will fail if we count only on the decisions of bureaucrats and a narrow circle of big investors and state companies. We will fail if we depend on the passivity of the population.” If the words didn’t appear under Putin’s name, they might as well have been shouted from the stage at the December 24 rally that filled Moscow’s Sakharov Prospekt.

Putin attacks bureaucratic restrictions on civil society, criticizes populist politicians who increase the state’s social obligations and declares Russia’s dependence on raw resources an economic model of the past. He speaks of the need for greater social mobility and respect for the law. A skeptic would be justified in pointing out that it was Putin who cracked down on non-governmental organizations, raised pensions and the military’s pay during election season and ignored calls for economic diversification during the oil boom. Nepotism, corruption and the impunity of government officials are the very reasons why tens of thousands of Russians are demonstrating. And they blame Putin.

Lucian Kim

The main point of Putin’s article becomes garbled in so much verbiage. Nobody in Russia needs an article about the country’s challenges; they are clear to everyone. What voters might have found more useful is a campaign platform with proposals to meet those challenges. Here there isn’t a single legislative initiative, or new government program, or benchmark against which Russians will be able to measure Putin’s performance in six years. In December, Putin ridiculed the protest movement for not having a concrete program, yet in his article he sounds even more incoherent than his opponents, who at least have a list of political demands.

If there’s a message with which Putin would like to leave the reader, it could be boiled down to one sentence: “I saved Russia, but I’m not quite finished yet.”

Putin’s message could be boiled down to one sentence: “I saved Russia, but I’m not finished yet.”

At the end of the article, Putin writes: “I’d like to repeat why I agreed to run for president again in 2012.” Amazingly, an explanation doesn’t follow. Instead, Putin describes how when he first became prime minister in 1999, the country was on the brink of economic and physical collapse. Putin’s leadership “broke the back of terrorism” emanating from Chechnya and oversaw a decade of unprecedented economic growth. While the period of restoration is over now, lots of work remains to be done.

People have forgotten just how bad things were in the 1990s, Putin writes. “This ‘forgetfulness’ and society’s readiness to measure Russia by the highest standards of quality of life and democracy are the best proof of our success.”

* * *

Just to make sure the message got through to everybody, state-run channel Rossia-1 ran a TV special with the title “The 2008 Crisis: Saving Russia” on Tuesday night. It follows the narrative that only because of Putin’s far-sighted leadership was Russia able to weather the global economic crisis better than the developed countries of the West. The effective use of images and music creates an atmosphere of doom averted. Putin appears as the calm, confident leader who knew exactly what to do to save Russia’s auto industry, defend the domestic banking system, preserve people’s savings and prevent the collapse of the ruble.

Of course Russia has former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin to thank for the rainy-day fund and foreign reserves he stocked up before the 2008 crisis, against immense pressure from United Russia to spend the oil wealth. But there is no mention of Kudrin, who now is trying to mediate with protest organizers, just as there is no mention of Dmitry Medvedev, who kept the presidential seat warm for Putin because of a constitutional ban on three consecutive terms.

“In any crisis a person needs to be found who takes on responsibility. I was obliged to do that.”

As on the putin2012.ru site and in the Izvestia article, Putin is all alone. The camera zooms out of a still photograph showing Putin working at the head of a conference table, the seats of his ministers all empty. “In any crisis a person needs to be found who takes on responsibility,” Putin says in the voice-over. “As the head of government, I was obliged to do that.”

The film is professional, only it’s not a documentary, as billed, but a one-hour campaign ad for Putin. In the last three minutes of the film, the narrator allows that Russia, too, has problems, including a lack of qualified workers, alcoholism and corruption. Over shots of the December 24 demonstration in Moscow, the narrator explains that the government has the “political will” to solve these issues. Putin ends the film with the reassuring words that the government has already made all necessary preparations for any new crisis.

* * *

The appeal of stability and the fear of new shocks can’t be underestimated in a country like Russia, which witnessed some of the greatest cataclysms of the 20th century. Stagnation, the flipside of stability, is a concern for a still relatively small minority that no longer has existential worries and seeks self-fulfillment in politics, business or the arts. So while Putin’s main selling point of stability-through-longevity is the main reason the urban middle class is protesting, it’s still a convincing argument for more passive, less educated voters.

Lucian Kim

Russia’s stability is probably not the primary motivation for Putin’s candidacy. Even if Putin thought about leaving power, he is acutely aware that his departure would capsize the ruling elite that has grown rich and powerful under his patronage. Lawsuits, jail terms and exile would surely follow a change in government.

It’s lonely at the top. Putin has become so convinced of his own indispensability that when asked last month to name his biggest challenger in the presidential race, he answered: “Myself, probably.”

Putin is not worried about winning the March 4 election; he’s worried about appeasing the part of the electorate that may continue protesting after the votes are counted. The problem is that whether he wins in a landslide or just squeaks by, either way he’ll be accused of ballot-stuffing.

It’s a Catch-22 that even the fairest vote in the world couldn’t solve, because elections in Russia have been discredited by one too many scandals.

(Disclosure: At present, Lucian is mentally but not physically in Moscow.)

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