A resolute Putin faces a changing Russia

He seems assured of a convincing victory on March 4, though there are many challenges ahead

A guest hovering around the doorway of an elegant restaurant last fall glimpsed a ritual worthy of a czar. Prime minister Vladimir V Putin stopped in his tracks, eyes ahead, arms hovering at his sides.

An aide materialised, silently whisked away Putin’s parka, and vanished. A second aide appeared with a sport jacket and slipped it over his shoulders. Then Putin resumed walking without a word or a look, “almost as if he had never stopped,” noted the guest, Clifford G Gaddy, an American scholar.

Putin, who grew up in a hardscrabble Soviet housing block, has spent more than a decade in a byzantine world of petitioners and servants. Now, in the year he turns 60, he will face his biggest challenge: coming to grips with a society that has greatly changed under his watch, while he has remained essentially the same. Putin now seems assured of a convincing victory in the first round of the presidential election on March 4, making a runoff unnecessary.

The emerging threat to his rule has slid beneath the surface. But it will follow him across the six years of his third presidential term, as he will be forced to respond to a populace beginning to demand more of a stake in the governing of Russia. With his once phenomenal popularity gradually waning, Putin will have to find other ways to guarantee his legitimacy.

Olga V Kryshtanovskaya, a member of Putin’s United Russia party who is assisting his campaign, said Putin risked upheaval in the coming years if he did not return as a more democratic leader. His reflexes, she said, are authoritarian; if he chooses a liberal path, it will be ‘with his intellect, and not with his heart, and under pressure, because he is afraid.’ ‘In the end he will decide alone and that’s it,’ she said. ‘Alone. And we are all waiting.’

On Thursday, Putin made a surprise appearance at a campaign rally. According to police estimates, 130,000 people jammed into Luzhniki Stadium, waving signs with messages like ‘Putin, the path to the future’ and ‘We don’t want revolution’ and ‘There is no alternative.’ When Putin stepped onto the stage – a small figure in a black parka – the atmosphere in the stadium seemed to twitch, and he was met with a sustained roar of approval.

The pomp cannot obscure the fact that Putin, who served eight years as president and four as prime minister, is embarking on his final act as Russia’s leader. A banker close to Putin advised him in a recent article not to extend his rule after this six-year term, commenting that ‘in the opinion of many people, it is not simply a very long time, it is too long.’ In 2008, the constitution was amended to lengthen the presidential term to six years from four.

New tasks are at hand, like searching for a trusted person to whom Putin can eventually transfer his authority, just as Boris N Yeltsin did with Putin 12 years ago.

‘He understands that if he can make it through now – to become president in the first round – that it will be an event, a feat,’ said Andrei Kolesnikov, who covers Putin for the newspaper Kommersant. ‘And that he cannot repeat this feat in six years. As far as politics are concerned, those six years will be spent on his project of creating a second party and in a search for a new successor.’

Others say openly that Putin may not be able to hold on to power for the full six years. Among them is the television host Kseniya Sobchak, who has had a warm relationship with Putin since she was 11 and he worked for her father, then the mayor of St Petersburg.

‘My forecast is the following: The regime we have now cannot last six years,’ said Sobchak, who has joined the protest movement. If Putin ignores complaints from the opposition, she said, ‘this movement will pick up force and eventually it may lead to quite tragic events, like revolution or a coup.’

‘I want you to understand that I don’t want it to happen,’ she added. ‘I just realise that this Titanic will hit an iceberg if it doesn’t change course.’ It is difficult, now, to recall Putin as he was in 1999 – a 47-year-old former KGB officer so unremarkable that journalists sent to interview his old friends in St Petersburg returned with notebooks full of adjectives like ‘reserved’ and ‘polite.’ He could barely muster a smile when the news broke that Yeltsin had chosen him as his successor, murmuring in a television interview that ‘it would be impolite to disagree if the president said this.’

The Yeltsin team was facing a political train wreck: ‘Czar Boris’ was miserably unpopular, his approval ratings had been in single digits for a year and he feared he would face corruption charges when he stepped down. Exhausted and sick, Yeltsin, 68, left office six months early, hoping to give his protege a leg up ahead of the election.

Kind of magic

What happened then was a kind of magic. Putin dislikes political campaigns – he recently described them as a ‘very disgusting process’ – but he had an uncanny ability to channel the thoughts of ordinary Russians, beaten down by economic stagnation and a grinding, bloody standoff with separatists in Chechnya.

Putin,who grew up brawling with bullies in postwar Leningrad, came across as tough and crude and efficient, vowing that his forces would chase down the Chechen rebels and “wipe them out in the outhouse.” His approval rating rose to 27 per cent from 2 per cent in a single month, with 70 per cent of Russians saying they trusted him.

Putin says he sees those months as the time that made him the common people’s leader. Meeting with ironworkers last summer, he shared a rare expression of regret, saying he was initially ashamed of using gutter language. But then a friend passed on the approval of an anonymous taxi driver – a kind of Russian Joe Six-pack – and that approval, Putin said, meant more to him than the gasps of globe-trotting elites.

In 2010, Putin’s approval ratings were hovering around 80 per cent, and Kremlin insiders began to see his popularity as the ballast of the entire political system. Putin’s public persona – salty language, tiger-stalking, shirtless fly-fishing – was his own creation, his press spokesman, Dmitry S Peskov, said in a recent interview, adding that Putin’s ‘instincts are much stronger than any possible advice from any adviser.’

At Thursday’s rally, Putin held the crowd in thrall one more time, enunciating the words of a lyric poem with such ferocity that they bounced off the bleachers a football field away. He walked off the stage, head bowed, between columns of shouting admirers. Peskov, his press secretary, said Putin was confident that he had ‘overwhelming support’ in Russia, and had come to terms with the rise in dissent among ‘the city bourgeoisie.’

A decade ago, Putin seemed to sense that this moment was coming, telling a German biographer that he would be the man to break Russia’s thousand-year autocratic tradition.

“Putin asked me to come and see him then,” the biographer, Alexander Rahr, recently told the newspaper Argumenty Nedeli. “It was then and there that he told me the following phrase: ‘Presidents of Russia are like czars of old. The Byzantine traditions are quite strong, and it is up to me to do everything to make the presidency a democratic institution. That’s why I’ll be gone when my term of office expires. You tell it to everyone over there in the west.”

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