GERRIT OLIVIER: West must leave Russians to defeat Putin on their own
ANTI-Americanism has become the mantra of
Vladimir Putin's campaign to win Russia's presidential election on Sunday. He also promised to spend $120bn on Russia's army over the next 10 years, over and above the $650bn approved last year. His logic is clear and simple: a strong Russia is needed to resist the enemy. Steeped in KGB culture, to have an enemy is "normal politics" for Putin. Without much personal gravitas or a norm-based policy, he cleverly uses the "enemy" metaphor to demonstrate to his ever-insecure Russian compatriots that he is their saviour, the strong leader they need and a true patriot.
This strategy has served him well in the past, so why not use it again?
When Boris Yeltsin anointed Putin as president in 1999, Putin's first act was to declare the Chechen rebels Russia's enemy number one, undertaking to hunt them down relentlessly wherever they were. This type of rhetoric resonated well with the Russian in the street. After Yeltsin's miserable performance, and with the perilous condition of the Russian state and nostalgia for the certainty of the fallen Soviet Union, they craved a defender of the Rodina (motherland). Putin conformed to the image of a "Russkii mushik" (strong man).
Putin seemed to offer this. From an obscure KGB-spy background, his popularity shot up in no time. Very cleverly, at times even ruthlessly, he exploited the subservient Russian political culture, and its "homo sovieticus" ethos and gullibility, to build his leadership image and succeeded brilliantly. Through their history, Russians felt secure under the protection and leadership of a "strong hand", a "man with the stick" in Tolstoyan terms, whether a Romanov Tsar or even a communist dictator such as Joseph Stalin and his ilk.
Putin's success in his brutal war against the Chechen rebels, and the wind fall of a sudden steep jump in the oil price, boosted his popularity to stratospheric heights, where it remained until the end of his presidency. During his two terms as president, the economy grew at an average annual rate of 7%, military successes in Chechnya and Georgia restored some pride in the demoralised "Red Army" and anti-West (anti-American, mostly) propaganda soothed the wounds of the utter humiliation caused by the Soviet collapse. Putin restored the Soviet anthem and refused to criticise Stalin's human rights abuses. Obviously he failed or simply refused to learn the lesson of the Soviet Union's feeble implosion, referring to the fall of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical mistake of the 20th century".
But it seems that, with the presidential election at hand, things are no longer going so well for Putin. A sudden change of mood indicating disillusionment in December came as a complete surprise to him and his close supporters. In the Duma (parliament) election, his party, United Russia's, share of the vote fell from 64% to just less than 50%. Serious and verified claims about the Kremlin's blatant rigging of the elections (bribery, ballot-stuffing, multiple voting and falsification of protocols) brought many thousands of Russians on to the streets. Rolling protest action was started, decrying Putin's party as "the party of crooks and thieves". People were chanting in the streets: "Russia without Putin!" A new opposition might have been born, and Russia may face instability once more.
The worm of Russian politics turned 10 weeks after Putin announced he would run again for the presidency. This brought an end to the masquerade of puppet President Dmitry Medvedev, who will willingly stand aside, hoping to be rewarded with the post of prime minister. The most important act of Medvedev's presidency was that he did what Putin told him to do: to change the presidential term in the constitution from four years to six.
Putin plans to remain in power until 2024. During his dominance of Russian politics, he established an authoritarian regime and concentrated power using co-option and suppression as standard procedure. Under his watch, the Kremlin controlled the media with an iron fist. Opponents, such as oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were jailed on trumped-up charges, others were killed, while threatening opposition parties were eliminated by the Kremlin's ever-changing rules of participation. Putin succeeded in establishing the authority of the state, but criminality rose and infested the government.
Under the old Soviet system, all this would have been "normal politics" as the state ideology and societal rules of behaviour were defined by the Communist Party elite and imposed by force. When Mikhail Gorbachev started to question communist orthodoxy and glasnost and perestroika made it into the Kremlin's lexicon, fault lines appeared and the totalitarian system soon collapsed. History might repeat itself. Democratic norms and politics really never took root in post-communist Russia. Power and wealth dominate while Putin and his ilk rule. And because he rules over a body politic without genuine norms and values, power is corrupted, rampant lawlessness and corruption reign, and the rule of law is the rule of the Kremlin.
Some call it "Soviet lite" but, like King Canute, Putin will find himself vainly trying to hold back the waves. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the genie was let out of the bottle and Putin cannot put it back. As we saw in apartheid SA, Slobodan Milosevic's former Yugoslavia, and more recently with the "Arab Spring", a people cannot be imprisoned forever by authoritarian, corrupt and power-hungry leaders. Sooner or later, the forces of change will take over and democracy will become inevitable. Although democracy never took root in Russia and Soviet values are passé, the mood and outlook of many "new" Russians have changed due to exposure to the free market, human mobility, foreign exposure and the internet.
According to a recent poll from the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, 22% of Russians want to leave the country. In the 18-24 age group, the number was almost 40%. This cannot be good news as research published by the Foreign Affairs journal shows that Russia is in serious demographic decline: its population has been shrinking, its mortality levels are nothing short of catastrophic and human resources appear to be dangerously eroding.
Putin's regime will not fall overnight but it is vulnerable and his goal of being president for life is no longer assured.
An important question is how the West will or should react to the inevitability of a new Putin presidency. Both the US and Russia are in election modes and US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be well advised not to be tempted to engage in a war of words with Putin. This will be almost Cold War stuff and grist to Putin's mill, simply galvanising Russian support for him.
As Russians won the Cold War by their own doing ( not the Americans, as the US often boasts), they must be left alone to win the struggle against neo-authoritarianism on their own again.
And, hopefully, SA will not allow Russia and China, as Brics colleagues, to continue to dictate its stance on international morality and its relations with the West. With Putin in the presidency, the pressure will be strong.
. Olivier is senior research fellow at the Unit for Euro-African Studies at the University of Pretoria's Department of Political Sciences and was SA's first ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia (1991-96).
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