Tag Archives: Putin

Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Remember the claims that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government had a role in inciting the mob that broke into the Capitol building in Washington DC back in January? I wrote about this in an article a few weeks ago. No sooner had the dust settled than social media was abuzz with statements that Putin either arranged the whole thing or at the very least was celebrating what had happened. As former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes put it, “This is the day that Vladimir Putin has waited for since he had to leave East Germany as a young KGB officer at the end of the Cold War.”

The idea that Putin and the Russian state want nothing more than to see Western democracies collapse into chaos is now so widespread as to be pretty much an uncontestable truth. Everybody knows that it is so. Russian “disinformation”, election “meddling”, and all of the rest of it, are put down to Putin’s enormous fear of democracy and of the West, and his concomitant desire to undermine both.

If you have any doubts, just Google “Putin, undermine democracy.” I did, and this is what I got:

Continue reading Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Rule of Law in russia

In my latest article for RT, which you can read here, I discuss Russia’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, and the possibility that Russia will quit the Council of Europe so as to withdraw itself from the court’s jurisdiction. I argue that it would be a shame if Russia did decide to do this. The evidence does not suggest that the court is biased against Russia, and many Russians have benefitted from it being there to protect their rights. I suggest that,

The problem with a number of Russian leaders, throughout history, is that they have tended to want to make their subordinates accountable to the law, while at the same time not wanting the same accountability to apply to themselves.

I conclude that Russian president Vladimir Putin should avoid going down the same path himself.

Of course, many people think that he went down that path long ago, and I was interested to see a couple of pieces this week that also address issues of the rule of law in Russia.

The first is an NBC News interview with exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In this Khodorkovsky says, ‘Putin is a typical mafia godfather, a typical head of a crime syndicate.’

The second is a piece in Meduza that discusses liberal economic reform during Putin’s first presidency, and in particular the role of two important officials, Alexei Kudrin and Herman Gref. The article reports the following:

Kudrin and Gref pushed for new things like a tax of mineral mining. According to Gref, major oil companies were not happy with the proposal. He says that a representative of the company Yukos approached him on the night before the new law was to be discussed by the Duma and told him that they’d made an agreement with all of the deputies. As a result, the ministers were given a choice: they could either not take the proposal to parliament, or they could ‘be taken out [feet first]’. … Gref called Kudrin and found out that he’d also been visited and threatened. … In the end the legislation failed miserably.

So, who was it who owned this oil company, Yukos, which suborned parliamentary deputies and threatened senior officials? Well, golly gosh, it was none other than Khodorkovsky, the same man who accuses Putin of being a ‘mafia godfather.’

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Russian president Vladimir Putin had a private meeting the other day with the heads of key media organizations. Normally, the content of these meetings remains secret, but on this occasion one of those present leaked what Putin had said. Apart from the statement that ‘We will not abandon Donbass,’ what grabbed the headlines was the following words of Putin:

I believe in passionarity [passionarnost’], in the theory of passionarity. As in nature, so in human society, there is development, a peak, and extinction. Russia hasn’t yet reached the peak. We are on the march, on the march of development. The country passed through very tough experiences in the 1990s, at the start of the 2000s, but it is on the march of development. I look at what is happening here: we have a sea of problems, but unlike other nations that are old or aging, we are still on the rise. We are quite a young nation. We have an immortal genetic code. It is founded on the mixing of bloods, if you can say it in such a simple, popular, way.

I mentioned this odd topic of passionarity once before, but it’s worth returning to it for a more detailed explanation of what Putin is on about, as I suspect it doesn’t mean a lot to most Western readers.

The term ‘passionarity’ was invented by the Soviet ethnologist Lev Gumilev and was a key point in his (failed) doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, entitled Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. But before going on to that, it’s necessary to introduce a bit of historical background.

Continue reading Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Latest Poll Undermines Claims of Rising Dissatisfaction in Russia

Something has changed, we are told again and again. After two decades of misrule, Russians are getting increasingly fed up with Vladimir Putin and his ‘regime’. The recent protests caused by the arrest of Alexei Navalny are just the tip of the iceberg, underneath which is a huge wave of dissatisfaction just waiting to burst loose.

But is it? On the one hand, journalists provide anecdotal evidence to support the claim. On the other hand, there are the cold hard facts of survey statistics. What do they tell us?

To answer that question, we turn to the Russian sociological organization known as the Levada Centre. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Levada has been doing surveys for a long time, so one can compare data over a prolonged period. And second, Levada is well known for its liberal, anti-government orientation, and so cannot in any way be accused of biasing its surveys to favour the Russian state.

Today, Levada published its latest set of indicators. So, let’s take a look at these, starting with the one that everybody is always interested in – Vladimir Putin’s approval rating.

Approval of Vladimir Putin

This records that when asked the question ‘do you approve of Vladimir Putin’s activities as President?’, 64% of respondents said yes. That’s down from 69% in September of last year, but up from the 60% recorded in July at the peak of the first wave of coronavirus. The survey was conducted in January, which means before the recent protests, but well after Navalny’s poisoning and revelations of possible state involvement. If Russians were going to hold Putin to account for what happened to Navalny, or for the large number of covid-related deaths in Russia, one would expect that to show already. It doesn’t.

If there is any reason for Putin to be concerned it is that his approval rating is lower among younger people than older ones. Whereas 73% of people aged 55 or over approve of him, only 51% of those aged 18 to 24 do so. But then again, 51% is still a majority. It would clearly be wrong to say that Russian youth have firmly turned their backs on their president. Overall, therefore, while one can say that Putin has lost ground since the big bump in support he got after the annexation of Crimea, he’s still in a reasonably strong position.

The next set of data relates to the approval of the Russian prime minister over time. This has gone up and down, the biggest positive rating being when Putin held the post between 2008 and 2012. But if you look at the recent end of the chart, you see that the current PM, Mikhail Mishustin, seems to be doing quite well, with a rating of 58% and rising. Interestingly, that brings him close to Putin in terms of approval. Unlike for the president, however, this data is not from January, but from November of last year. It will be interesting to see if Mishustin keeps moving upwards.

Approval of the Prime Minister

Approval of politicians is one thing. One’s general attitude to life is another. Perhaps Russia support their rulers while quietly growing more and more unhappy with the general state of things. This third chart, which is again based on surveys in January, suggests otherwise, at least in general terms.

Evaluation of the current situation in the country

The black line in the chart shows the percentage of people who think that the country is moving in the right direction, and the blue line the percentage who think the opposite. The most recent data indicates is that despite the troublesome economic situation, Russians generally have a positive outlook, with 49% currently thinking that things are improving, and 40% thinking that they are getting worse.

Obviously, things can change. A ‘black swan’ might come along and disrupt everything. But Russia has experienced a few such swans in recent years (repeated economic crises, Western sanctions, and covid) and yet Russians on the whole retain a positive outlook regarding their country’s prospects and their rulers.

In fact, looking at the charts, rather than concluding that everything has changed, one gets the impression that the present looks very much like the past. As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Putin is Doomed

From the conclusion to ‘Kicking the Kremlin’ by British journalist Marc Bennetts:

The protest movement has failed to bring Putin down, but there is a new vulnerability about the ‘national leader’. The Kremlin’s crackdown was not so much a sign of Putin’s strength, as a tacit admission that he felt threatened.

… Ominously for Putin, the amount of Russians who believe what they see and hear on television is falling fast … and even those who believe are starting to have their doubts. … Russia is changing, but Putin is not. ‘It’s a very difficult moment to pinpoint,’ said Gleb Pavlovsky, the ex-Kremlin political consultant. ‘But whenever the emotional connection with the people is gone, it’s gone forever.’

A generation has lived their entire adult lives with Putin as either president or prime minister. Familiarity has, inevitably, bred contempt. In the words of one former supporter, Putin’s ‘judo tricks no longer cut it.’ … Putin is increasingly a figure of fun. His message of stability is increasingly irrelevant to a generation that has little memory of the chaotic 1990s. For many Russians in their early to mid-twenties, Putin is simply, as one protestor described him to me, some ‘weird old man’ who has been in politics far too long.

‘He’s lost it completely,’ said Matvei Krylov, the young activists who left home at the age of fourteen to join the fight against Putin. ‘When you look at him, you can tell that he doesn’t want to be in power anymore.’ … Krylov laughed, his words a mixture of pity and contempt ‘But he’s trapped. He’s got nowhere to run.’

Published in February 2014.

Oops!

Putin 2036?

Russian politics keeps turning up surprises, and you have to think that some of them surprise even those at the top of the Russian power system themselves.

When Vladimir Putin proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few weeks ago, the general reaction of the Western press was to declare the act as a ‘power grab’ and proof that Putin intended to remain in power beyond the end of his last constitutionally permitted term as president in 2024. This narrative had a number of problems. First, since the press had been telling us for years that Putin already had absolute power, it was hard to see how he could be ‘grabbing’ it. Second, once the exact wording of the proposed amendments was announced, it was obvious that far from permitting Putin to stay in office, they guaranteed the opposite. Furthermore, Putin specifically ruled out taking a job other than president, such as head of the State Council, thereby undercutting all the speculation that he was jiggling the system in such a way as to allow himself to continue to be in charge even while not being president. For a while it really did look like Putin would be well and truly gone in 2024.

Until today.

In a completely unexpected development, Valentina Tereshkova, best known for having been the first woman in space but now a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, proposed to the Duma that once the new constitutional amendments come into force, the count of how many times somebody can be president be reset to zero. This would allow Putin to stand once again for president in the election of 2024, and to serve two more terms as far as 2036.

Tereshkova’s proposal seems to have taken the Duma completely by surprise. Worse, nobody knew what to do with it. The idea hadn’t come from the Kremlin – at least not directly – but deputies couldn’t be certain that Tereshkova wasn’t acting as a conduit for Putin, and they didn’t want to vote her idea down just in case she was. What to do? The answer was temporary paralysis, as the Duma tried to find out what Putin really thought, a problem which was resolved only by an emergency meeting attended by the president himself, who turned up at the Duma a short while after Tereshkova made her proposal to make an unscheduled speech. In this, Putin said ,

The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the Constitutional Court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the Constitution.

In short, Putin gave his consent to the idea, subject to a ruling from the Constitutional Court.

Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?

It’s next to impossible to know what’s actually going on here. For the past few weeks, Putin’s been sending strong signals that he really does plan to leave in 2024. So this is quite a reversal. The cynic in me imagines that in a political system as tightly controlled as Russia’s, today’s events can’t have been a surprise to the president. But the way it happened – the temporary paralysis in the Duma, and Putin’s sudden, unscheduled speech – suggest something rather more spontaneous. I pronounce myself flummoxed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean for certain that Putin will stay on as president post-2024. It’s possible that even if permitted to stand again, he’ll decide not to. Nor does it mean, as the Daily Telegraph immediately announced, that Putin would now be president ‘for life’. But it certainly opens up the possibility that he’ll be hanging around in power for a lot longer yet. Having said that the proposed amendments precluded that (as indeed they did before today), I find myself once again contemplating the wisdom of avoiding making firm predictions while engaging in punditry. What’s going to happen next? I don’t know. All we can do is sit back and see how things unfold.

 

 

 

Much ado about nothing?

After 6 radio interviews (all in French) and 2 TV interviews in the last 18 hours, I’m feeling all-pundited out, but it strikes that it would be odd if a Russia-dedicated blog didn’t say anything the day after the Russian government resigned en masse. So here’s my ha’p’orth on yesterday’s political developments.

The key point you should bear in mind is that it’s all speculation. As I said repeatedly in my media interviews, ‘I don’t know’, ‘it’s not clear’. While some commentators might try to persuade you otherwise, we don’t actually know why Putin has called for amendments in the Russian constitution, what these amendments are meant to achieve, or why the Russian government resigned en masse. The best we can do is hypothesize.

The main constitutional proposals are that: a) parliament, not the president, appoint the Prime Minister and cabinet; b) the State Council, currently an advisory body, be given formal constitutional status in order to promote unified government; c) candidates for the post of president be limited to those who have resided in Russia for 25 years (not 10 as a present), and dual-citizens be barred; and d) the Russian constitution should take precedence over international law (a proposal clearly targeted at limiting the power of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)).

Among hypotheses explaining these proposals are the following:

  • Putin wants to create a position he can move into in 2024 so as to remain in power. This might be true, but if so, why do it now and limit his own authority as president for the next four years? Wouldn’t it be better to leave it till later in his term? I find this explanation a little unsatisfactory.
  • By dividing power, Putin aims to prevent his successor from being able to take any action against him or other members of the current ruling elite. Again, I’m not entirely convinced by this, as the proposals would make it easier for the parliament and government to move against those currently in authority.
  • Putin is aware that the current system is over-centralized and inflexible and needs shaking up to make it more efficient, in part by devolving authority and introducing more political competition. This is certainly what Putin has hinted at, but for the reasons laid out below I’m not at all sure the proposals will actually produce the desired result.

There may be other explanations, and frankly your guess is as good as mine as to which is true. We don’t know what’s going on in Vladimir Putin’s head. Similarly, we’re not in a position to say why Medvedev and his government resigned. Were they blindsided by Putin’s constitutional proposals and felt obliged to quit, or was it that Putin had lost confidence in them and thought that this was an appropriate moment to push them out? I think it’s kind of futile to speculate. Consequently, the ‘why’ of all this interests me rather less than the likely results, for which reason I think it’s worth examining them in a bit more depth.

In line with the third hypothesis above, it makes sense, therefore, to consider questions such as ‘Will these reforms fundamentally change the way Russia is governed’, ‘Will they improve the way Russia is governed’, ‘Will they make Russian government more competitive, more responsive, etc?’ Again, the true answer has to be ‘I don’t know’. But here are some thoughts to help guide thoughts on the subject.

Continue reading Much ado about nothing?

Governing Russia

Putin has spoken. The Russian constitution needs some tweaking, he told legislators in his annual address to the Federal Assembly yesterday. Restrictions on how often someone can be president will remain, thus clearing up the question of whether Putin will stay on as president after 2024 – he won’t. But, under the changes Putin proposes, the Prime Minister will henceforth be appointed by parliament not the president, an amendment which should shift power towards the legislature. All this would have to be approved in a national referendum, but still it got the pundits buzzing.

In reality, though, this wasn’t the main focus of Putin’s speech, and while it’s what got the headlines it wasn’t what struck me most about what the Russian president had to say. What hit me was how he was to a large degree repeating stuff he’d said before and how this indicated the extreme limits of his power. Most notably, Putin started off with a long exposition of Russia’s demographic problems and the need to find ways to support families with young children so as to encourage parents to have more kids. This had been the main thing he’d talked about last year, at which point he had unveiled a series of financial measures to try and resolve the demographic problem. What were the results? Well, if this year’s speech is anything to go by, last year’s measures had no effect at all. In fact, the birth rate actually fell! Perhaps the most revealing section of Putin’s speech to me was the following segment, in which he said:

The most sensitive and crucial issue is the opportunity to enrol one’s child in a day nursery. Earlier, we allocated funds from the federal budget to help the regions create 255,000 new places in day nurseries by the end of 2021. However, in 2018 to 2019, instead of 90,000, 78,000 new places were created, out of which only 37,500 places can actually be provided to kids. Other places are unavailable simply because an educational licence is still not obtained. This means that these nurseries are not ready to enrol children.

Why do I find this so interesting? Because it shows very clearly that there’s a world of difference between making policy statements and even transposing those statements into specific policies with assigned budgets, and actually putting those policies into effect, let alone achieving the objectives for which the policies were created. Supposedly, Putin is all-powerful; the state is highly centralized; the leader just has to wave his wand, and the system obeys. What the statement above shows is that this isn’t the case. Putin can issue whatever instructions he likes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s done.

This isn’t an isolated case. In the past, I’ve noted how other issues keep cropping up year after year in Putin’s speeches, indicating that all his decrees on the issue in question have resulted in naught. For instance, in a 2016 blogpost, ‘The Limits of Power’, I talked about Putin’s complaints that his orders on economic deregulation had not been carried out.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I came across another reference somewhere (unfortunately I can’t remember where) to a speech Putin recently gave calling for a ‘bonfire of regulations’. The fact that he felt a need to demand this yet again is quite striking.

A similar story can be seen in the case of the key economic policy of the past couple of years, namely billions of dollars which have been assigned to infrastructure spending. It promises a lot, but as numerous reports have demonstrated, only a fraction of the assigned money has been spent, in part because bureaucrats are afraid of the scrutiny they’ll come under once they start dispensing a lot of cash.

And then there’s this story from Intellinewsa few days ago:

Russia is suffering from a crisis of confidence that is visible in the extremely high dividend payments (owners take cash rather than invest) and extremely low corporate borrowing, which is the other side of the same coin. The government understands it needs to do something about boosting investors’ confidence in the economy, but while the draft version of a new investor protection law was very radical, the version that was submitted to the Duma was so twisted by state-owned enterprise lobbying that everyone hates it and it is very unlikely to be passed.

In this case, what we see is one part of the Russia state lobbying another part of the state in order to undermine what a third part of the state (the government) wants to do. In circumstances like this, it’s remarkable that anything gets done at all.

In short, governing Russia is a tough business. The ship of state doesn’t always go where the pilot wants it to. This is, of course, hardly a uniquely Russian problem, but the Russian response to it has not always been successful. Historically speaking, when faced with the sort of difficulties mentioned here, Russian rulers have tended to try to bureaucratize and centralize, thereby reinforcing autocracy, Another response has been to find reliable people to whom large powers are then delegated as sort of autocratic plenipotentiaries. At the start of yesterday’s speech, Putin suggested that perhaps Russia needed to move in the other direction. As he put it:

Our society is clearly calling for change. People want development, and they strive to move forward in their careers and knowledge, in achieving prosperity, and they are ready to assume responsibility for specific work. Quite often, they have better knowledge of what, how and when should be changed where they live and work, that is, in cities, districts, villages and all across the nation.

If the proposed constitutional changes help prod Russia in that direction, they may well prove to be worthwhile. But don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: Within seconds of posting this, news arrived that the Russian government had resigned, with Prime Minister Medvedev citing the proposed constitutional changes as the reason. I will ponder my response over the next 24 hours.