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New York Times
February 1, 2009
A Threat to Putin’s Big Plans
CLIFFORD J. LEVY
MOSCOW Over the last eight years, as Vladimir V. Putin has amassed ever more power, Russians have often responded with a collective shrug, as if to say: Go ahead, control everything as long as we can have our new cars and amply stocked supermarkets, our sturdy ruble and cheap vacations in the Turkish sun.
But now the worldwide financial crisis is abruptly ending an oil-driven economic boom here, and the unspoken contract between Mr. Putin and his people is being thrown into doubt. In newspaper articles, among political analysts, even in corners of the Kremlin, questions can be heard. Will Russians admire Mr. Putin as much when oil is at $40 a barrel as they did when it was at $140 a barrel? And if Russia’s economy seriously falters, will his system of hard, personal power prove to be a trap for him? Can it relieve public anger, and can he escape the blame?7
“We talk about a lack of democracy in Russia, but I like my own formula for the country, which is authoritarianism with the consent of the governed,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “And it can be taken away.”
“The present rulers know that they will not be toppled by Kasparov,” Mr. Trenin said, referring to Garry K. Kasparov, the former chess champion whose political challenges to Mr. Putin can seem quixotic. “But if the working people of Russia decide that they have had enough, that will be the end of it. It happened to Gorbachev, and it almost happened to Yeltsin.”
Few are predicting Mr. Putin’s downfall any time soon, especially considering how methodically he has undermined the opposition. Many Russians believe he rescued them from the misery of the 1990s, and the polls say his popularity remains very high.
But those polls also show his popularity slipping a bit, amid far darker indicators. The unemployment rate is soaring, banks are failing and the ruble has dropped so fast in value that Russians are again hiding their money in dollars in their apartments. Sporadic protests have broken out as some factories close or cut production.8
For now, the Kremlin is desperately spending down the hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves that it put away in good times,2,7 all the while trying to quell comparisons to Russia’s economic meltdown in 1998, when the government, under Boris Yeltsin, defaulted on its debt. Mr. Putin, the current prime minister and former president, and his protégé, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, try to assure the public that they are addressing its pain.2 Yet Mr. Putin has created a government so highly centralized and so resistant to criticism that it is unclear whether it can respond adeptly to rising dissatisfaction.8
At all levels, government officials are unaccustomed to vying in contested elections, let alone to reaching out for popular support or trying to get a feel for the range of grass-roots sentiment.1,2,3,7,8
The Parliament is essentially an arm of the Kremlin, and Mr. Putin has done away with the election of regional governors, who are now presidential appointees. The structure is known here as Mr. Putin’s vertical system of power decisions emanate from the very top, then are passed down to regional and finally local officials.
Aleksandr A. Auzan, an economist and board member at a research institute set up by President Medvedev, said that in the Putin system, “there is not a relationship between the authorities and the people through the Parliament or through nonprofit organizations or other structures. The relationship to the people is basically through television.8 And under the conditions of the crisis, that can no longer work.”
In other words, if people feel their government is not heeding their complaints, they may think their only option is to take to the streets.
One social scientist, Yevgeny S. Gontmakher, created a bit of a sensation in political circles late last year when he explored this theme in an article in a newspaper, Vedomosti, that he titled, “Scenario: Novocherkassk 2009.”
He described how unrest could occur in industrial cities that depend on a single factory, if the factory closes. (Novocherkassk is such a city; in Soviet times, food shortages set off riots there that the Soviets brutally suppressed.)8
In the scenario, local authorities beholden to Moscow would freeze up or panic in the face of spontaneous protests, and the situation would quickly deteriorate.
“The vertical system of power is not flexible,” Mr. Gontmakher said in an interview. “These bureaucrats, they wait for a reaction from Moscow, even in small situations, before making decisions. This is a big threat. It is very dangerous for Putin.”12,7
The government’s response to the article hinted at how the authorities remain unsure whether to address the country’s financial troubles with a thaw or a crackdown. At first, Kremlin officials thanked Mr. Gontmakher. Then, federal media regulators warned Vedomosti that the article might be “an attempt to incite extremist activities.”
Mr. Putin may have also put himself in a political bind by establishing his tandem leadership with Mr. Medvedev. (Barred from running for a third consecutive presidential term, Mr. Putin anointed Mr. Medvedev as his successor and had Mr. Medvedev appoint him prime minister.)
Mr. Putin is still considered Russia’s paramount leader, but by taking the title of prime minister, he may have deprived himself of a fall-guy-in-waiting. That role traditionally has gone to Russia’s prime ministers; President Yeltsin repeatedly dismissed his during the 1998 default.
So far, Mr. Putin has instead made a scapegoat of the United States, saying it was at the heart of Russia’s crisis, rather than Russia’s over-reliance on the export of natural resources.8,1,2,3,7
Last week, as opposition leaders in Russia planned protests over the crisis, Mr. Putin was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
He began his keynote address by saying, “In the last few months, virtually every speech on this subject has started with criticism of the United States. But I will do nothing of the kind.” And then he went on to do just that.
Dr. Gordon M. Hahn – Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program and Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007) and Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), and numerous articles on Russian and Eurasian politics.