Wednesday 18 September 2019

It's back to the future as Kremlin regains control

Putin’s Russia is beating a retreat back to the Soviet era, writes Douglas Birch

President Vladimir Putin is preparing to handpick his candidate for the presidential election, although many Russians would like the ex-KGB spy to remain in office
President Vladimir Putin is preparing to handpick his candidate for the presidential election, although many Russians would like the ex-KGB spy to remain in office

President Vladimir Putin seems certain to claim yesterday's election victory by his party as a mandate to lead the country beyond the end of his term in May, despite allegations the vote was inflated by fraud and intimidation.

But now the main question facing Russia is what specific job Putin might take to retain control -- and who will be his choice as a candidate for president.

"The vote affirmed the main idea that Vladimir Putin is a national leader, that the people support his course, and this course will continue," said Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Duma and leader of Putin's United Russia party.

Putin is widely credited with leading his country out of the social and political wilderness of the 1990s, when the collapse of Soviet power nearly led to the disintegration of Russian society.

"I voted for our United Russia because life has become better now under Putin, and we don't want any changes or revolutions," said Alla Kosaryeva, a 70-year-old retiree who lives in St Petersburg. "Everything has calmed down now, and people can live safely."

There is little incentive for Putin to relinquish power over Russia, which is flush with revenue from its oil and natural gas industry and where Putin's power arguably rivals that of many of his Soviet and czarist predecessors.

Candidates have until December 23 to register for the Russian presidential elections. While many are expected to do so, only Putin's hand-picked successor seems to have a realistic chance of winning.

Whoever that choice is, he will likely be a figurehead who will stay in the shadow throughout his term, or even step down early to free the seat for Putin.

Two-thirds of Russians polled by the respected Levada Centre recently said they would support Putin serving another term. But Putin has repeatedly promised not to run, and a reversal now would be out of character for the stern, tough-talking former KGB spy.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist and political analyst, recently predicted that Putin will become United Russia chief and the future president would likely follow his orders -- recreating, to some extent, the Soviet-era, where the government was subservient to the Communist Party.

"A president will be nominated by United Russia, and he will obey party discipline," she commented.

Yesterday's election, meanwhile, marked the exit of all of Putin's liberal opponents from parliament. Tightened election rules eliminated individual races that in the past allowed mavericks to win seats.

"We will continue our fight for democracy and liberal values," retiring deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov said. "Not in the parliament, but in society. It's like in Soviet times, we are becoming dissidents because there are no legal ways to be in the opposition."

Many, both here and abroad, would interpret any manoeuvre to keep Putin in power as a major milestone in Russia's long retreat from the democratic reforms of the 1990s.

Putin's Russia is not a totalitarian state, and the current rift with the West is not yet a new Cold War. There is no gulag filled with political prisoners; no official censorship; no proxy wars being fought in the Third World.

But under Putin, the Kremlin has taken control of crucial industries. It has extended its control to Russia's far-flung provinces. Nominally independent institutions, including the courts, media and parliament, have been brought to heel.

Abroad, Putin has challenged Western policies, accusing Washington of using "diktat" in its foreign policy. The Kremlin, in turn, has been accused by its enemies of waging a covert cyberwar against Estonia, of helping rig Ukraine's 2004 elections and of ordering the killing of a former KGB officer in London using a radioactive poison -- allegations Russian officials have strenuously denied.

By choosing to make the Kremlin once again Russia's sole centre of power, analysts say, Putin has also resurrected some of the weaknesses that plagued the czarist and Communist systems.

Those familiar with Kremlin politics say Putin sometimes issues orders which, filtered through Russia's numerous layers of bureaucracy, are never executed.

A topdown system of government which tries to control the media and local elections, critics point out, may find itself pursuing disastrous or unpopular policies.

Russia's past absolutist governments were also faced with periodic succession crises, which sometimes led to bloodshed. So far, there's no evidence that Putin's departure would lead to violence.

But Moscow's decision to use the parliamentary and presidential elections to ratify the Kremlin's choice of leadership, rather than permit a more open competition, has created a political crisis rare for Western democracies.

Putin is not just the leader of the Russian state, he is the arbiter of disputes among the different Kremlin factions, who settles disputes and divides the corporate and political spoils. The Kremlin could split over such issues as how far Russia should go in confronting the West and consolidating state control of Russia's major industries. If Putin remains in office, some think he will inevitably become president for life. The pressures on him to stay would grow with each passing year, as his presence was increasingly needed to maintain a balance between bitterly divided factions.

"Putin understands very well the pitiless laws of the system he has built up step by step over the past seven years," political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky wrote earlier this year. "If he takes that final step of agreeing to a third term, he is accepting a life sentence... The darkness at noon of the Kremlin will engulf him forever."

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