Vladimir Putin is going to win the presidential election in Russia on March 4. In theory, that gives him six more years in power, and the right to run for a further six-year term after that. (He got around the constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms as president by spending the past four years as prime minister.) But it’s very unlikely that Putin will be ruling Russia 12 years from now.
So far, anti-Putin demonstrations are strictly a big-city phenomenon. Elsewhere, many if not most people still believe that the near-universal corruption is an abuse of Putin’s system, not an intrinsic part of it. They also buy his argument that only he can protect Russia from nefarious foreign plots and bring prosperity to the majority of Russians who still struggle to make ends meet.
The latest opinion poll predicts that Putin will win 66 per cent of the votes cast on Sunday, but he’s lucky that the presidential election is happening now and not a year from now, because his support is eroding fast. People are losing their fear of his regime, and the corruption issue is biting deeper and deeper.
The recent street demonstrations in Russia’s big cities are important, but the occasional outbreaks of open mockery of Putin in the media are an even better indication of which way the wind is blowing. A case in point is Ksenia Sobchak, one of Russia’s most popular bloggers, whose television talk show, Where Is Putin Taking Us?, was cancelled after the first episode because she invited protest leader Alexei Navalny on the show.
She struck back with a video mocking celebrities who have recorded messages endorsing Putin’s election campaign. It opens with a close-up of a rather bedraggled looking Ms. Sobchak earnestly urging Russians to vote for Putin. “Now is not the time to rock the boat and we should rally round one leader,” she concludes, the producer shouts “cut” — and the camera pulls back to show that she is tied to a chair and flanked by armed guards.
Mockery is an effective weapon because it undercuts people’s fear of speaking out, but it’s the corruption that is really damaging Putin’s standing. The corruption is not personal: Putin made his pile in the first few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as amply documented in Masha Gessen’s brave and meticulously researched new book The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. He has no need to steal any more.
However, turning a blind eye to corruption has become the main way that Putin’s regime gains and keeps collaborators. As one of his ex-KGB former collaborators from St Petersburg, Viktor Cherkesov, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais last October, “Putin doesn’t pay much attention to theft, because he reckons everyone steals.”
Most people who work for his regime do indeed steal — but the public is paying attention, and slowly but surely it is drawing conclusions even in the slumbering heartlands of Russia.
Putin lives in fear of another “colour” revolution like the Orange one that swept away the former Ukrainian regime or the Rose Revolution in Georgia, but when the time comes in Russia it won’t take a revolution to change things. The country is already a democracy in form, and to a certain extent in substance too. Putin actually has to get elected, and he can only go so far in trying to bend electoral outcomes to his will.
For 12 years Putin has ruled Russia almost without challenge, partly because of his macho image — a “street-fighting, motherland-loving tough guy”, as one observer put it — and partly because he has overseen a dramatic recovery in Russian living standards. The steep rise in oil prices was responsible for much of that, and anyway it would have been hard to do worse than the previous government under Boris Yeltsin, but Putin does get the credit for it.
His tough-guy image still appeals to some Russian voters, but it is getting old. The economy, for global reasons largely beyond Putin’s control, is no longer producing dramatic growth. As a result United Russia, Putin’s own party, fell below 50 per cent of the votes for the first time since its foundation in last December’s parliamentary election.
It might have fallen even further if not for large-scale fraud in the counting of the votes. That fraud triggered the first major public protests in Russia since Putin came to power, and the regime has already been forced to retreat on several fronts. Regional governors will once again be elected directly (Putin was appointing them instead), and it will become significantly easier to register new political parties in Russia.
Putin is demagogic, cunning and ruthless, but he is not actually a dictator and his regime is more fragile than it looks. If it loses popular support, the question is not whether it will also lose power, but only when. Will Russians be willing to wait six years until the next scheduled presidential election, or will they find a (hopefully legal) way to push him out a good deal sooner?
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.