Russia: Ground Shifting Under Putin’s Feet?

Posted November 18th, 2011 at 7:09 am (UTC+0)
28 comments

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets with members of the Valdai international discussion group of experts in Krasnogorsk outside Moscow. Putin promised modernization of Russia's political and economic system, without going into details. REUTERS: Alexsey Druginyn

The other evening, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sketched out his vision of Putin 2.0.

Speaking to the Valdai Club, an annual gathering of foreign and Russian academics and journalists, he offered a gradualist, evolutionary path for ruling Russia through what will be his 60s. Like many men of his age, Mr. Putin dwelled on his past achievements. He offered a future policy of tweaking an already winning strategy.

Watch out, Vladimir Vladimorich, as you prepare for your second decade ruling Russia, the ground may be shifting under your feet.

As he spoke, ComScore, an internet research company was finalizing a report that says Russia has overtaken Germany to have the largest number of internet users in Europe – 50.8 million people. About 40 percent of Russian adults are now online, a figure expected to reach 60 percent during the six-year term that Mr. Putin seeks in the March 4 presidential election.

For the first time, opposition critiques of the Putin government are regularly scoring over one million hits on the Internet. Shut out of state controlled TV, “Citizen Poet,” an internet political satire show, draws six million hits weekly. YouTube, Facebook, and LiveJournal are popular mediums for unfettered debate on Russia’s problems.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gestures as he meets with members of the Valdai international discussion group. Participants said direct questions received vague answers. REUTERS/Maxim Shipenkov/Pool

Two weeks before Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, United Russia, the ruling party, is struggling with approval ratings that have slumped to 51 percent. And in the six weeks since Mr. Putin and Russia’s President Dimitry Medvedev announced their plan to switch jobs next year, Mr. Putin’s approval rating has fallen to 61 percent. That is high by Western standards, but the lowest since he first took national office in 2000.

I have seen this before, hard working dictators who perform so well, that they work themselves out of their jobs. Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori defeated armed insurgencies, ended hyperinflation and stabilized their economies. But neither leader knew when or how to exit. Voters forgot why they wanted authoritarian leaders in the first place, and then turned on their tough guys.

When I first moved to Moscow five years ago, Russian eyes would mist over and knees would grow wobbly at the mention of…Gen. Pinochet. (I did not spoil these magic moments by describing how a large Chilean riot policeman once chased me down a street of Santiago, brandishing a large oaken club).

Russia is over its secret love affair with the Chilean Army general in the Prussian-style uniform. The Caucasus has been quieted, by rivers of rubles and by a television blackout. This quarter, Russia’s economy completes its recovery from the 2008 nosedive.

Now Russians seem restless. They want more.

But it does not look as if they are going to get more under Putin 2.0.

At the Valdai dinner, it fell to Timothy Coulter, a Harvard professor, to bell the cat, to speak truth to power.

“The present model of government, which took shape in Russia in the last 10 or 12 years, appears to have exhausted its potential or is about to reach that point,” said Coulter, chairman of Harvard’s Government Department. Referring to conclusions adopted by the roughly 400 Valdai participants, he continued: “So the majority of our group – I don’t say all, but the majority anyway – are saying this year that Russia is facing formidable challenges. And what’s going on now isn’t very practical. Perhaps things will look different after the elections, when you become president again. But it cannot go on and on endlessly.”

He also cited the group’s report that said Russia has “no efficient parliamentary system, no independent judicial system.” Political parties were “imitations.” And corruption was out of control.

In response, Mr. Putin responded that he had rebuilt Russia and its economy since the economic crisis of 1998 and the wars in the Caucasus. Looking ahead, he promised “modernization,” steps to increase “links” between citizens and government officials, and implementation of Russia’s national development plan.

Then the official transcript stops. But the day after the meeting, I had dinner with one participant, Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London. He conveyed a disappointment expressed by other participants: a lack of details on modernization, and no indication that Putin will confront corruption.

Instead, according to Prof. Lieven, Putin 2.0 may be a complacent extension of Putin 1.0, complete with scratchiness with the West.

Russia’s prime minister assailed NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya as “a tragedy” and “an absolute outrage.” Speaking a few weeks after the death of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, this simply reminds Libya’s new leaders that Russia backed the other side in their civil war. (Note to Kremlin: If you are in a hole, stop digging!)

Mr. Putin zeroed in on missile defense, complaining that the West does not listen to him. He threatened to post his own missiles. While Mr. Putin’s complaints seem sincere, they also seem irrational to many people in the West. NATO’s goal of missile defense is to stop an Iranian missile from delivering a nuclear bomb to Western Europe.

Russia is believed to have around 4,000 active nuclear warheads. Westerners do not see how a picket line designed to knock down one or two Iranian missiles will alter the strategic balance of power in Europe. But, as the Kremlin sees it, the camel’s nose will be under the tent.

Turning to another point of contention with Europe, Mr. Putin grabbed a notebook and sketched an expose of how shale gas’ “fracking” technology threatens drinking water in Europe.

Behind his concern over European water quality is the knowledge that in the last decade, shale gas rendered North America self-sufficient in natural gas. With Poland and Ukraine now investing heavily in shale gas, this new technology could further dent natural gas prices in Western Europe.

So in the decade ahead, Russia’s leadership may have to grapple with two game-changing technologies.

The Internet threatens the Kremlin’s carefully constructed media monopoly.

Shale gas could deliver an ax-blow to its resource-based economic model.

After a decade of ‘stabilnost,’ Russians seem increasing forgetful of why they once wanted an authoritarian ruler.

Looking to the decade ahead, they seem increasingly dissatisfied with a leader whose policy for the future is to tweak the status quo.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

28 responses to “Russia: Ground Shifting Under Putin’s Feet?”

  1. garcho garchev says:

    “After a decade of ‘stabilnost,’ Russians seem increasing forgetful of why they once wanted an authoritarian ruler.”

    Exactly when has Russia had any ruler that was less than authoritarian?

  2. Gennady says:

    I like the points made in the article speaking out real avenues for Russia under Putin 2.0.

    1. The author made a remarkable observation that both Chile’s and Peru’s dictators didn’t know when or how to exit. The same is with Mr. Putin who has lost any sense of self-criticism and competence to govern the country in the years to come. With the greatest possibility the forthcoming election results will be rigged.

    2. It’s outrageous lie Mr. Putin claimed that he had rebuild Russia. Actually he rebuilt Moscow with the money being pumped out of the country’s regions. All provincial and rural Russia is in ruins under his and the party he presides over “wise” leadership.

    3. One more point that he is afraid to step down because the threat of imminent prosecution for numerous violations of the Constitution and laws perpetrated under his leadership or with him implied.

    4. It’s very indicative for his incompetence Participants in the Valdai international discussion group have noted out that their direct questions received vague answers from Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin entering his 60s. He has lost any sense of modesty to admit his incapacity.

    5.Voters should be complete idiots to expect anything new from the guy who during 11 years of unlimited power didn’t provide Russia with neither efficient parliamentary system, no independent judicial system, with existing “political parties” being imitations, with corruption out of control, with unrestrained demographic tragedy, humiliating healthcare and public education.

    6. With no doubt that shale gas will deliver an axe-blow to Mr. Putin’s resource-based economic model. What else can Mr. Putin and his party rely on?

    So, Russia under Mr. Putin 2.0 is the doomed Titanic being ill equipped for the challenges and rough waters ahead.

    • Biswajyoti Chatterjee says:

      I’d like to hear more from you. We get very little information about the ground reality of Russia. You must have suffered from:”waiting in line for bread while its snowing and the wind rushes over you like a non-stop current of freezing cold water”. Otherwise you couldn’t have expressed yourself with such simple words but with so much emotion. I’m from Bengal, India and my father is a die hard Communist and thinks that Russia is a heaven on earth. Please be my friend so that I can know more about Russia. My E-mail ID is Eagerly awaiting for your mail. I’ll reciprocate by giving you information about the Communist Party of India and it’s mismanagement of my state, West Bengal.

  3. Antonieri says:

    Terrific article, thank you very much for the comparisons with Latin American countries and pointing at this new type of gas which will indeed create problems of the current economic base of Russia. But have you read the recent book The Net Delusion? I am not so sure about the role of the internet. And, anyway, did the Chilean policeman manage to beat you up?

  4. Kyeyune Richard says:

    The West is obviously aware of his potential are by such articles they are already chickening Lavnov will be the next Presido after Vladmir

  5. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Antonieri-
    no, the Chilean caribinero did not catch me. Ever since I have worn rubber soled shoes to demonstrations — good for running!
    On The Net Delusion, I am familiar with the arguments, and I don’t want to hyperventilate about the impact of the Internet. But something new is being created and very fast in Russia.
    In the last 18 months, the Internet has become the home of the Opposition, and now it reaches millions.
    Stay tuned!
    cheers
    Jim
    Moscow

  6. Pyotr says:

    “Shale gas could deliver an ax-blow to its resource-based economic model.” Well, a direct pipeline called North Stream for delivering natural gas from North Russia to Germany and Western Europe through the Baltic sea has been just finished and soon the second one will be. Russian pipelines are also reaching the East now, China and other eastern economies. All Russia’s export can be described by a slogan “From Russia with pipe.” So it might prolong the Putin’s reign for a decade or two. Russia is oxymoron, its richness is the source of the notorious poverty of the most of its people, the reason of stagnation and lack of people’s political will. And Putin is determined to benefit from the situation as long as he can.

    • Kolanovich says:

      Pyotr said: “Russian pipelines are also reaching the East now, China and other eastern economies. All Russia’s export can be described by a slogan “From Russia with pipe.”

      First, You are way ahead of the game. There is no Russian gas pipeline reaching the Pacific. None at all even to serve Russia’s Siberian cities and towns. And there is no agreement with China on potential export gas price. And a fiction of piping Russian gas to South Korea is just that – a fiction.

      Second, the Chinese are diversifying LNG gas imports by contracting future supplies from Australia, Indonesia, Brunei, etc. Even negotiations have been going on about future LNG supplies from Canada. China will not let Russia become a monopolist. Turkmenistan is also negotiating with China on gas pipelines.

      Third, “From Russia with an empty pipe” would be more correct as Russia’s deliverable gas supplies are nearly all committed to Europe. That’s why Gazprom is seeking Western partners to explore remote Siberian regions. Yes, there is likely to be gas there, but the cost of building and servicing a Transsiberain pipeline will be astronomical. Unless Russia will agree to subsidize gas prices for years to come that gas will be uncompetitive with new LNG sources from the Persian Gulf, Algeria, Brunei, and in future from Iran.

      • Pyotr says:

        “None at all even to serve Russia’s Siberian cities and towns.” I live in Siberia and the central heating system in my small hometown is working on natural gas. But the cost of this source of energy is even higher than of wood. Not because of the gas being really more expensive but because of corruption and monopolism protected by Putin’s government. So there is gas in Siberia, but you’re still right saying pipelines aren’t serving Russian cities and towns because really most of siberian households and central heating boilers still use coal, wood or mazut. Putin’s government is not interested in improving siberians’ living standards by converting to natural gas, it is seeking profit from exporting the gas further down the pipes to China instead.
        “First, You are way ahead of the game. There is no Russian gas pipeline reaching the Pacific. ” Well, truth to say my source of the information about eastward gas and oil pipelines are official Putin’s TV channels. If what you said is really true it’s a big relief and a hope of Putin to be dethroned sooner!

  7. Denis says:

    Thanx for a profound article with a sophisticated view on the current situation in the RF. Just one thing to comment on: I work in the energy industry and the EROI ratio (energy return on investment) in the shale gas and oil development and production is around 0, i.e. we have to invest as much energy in recovering shale gas and oil as the outcome will be. So, all the happy talk about energy independence in Europe is mpre than premature.

    • Kolanovich says:

      Denis – your comment about European ‘energy indepenence’ may well be right except that European energy independence depends on many policies implemented by many countries. That includes renewable energy (e.g. the Dutch and other Nordics are way ahead in wind energy), nuclear energy ( think of France’s nuclear capacity), coal gasification, LNG imports, etc. There are now some 16 LNG exporting countries, Spain is a major importer and the Dutch are building a huge LNG terminal, etc. Valuable as it is, shale gas is only one element in the overall energy balance.

  8. Biswajyoti Chatterjee says:

    Putin needs a little “Input” from Medvedev!

    • Aaron Browne says:

      Putin needs to have more o’ that natural gas pumped to the EU so he can cash in on some money, …anybody know how many natural gas companies have poped up in the last twenty years in Russland???

  9. Olga says:

    Only 40 percent of adult are online! I know all the runet is against Putin and his party, their rating in the net does not exceed several percent. (And I don’t trust to official pollsters at all.) There is a big invoice to him. But if all the rest people watch this TV! That’s terrible. (By the way TV removed the catcalls from the video with Putin.)

    Russian internet is not that happy, however. The forums that I visit have plenty of paid dummies from the ruling party. They “talk”, “argue”…one must have some experience to sort out relevant information and not let involve oneself in the twaddle. They are taught to draw attention from our matters to “evil America” (for example, concerning mentioned missile defense). Of course internet users are not stupid, but the dummies manage to make their dirty business to some extent. If a user posts something valuable and “dangerous”, they sink it in empty flood among themselves and large meaningless texts/images.

    Being not a specialist in the international law, I can suppose it is subject to improvement, to avoid ambiguities and mutual reclamations. The UNO and UN Security Council should be more authoritative organizations. In principle, whenever the population endures violence from its rulers, United Nations forces would be better to see acting, rather than NATO.

    Putin made a bid for usurpation and dictatorship, equally presumptuous and undue. Albeit United Russia party is a powerful system aimed to maintain the vertical of power/corruption created by him, he is a political corpse.

    • Kolanovich says:

      Olga said: ‘The UNO and UN Security Council should be more authoritative organizations”
      This is a good example of Putin’s disinterest (to put it mildly) in making international organizations work more effectively and/or reflect changes in international balance. In his years as both the President and the Prime Minister of Russia he has done practically nothing to help the evolution of international cooperation. Putin still remains preoccupied with the bi-polar USSR-USA concept having focused lately on his vision of Eurasia. But where are Russia’s objectives in terms of reforming the old and inefficient UN system, in helping to bring into the framework countries like Brazil and India, in addressing the root causes of unrest in the Arab world ? Hopefully he understands that, with very, very few supporters worldwide, Russia must initiate policies to find common grounds with other countries on the globe. Playing around with the same old issues of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Cuba and Venezuela, – that most certainly will be Russia’s road to nowhere.

      • Jiri says:

        Well said. Putin still lives in the past, with old friends of Brezhnev, Libya, Syria Venezuela.
        Instead of forging new friendships and playing major role on world stage, he backs up Iranian dictator. Like they say, one dictator to another, flocks of the same feather.

        • Aaron Browne says:

          There are alot of people that think in ten years the USA will improve its relations w/Iran (“the Next Decade” Friedman),… Why not improve relations with them? Should he degrade his relationship with Iran instead??? Its not like he’s living there and is going to go to jail for kissing all of his mistresses in public… (you know Putin is put’in his time w/the ladies!).

          -So what if Putin ‘lives in the past’ as you like to put it (you sound like a cliche btw). There is no ‘flocks of the same feather’… unless you are talking about the World Trade Organization -outside of the WTO, hell, everybody’s just trying to get by just like you and me… sometimes we gotta deal with the worst co-workers in our pathetic westernized coroporate slave world of cubilcles, and instead of a co-worder having say a nuclear power plant owned by China, we may instead have an Indian who does not speak hardly any english as we wait for our own jobs to be replaced by either another Indian or automation…

  10. Kulwant says:

    To me the article and the comments appear to be the usual product of Russia bashing. West is clearly unnerved with the rise of Russia from the Gorbachev ushered glasnost and collapse that was brought in by his policies, under pressure from the West. EU does not want a competitor on its Esatern flank. US stands to lose its hegemony. China will try and stop Russian influence spreading Eastward. Russians will be naive to think that any anarchistic parliamentary system can steer them to prosperity. Putin is their best hope as he can stand up to the Western hypocricy and square up to the failing market models.

  11. Biswajyoti Chatterjee says:

    Russia needed Putin when he first came to power. He only – ex boss of KGB that he was – had the guts to say,”Mind your own business!” to Bush Jr. when America tried to poke it’s nose into the Chechnya affair. But today Russia has outgrown Putin. I have a close friend from my native town in India who works in Moscow. According to him Medvedev is very much tech savvy – which Putin is not – and the present Russia is more in need of leaders like Medvedev who can build on the foundation laid by Putin. Putin has played his part in bringing Russia almost up to par with the erstwhile USSR as a superpower that the world badly needs to keep the balance of power. With only one superpower (USA) the whole world can soon become like the pre-WWII Europe where humankind almost came to an end under Hitler. So it is no surprise that the ground is shifting under Putin’s feet. Putin should gracefully step down, put Medvedev in his place and Medvedev should start looking for a replacement before the now stable Russia goes into chaos like the Boris Yeltsin era.

    • Aaron Browne says:

      What ‘foundataion’ everybody there thinks like that old guy in the movie Big Lebowski… ‘the god damn plane has flown into the mountain,,,’

  12. Kolanovich says:

    Kulwant wrote that Putin can “square up to the failing market models”. So what are, in your opinion, Putin’s options ? Return back to Moscow’s central planning ? To the state – allocation of resources and state defined prices ? And what would Russia offer to sell – more oil and gas ?

  13. If these guys are saying it, it’s coming. They’ve been right about everything else, but nobody listens.

  14. matt says:

    I personally think not enough vodka has been drunk and any comments should remain to ones self. 9 drink minimum before comment and not a drop less. On a more direct tact one should think its time Russia came out from the cold and stopped being aggressive towards the west. The wests people do not dislike the Russian people, they would rather see their Russian brothers and sisters join them and truly put the cold war past behind them, drop the talk of matching missile for missile it only ever to a bad place no one really wants to go, to be united in our goals together so people all over the world can live in freedom and with basic human rights, with adequate health care, food ,water, housing, heating ,cooling and especially jobs. Surely by becoming more democratic and friendly towards the west it would open up job opportunities and growth for all the people of Russia and vise versa. The problem we all have is politicians that cant see past the end of their own noses. Imagine the growth and prosperity that could take place if Russia and West became one with true democracy and friendship and the complete disarmament’s of Russia , China, USA and all others. The world would be a much safer place for all our children. We all have the right to basic human rights and dignity and freedom, the right as one old wise politician said (the right to be let alone), to work and provide for our families and loved one and friends without threat or harm from another, the right health care and food and water and housing and heating and the list goes on, its only those that have and want more that drive the wheels of discontent so the ones that dont never will and the them that do will always have. Its time we the people of the world said no to these people that strive to keep us in chains.

  15. nimh says:

    This is off-topic, but “Chile’s Augusto Pinochet defeated an armed insurgency”? That’s an odd way to describe a bloody military coup d’etat against a democratically elected government.

  16. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Interesting point by NIMH. Yes, Gen. Pinochet overthrew a democratically elected government.
    Then the question arises — how serious was the MIR, the Revolutionary Left Movement? At the time of the coup, they claimed 10,000 members, many with military training. For the next 15 years, violence continued in Chile between the MIR and the military government. MIR commander Andrés Pascal Allende, a nephew of the former president, has said that during the military regime, up to 2,000 MIR members were killed or disappeared. Losses on the government side were far lower.
    So, a low level, armed insurgency existed in Chile in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The rights and wrongs are up to Chileans to decide.

  17. Jiri says:

    Putin is full of it. Anyone remembers the “Potemkin Village” ? That is now Russia.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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