A PARADE OF POODLES

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Putin’s rating is a mountain rising from a flat plain of nonentities

Lack of accountability for leaders and senior officials gives citizens the impression that no one in Russia can get anything done – except President Putin. The Kremlin is flooded with letters complaining about the inaction of people in authority.


Everyone’s lost count of how many times President Vladimir Putin has said that he does not intend to tamper with the Constitution – yet there are more and more calls for him to stay on for a third term.

These requests are coming in from regional parliaments, regional leaders, public figures, cities and villages. Most surprising of all, foreigners have joined the chorus. In prominent Western media outlets, prominent analysts are asking whether it might be better for the West if Putin stays on in the Kremlin. The views of Western politicians and investors are understandable: Russia’s stability and predictability are most important for them. They are more concerned about energy security than observance of the Russian Constitution or degrees of democracy. After all, Condoleezza Rice doesn’t criticize oil sheikhs.

So perhaps we should also say “damn the Constitution” and join the chorus of pleas for a third term?

Yet there’s also the political concept of an administration growing “tired.” Even the most popular leaders start to fade as the years go by. Think of Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher – bathing in adulation at first, but eventually leaving office to the angry hissing of the mob.

Boris Yeltsin had an approval rating of 2% before the oligarchs stepped in and gave him a second term in office. Yes, they rescued him – but what did Russia get as a result?

So far, Vladimir Putin’s experience has been just the opposite. His popularity has only grown during his second term. His approval rating was 66% in 2004, and now it’s almost 80%. And we might only rejoice at Putin’s political form, were it not for one circumstance: he has virtually no strong sparring-partners. It’s like a national boxing champion facing some kid from a youth club. Putin’s approval rating is a mountain rising from a flat plain of nonentities. The impression is that the president is surrounded by nothing but trained poodles.

We’d really like to see normal constitutional mechanisms working in Russia at last, with the people electing a worthy leader. Alas – Moscow’s political garden isn’t growing anything of the kind. Even the few politicians who do score noticeable approval ratings are essentially riding on Putin’s coat-tails. If he withdraws his support, the modest rating points they have gained with the media’s help would turn to zero immediately.

The president, like an organ-player, is pressing all the keys and all the pedals himself. All the others follow his orders, report to him, and wait to hear what Putin will say tomorrow. Why does the US Federal Reserve act independently in terms of currency policy, while Russia’s Central Bank waits for Putin to issue orders about restraining ruble appreciation? Why does Putin have to tell ministers that Russian timber should be processed in Russia, and we should stop exporting it in the form of logs? This can reach the point of absurdity. Earlier this year, when it became clear that the severe winter would result in a poor fruit harvest, Putin himself issued orders for fruit imports from Central Asia.

Stalin’s ideology and political methods left much to be desired, but he certainly knew how to select personnel. Fortunately, his famous phrase – “you’ll answer for that with your head” – is not applicable today. Yet we still don’t have any other ways of holding senior officials accountable. Why shouldn’t they answer for mistakes with their careers, savings, or even personal liberty? Lack of accountability for leaders and senior officials gives citizens the impression that no one in Russia can get anything done – except President Putin. The Kremlin is flooded with letters complaining about the inaction of people in authority.

In Russia’s present circumstances, with the danger of an oligarchic revanche still present, a leader needs more than poodles gazing loyally into his eyes. He also needs allies with real powers and real political accountability.

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