Vladimir Putin: a strong ruler for a great power

It would be pointless for President Putin to stay on for a third term if he’s surrounded by the present-day ruling elite. The elite is completely corrupt, and it’s obstructing Putin. He needs to find some way to get rid of the elite, so he can go on to rebuild Russia as a great power.

The latest polls indicate that Russian citizens trust President Vladimir Putin more and more. An October survey of approval ratings for leading politicians, done by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), found that most respondents approved of Putin’s performance. VTsIOM polls between January and April showed Putin’s approval rating at 72-75%, but this rose to 77-79% in polls between May and October. The corresponding disapproval figures were 17-20% and 13-16%.

Public confidence ratings for Russian politicians show Putin still in the lead: 52% of respondents name him as one of the politicians they trust most. Sergei Shoigu is firmly in second place with 13%. Third, as usual, is Vladimir Zhirinovsky (11%); but now he shares the bronze medal with Sergei Ivanov (11%) and Dmitri Medvedev (10%). Then again, Zhirinovsky also tops the list of least-trusted politicians, named by 22% of respondents.

Naturally, Putin leads in the presidential ratings as well. When asked how they would vote if a presidential election were held this week, 56% of respondents chose Putin. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Gennadi Zyuganov, and Dmitri Medvedev scored 4% each. Support for other hypothetical candidates didn’t exceed 2%.

Many media outlets in Russia and abroad have been discussing the Year 2008 Problem. Some are trying to guess how Putin might continue as Russia’s leader after the end of his second term, or at least how he might ensure continuity for his policy course. Some are only discussing potential successor candidates. Others are interested in what Putin might choose to do after he steps down.

Those who consider it necessary for Putin to retain the leading role in Russian politics are considering various scenarios. First: amending the Constitution. Second: Putin becoming prime minister, with a transfer of most of the president’s current powers. Third: Putin becoming the leader of the ruling party – this would be United Russia. Fourth: Putin becoming president of a Union State – including, for example, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Fifth: Putin building up the position of Gazprom, transforming it into a transnational corporation, and becoming its chief executive. A few less likely options are also being mentioned.

But the question is why these theorists are so keen to keep Putin in power. Most often, it’s not because they like Putin, or because they’re concerned about the good of the state. They fear to lose what they have now, under Putin: power, money, property, or simply their reasonably high social status. All these advocates remind me of Kochkarev, a character in “Marriage” by Gogol, who’s obsessed with marrying off a confirmed bachelor named Podkolesin. The advocates are all assuming that Putin wants to remain in power. And I think that’s their major error.

I believe that Putin doesn’t want to be president any more. Not because he’s exhausted – or because, to use his own expression, he’s sick of living like a cockroach in an armor-plated can. And it’s not because he fears the release of any documents that might compromise him, as his opponents have long threatened to do. And it’s not because he intends to take up public activity in the international arena, as Stanislav Belkovsky and some others predict. And it’s not even because he’s better off stepping down in 2008 – that is, before the onset of a crisis which is allegedly inevitable if the Russian government’s current policies are continued.

It’s pointless for Putin to stay on for a third term, if he’s someone who has dedicated himself to the service of the state. Given the nature of Russia’s present-day ruling elite, Putin is unable to implement his policy course, and has no prospect of being able to do so. Remaining in the ruling elite’s ranks (even at the head of them) means discrediting himself and his policies – positioning himself as a patron of criminals who are betraying their Motherland.

The nature of the ruling elite is clear from the characteristics Putin has attributed to it in his annual addresses to parliament. Ideally, he should be relying on the bureaucracy for support; instead, he called it an “arrogant caste” which has transformed state service into a lucrative form of business. I’m sure Putin knows that the oligarchs are thieves, bandits, and wastrels, entirely lost to reason or conscience. Here’s a typical picture of a party thrown by a Russian multi-billionaire abroad: the host, with a petty merchant’s abandon, invited 200 prostitutes and poured a thousand-dollar bottle of champagne over each of them. And this at a time when our Motherland lies in ruins, with growing technology lag between Russia and the industrialized nations of the West, and most Russian citizens living in poverty! The people hate the Cabinet ministers, especially the liberal ministers, almost as much as they hate Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais (with few exceptions – one being Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu). And judging by the government’s policies, it seems that the ministers hate the people. Presumably, they also hate Putin’s policy course and make every effort to obstruct its implementation. A great many of Putin’s instructions to the government, aimed at improving the people’s lives, have been quietly shelved. Members of the State Duma are either puppets, voting obediently for any bill the government submits, or pathetic oppositionists without a single fresh idea of their own, only whining about the authorities allegedly plagiarizing their slogans. Senators and regional leaders are mostly business tycoons, either in reality or in spirit; they’re rich, and they have no idea how ordinary people live – especially those below the poverty line.

Everywhere you look – judges, courtier celebrities, tame journalists – the picture is the same. This is natural enough, for a country with a “market economy.” The market is a place where everything is for sale and anything can be bought. A market economy inevitably leads to greater social stratification and flourishing corruption. Ever since Russian citizens were hypnotized into zombies with the idea of the market, which is absolutely alien to the Russian spirit, our society has become venal from top to bottom.

Russians can only live a normal life under a strict (not necessarily brutal) regime. “Strong, but just” – that’s what they think an ideal ruler should be like. Consequently, the Russian people – Great Russians – took shape as a markedly statist, “imperial” people. In the course of history, Russians have developed a service-oriented value system: the complex that distinguishes a patriot and a defender of the Motherland from the average citizen. As soon as the regime turns liberal, our people – especially the elite – lose their heads and start indulging in the kind of insanity we’re seeing (and becoming victims of) these days.

Should Putin use his name and credibility to cover up for this elite? As long as he was president by force of circumstances, as Yeltsin’s successor, he had to resign himself to having those people around him. But now that he can make his own decision about whether to remain among this “cream of society,” becoming the head of state for a third term is equivalent to political suicide.

But Putin can’t retire either – by moving to the West, for example. He would not be left in peace; and besides, Putin himself has assured his supporters that he will “find a place in the ranks.” He has said that he will stay in Russia. So how might he occupy himself? A great deal is being said and written on that score. I’d also like to express an opinion – in the currently-fashionable style of fantasy, for example.

Let’s start with the main issue. Analysts have ignored what Putin said about moving into opposition, organizing a party, then sitting at home and criticizing the government. I think they were wrong to dismiss that comment as a joke. It’s precisely the kind of role that would be most suitable for Putin. What’s more, it would be vital.

Putin may choose to emulate Ivan the Terrible. When driven to the limits of his endurance by the unruliness and anti-people policies of the nobility (boyars), the de facto rulers of the country, the Tsar left Moscow and took up residence at Aleksandrovskaya Sloboda. From there, he assured the people that he had no grudges against them; all his anger was directed at the traitor-nobles, and he would return to Moscow only when he could rule according to his own royal will. And the nobles, fearing the people’s rage, came to the Tsar and bowed to his will. But the Tsar imposed yet another condition: dividing the country into the “oprichnina,” under his direct control, and the “zemshchina,” where the government of nobles would continue to manage affairs. Ivan the Terrible (a great reformer, defamed by the Romanov dynasty) then established a spiritual order of knights, a ruling party, also called the “oprichnina,” which became the instrument he used to carry out his transformations.

Now picture this: before stepping down, Putin addresses the people and explains why, during his eight years in power, he has managed to halt the state’s disintegration and set up some of the preconditions for leading Russia out of devastation, but he’s still been unable to rebuild Russia as a great power based on the principles of justice and equality. He also announces that he’s starting an opposition party with the fundamental goal of rooting out every last trace of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras.

Undoubtedly, such a party would rapidly gain many millions of members, and its leader would become a force to be reckoned with – for both the next government and the next president. A real ruling party can only be a party dedicated to establishing Russia as a great power, rather than a party of bureaucrats seeking lucrative jobs. And Putin would be able to run the country without being surrounded by the corrupt present-day elite.

Then again, there’s another possible scenario: the elite, fearing an explosion of the people’s rage, begs Putin to stay on as president. And if relations with the West deteriorate (as they seem likely to do, since each step towards strengthening Russia’s independence produces an outburst of dispeasure in the West), the elite would simply say to Putin: “You made this bed, you lie in it.” In that situation, Putin simply couldn’t step down. But then he would receive a dictator’s powers, and would be able to carry out a purge of the elite. It’s long overdue.