A big month for Putin: the puppet master par extraordinaire not only announced his plans to run for President once again, but celebrated his 59th birthday across 15 cities, and unearthed two magnificent ancient Greek urns whilst engaging in a spot of deep sea diving.
Admittedly, the urn discovery was staged for viewer consumption, much in the same way we imagine his jovial convivience with Dmitry ‘I’ll let him go for it – he’s more popular than me’ Medvedev to be. As for the exuberant birthday festivities, the most insightful nugget of proletariat support swept up by television reporters seemed to be, “Well I just trust him, just because he is going to be our future president, and we should trust our future president, just because.”
Indeed, the aftermath of his announcement to run was paved with campaigns designed to win the public’s trust. “We must speak openly”, he said during the press conference, “about the dangerous level of social inequality, violence, corruption, about the feeling of injustice and vulnerability that people feel when they are dealing with government bodies, courts, and law enforcement.” That his government is more often than not deemed to be the source of said injustice is of little consequence to pundits who expect his inevitable return; the language of social justice and democracy has minimal currency in a political atmosphere in which the state, and those steering it, wield more power than individual rights.
Corruption under Putin, claims ex-leader of the opposition Boris Nemtsov, has taken on a “systematic and institutionalised form”. Most point the finger of blame at the increased power the state enjoys as a result of policies put in place by Putin himself; Kremlin statistics report that in 2005 alone, the number of bureaucrats jumped astronomically from 143,500 to 1,462,000; essentially one in place for each hundred residents. Given that a law enforced by the Duma in 2009 allows officials to charge for public ‘services and functions’, a move widely considered to have legalised if not at least encouraged bribery, it comes as no surprise that the organ of the Kremlin is mired top to bottom in corruption.
Yet the prime minister and former KGB agent seems to have won the votes, if not the trust, of the Russian people, with polls indicating 41% would be happy for him to rule once again. What, then, really is his secret?
Russian media outlets have played a decisive role in Putin’s enduring success. Although independent press is handled on the whole quite carefully, the three largest television networks, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists, ‘are now in the hands of Kremlin loyalists”. Channel Russia was theirs from the start, with ORT and NTV splitting their stocks between the government, as well as Gazprom, an oligarch-owned natural gas extractor nationalised by Putin in 2000. The prescribed image transmitted from Russian television sets is, more often than not, one resembling strength, manly charisma and dedication to an independent Russia freed from the scourge of the oligarchy and foreign intervention. Given the absence of a weighty and authoritative check and balance system that would otherwise be provided by the media , the cult of personality surrounding Putin is left open to mass consumption.
In a country in which personality politics prevails, strength and imperviousness are traits that have historically been held in high esteem. As Russian journalist Peter Sadovnik put it, “Whether it’s single-handedly rerouting massive oil pipelines or reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, Putin has not so much resurrected a dead superstate as responded to Russians’ long-festering desire for a ‘strong hand”. His affiliation to the powerful Russian Orthodox Church has also helped him along the way. The latter’s continued presence at state events, matched by his presence at important religious festivals, holds an allure that must not be underestimated given that 65% of ethnic Russians consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians.
One could however argue against presumptuous or even arrogant assumptions on the part of the western press, in response to recent events that have so discredited the Russians’ ability to choose their own leader. Although the bear wrestling, tiger shooting PR stunts have proved to be a noble effort, it would be naive to assume that an election could be won on attributes limited to image alone. Although perhaps an uncomfortable truth for the US press in particular (with some media outlets labelling him “communist” or “Tsar”), Putin has been credited for the country’s recent economical advances. Having inherited a turbulent economy from the government of former president Boris Yeltsin, whose ill thought out policies after the fall of the USSR are credited for giving birth to modern oligarchy as we know it, Putin raised wages and restored pensions, a move that vastly improved the everyday living standards of the population. His intentions to diversify Russia’s economy by dismantling its dependence on oil and gas exports have been well received by the elite and lower earners alike; he intends to target business owners by raising their piffling 13% flat tax rate.
Despite his lasting popularity, Putin warned the press that the campaign process would be “dirty”. What exactly was meant by this is still to be seen. “As Churchill said”, he added, “democracy is the worst form of government but there is no better one.” That Putin’s model of democracy will win out is of little dispute. The opposition is weak and fragmented, and any drastic developments in public psyche are unlikely. Come March 2012, the ballots will be scored, most probably dashing any hopes of dislodging Mr Putin for the next two consecutive terms.