Putin may be popular in Russia but the people he rubs shoulders with aren't
Excerpt from an article which originally appeared at The Unz Review
The Russians keep guessing what President Putin will tell them in his traditional televised address to the nation at the break of the New Year. He should say, this year is over, and we shall all cheer, people propose.
Even the most optimistic ones are disappointed by lacklustre economic performance, and they blame the government of Prime Minister Medvedev and his liberal monetarist team. Meanwhile Putin rises above the blame game, but the government is less and less popular.
- As the Rouble drops, even the rather pro-Kremlin mass-circulation newspaper KP (full disclosure: I write an occasional column for the KP) published a call for the economy and finance ministers to resign or to be fired. There is a very little chance that Mr Putin will take this advice and clean his government stables.
- He could beef up his credit by dumping some (or all) of his ministers, but Putin is stubborn and unusually loyal to his colleagues. No accusation has ever convinced him to dismiss a man of his team. His former defence minister Mr Serdyukov has allegedly been involved in some shady dealing, while Serdyukov’s paramour and assistant amassed millions by selling prime MOD assets to her cronies. Still, Putin did not dump him, and saved him from jail. (He had to resign to become a CEO, while she served a few weeks in prison, at most).
- Last week, the opposition leader Mr Navalny aired some heavy charges against Attorney General Chayka. For his defence, Chayka said that the man behind the campaign is the notorious Mr Browder. Browder is an American crook who managed to appropriate many high-quality Russian assets for pennies during Yeltsin’s privatisation. Eventually he was forced to part with his loot and he has been sentenced to many years of jail in absentia. Browder is slime, no doubt, but it is a weak defence for Chayka. Still, Putin refused to drop Chayka or even to initiate an independent investigation of his alleged crimes.
- Putin stands by the most hated politician of Yeltsin’s era, Mr Anatoly Chubays. TheFinancial Times called him Father to the Oligarchs. After leaving the government, Chubays has been appointed to lead the RUSNANO, a state-owned corporation notorious for its embezzlement and waste. Putin saved him many times over from prosecution.
- Putin went, hat in hand, to Yekaterinburg for the grand opening of Boris Yeltsin’s Memorial Centre (price tag – nine billion roubles) and referred kindly to the loathed late President who appointed him his successor. People were furious seeing their president enjoying himself among the carpetbaggers of Yeltsin’s regime.
- Can you imagine Fox TV transmitting Russian propaganda? In Russia, a major chunk of Russian media, state-owned or subsidised by the taxpayer, transmits pro-Western and anti-Russian agenda, alleged the eminent film director Nikita Michalkov, a staunch supporter of Putin, in his video seen by over two million viewers in a few days. He called upon Putin to assert his line and banish the enemies within, but state TV refused to broadcast the video.
- Putin’s recent press-conference provided a chance for more criticism. Beside the points mentioned above, the journalists asked why state enterprise CEOs are paid millions of dollars a year, while everybody else is called upon to tighten the belt. They asked why the Russian Central Bank keeps buying US bonds and supports the US Dollar at the expense of the Rouble. They asked why import substitution does not work etc.
These are protests from the pro-Putin crowd, from people who supported his takeover of Crimea and his entry into Syrian war. They could bear some deprivation, but they are upset by Putin’s condoning thieves, by his apparent cronyism, by his oligarch friends.
Until now, the critics avoided attacking Putin, but these are the early swallows. Dr Stepan Sulakshin, the head of a Moscow think tank, publicly accused Putin of knowingly leading Russia into further degradation.
This bubbling dissatisfaction of Putin’s supporters may yet turn more dangerous for the president than the 2011 Fronde of his hipster enemies.
Meanwhile, head-strong Mr Putin does not wish to yield ground, sacrifice some of more hated ministers and CEOs, or attune internal policies to public expectations. Perhaps he is right, and things are not what they appear, but justice must be seen, not only done.