How Russia's Eternal President Has Changed His Country


2018-03-11 /

What might Russia look like if someone other than Vladimir Putin was the country's president? ...Today, it's hard to imagine a Russia without Putin at the helm. In the last 18 years, he has become synonymous with his country; he has become just as omnipresent and pervasive to Russians as the country's flag...Putin pledged to slash poverty in half, but also promised new miracle weapons for the army, including long-range nuclear missiles that can "reach anywhere in the world.
Vladimir Putin has been in power for almost two decades, longer even than Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet general secretary whose tenure seemed eternal. An entire generation of Russians has grown up knowing nothing other than Putin's Russia. And the country has changed under his guidance, both for better and for worse. It has become richer and more powerful, but also more rigid and more isolated. Russia has flexed its muscles in eastern Ukraine and Syria, but individual Russian citizens once again feel weak and vulnerable.
How has this man managed to stay in power for so long? What is it about the Putin system that makes it so enduring? And will it continue once he is no longer president? Because one thing is clear: According to the Russian constitution, he can no longer run for president in 2024.
The search for answers to such questions leads to the Russian hinterlands, where the Putin years have manifested themselves differently than in the capital and where most of the population lives. Here, it is easier to understand how Putin's Russia works. Put simply, it's a trade-off: The state disenfranchises its citizens, but in exchange, they are given a feeling of stability and reclaimed national pride. Don't get in the way, says the Kremlin, give us a free hand and we will protect you from economic need and ensure that you are respected in a hostile world.
Stability and national greatness: Those are the promises made by Putin's Russia. Deception and violence are its tools.


Kemerovo in western Siberia is a good place to begin exploring Putin's Russia. The industrial city is located in Kuzbass, Russia's largest coal-mining region.
...As such, regions such as Kemerovo are indispensable to the Kremlin. The votes it accumulates there compensate for a loss in popularity in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, where there is less room for manipulating the results. Indeed, the vote business is similar to the coal business: The finished product is exported to where it is needed. The coal goes to China and the votes go to Moscow, where they find their way into the national statistics....

Putin's promise to the electorate is the same as it has always been: stability. In a certain sense, it is the core of the Putin brand. And compared with his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin has fulfilled that promise. Under his leadership, there hasn't been a debt default such as the one that took place in 1998, nor has there been a constitutional crisis like in 1993. Incomes rose along with the price of oil and the country's leadership managed to soften the blow of the economic crisis in 2008. Under Putin, it once again became possible to plan for the future, and many Russians were deeply grateful to him.
But the feeling of stability has faded once again. Since Putin moved back into the Kremlin in 2012 following a brief hiatus as prime minister, the ruble has lost almost half of its value against the euro. Real incomes have dropped for four straight years and 22 million Russians officially live in poverty.
'Even More Assertive'
The economic downturn had already begun before the Ukraine crisis, but Putin's break with the West made it worse. Faced with a choice between foreign policy ambition and domestic stability rooted in economic growth, Putin opted for the former. Not that the Russians minded initially: The annexation of the Crimea was extremely popular in the country.
is not a nobody in Moscow, having previously worked as one of the Kremlin's most influential spin doctors. Now, though, he is a critic of the very system that he helped build, as he says with a mixture of chagrin and pride.
Pavlovski was one of those who helped install Putin in the presidency two decades ago. Within the Kremlin administration at the time, the effort to remove the deathly ill and unpopular Boris Yeltsin without triggering the disintegration of the new state was referred to as "Project Succession." Pavlovski helped ensure loyal backing in the parliament for the pale successor along with a decent election result. He assisted in constructing the myth of Putin as the omnipotent, solitary decision-maker, an image that proved popular among the electorate.
Putin's rise to power was a huge success. Only later did Pavlovski begin to understand what he had done. Today, he sounds much like a mechanic who realized only too late that he accidentally removed the brakes from a car. Independent governors, rebellious communists in parliament, critical television stations: All possible hurdles were gradually removed. Today, the system rolls along with no resistance whatsoever -- and that is alarming.
After two terms in office, Putin's authority had already become so great that he easily got Russian voters to elect the uncharismatic prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to the presidency. Whereas the move from Yeltsin to Putin had been filled with challenges, eight years later the transition was completely unproblematic. It was deceptive, though, for Putin never actually stepped down.
One day in spring 2011, Pavlovski's keycard suddenly stopped working at the Kremlin gates. Even the guards initially thought that it was a technical problem. But it was the sign that Pavlovski was no longer in good standing with Putin. The reason: Pavlovski had said in public that Medvedev should run for a second term as president. But Putin, who had moved over to the prime minister's office in 2008, wanted to return to the Kremlin. He suspected that a Medvedev conspiracy might be afoot and saw Pavlovski's comments as evidence.

A Different Man

The Putin of 2012 was a different man. He was unsettled by the street protests that had accompanied his return to the Kremlin. Had the Russians grown tired of him? He was all the more touched when he celebrated his election victory with supporters. A tear even trickled down his cheek. From that moment on, opponents of the Kremlin came to be seen as the enemy within, the fifth column of the spiteful and culturally foreign West. They were referred to as "national traitors" and "foreign agents." Prison terms for political activists, until then a rarity, became more common.
In the heart of Moscow, not far from the Kremlin, the opposition politician Boris Nemzov was shot to death in February 2015. Putin distanced himself from the crime, but it was never completely cleared up, even if a group of Chechens was later convicted of the murder. It was never determined on whose orders they acted.
From the outside, it looked as though Putin's system had survived unscathed the biggest tremor it had thus far faced. But it had completely changed, becoming more repressive and more populist. Two years later, Russia annexed the Crimea and sent its troops to intervene in Donbass in eastern Ukraine, events that resulted in an open break with the West. Putin, who often seems so careful and hesitant, had radically shifted his country's foreign policy and Russians loved him for it...
Putin's sudden taste for foreign adventures continued with his completely unexpected intervention in Syria. It wasn't particularly popular among the Russians because Syria seemed so foreign and far away. But it was the first time in many years that Russia was on par with the United States. It was as though the country suddenly saw itself in a different light. The feeling of renewed importance on the international stage distracted the country from domestic problems and compensated for the numerous minor indignities Russians are constantly confronted with in their day-to-day lives. "Russia has risen from its knees," people were saying.
The deal on which Putin's rule has always been based has changed as a result. In exchange for being disenfranchised, the Russians now receive less stability and prosperity, but a greater feeling of national pride. Russia's economy is stagnating because there has been a lack of reform and too little is being invested in innovation and education. But can Russia really modernize itself while at the same time turning its back on the West and restraining its citizenry?


In the southwest of Moscow, the attempt to build a different Russia is on full display. It is a Russia that is open to the world -- not the one that prioritizes natural resources over the well-being of its citizens like in Kuzbass, but one that sees people themselves as resources.
Skolkovo, Dmitry Medvedev said during his presidency, was to become the "Silicon Valley" of Russia. It was his pet project. In hindsight, it is symbolic of a modern Russia -- the country that it could have become.
Eight years after it was founded, Skolkovo still looks like a gigantic construction site covered in snow. The contours, to be sure, are now visible. The new elite university Skoltech, where classes are taught in English, will be moving into its new campus this fall, a wood-clad circular structure designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. There are townhouse developments and a new subway station will be opening soon. The heart of the project, the Technopark, looks like a vast shopping mall, but instead of shops, it is full of startups.
One of those startups is Tryfit, which produces foot scanners for the athletic shoe industry. The company's founder went to university in both Ireland and Russia and lives in Silicon Valley in California, commuting regularly to Skolkovo. The company is registered in Dublin. It is a business model that can only work if Russia and the West remain open to each other. But shifting priorities in the Kremlin and estrangement from the West haven't been good for Skolkovo.


The inspiration for Skolkovo came from Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Duma who was forced into exile because he fell out of favor with the Kremlin. In a Skype interview, he says that Skolkovo has become little more than a simulation, with flashy modern architecture but few real companies. He says it serves as a springboard for people who want to emigrate abroad. Ponomarev now lives in Kiev and is banned from returning to Russia. Vladislav Surkov, meanwhile, who once oversaw the project in the Kremlin, has the opposite problem: He is on the West's sanctions list.
It is Putin's misfortune that in the attempt to preserve his rule, he is constantly having to cut short alternative developments and destroy new evolutions like a ruthless gardener defending his flower beds. In doing so, he doesn't just restrict the opposition, but also loyal followers. The strategy has also truncated the most important development of all, one that Russia has no choice but to face: The development toward a post-Putin Russia. The president needs to begin arranging for a successor, given that he's not allowed to run for re-election in 2024. But it appears he considers himself to be irreplaceable. It isn't clear which path he will ultimately choose: That of pulling a successor out of a hat on the eve of the election six years from now. Or that of having the constitution amended to either get rid of term limitations or to create a new supreme state office.
What is clear, however, is that Russian society has changed. Nothing illustrates that better than Navalny's campaign -- the most successful startup in Russian politics in the last two decades. Navalny has modernized Russian politics by taking it out of the hands of the Kremlin monopoly. He managed to return the power struggle -- which had always taken place behind the walls of the Kremlin -- to the streets.
For now, he has failed in his attempt to be recognized by the Kremlin as a politician. But the principle for which he stands has already emerged victorious: The Putin System, in which an informal club of 50 people under the president's leadership steers the fate of the country, is no longer without an alternative.