That awkward moment

Many families have an awkward, inconvenient relative: an uncle, an aunt, a wayward son – the kind of person who is increasingly out of touch with the world around them, listens to no one, knows no manners and comes up with crass ideas that the family has to play along with. You cannot tell them to get lost, because you want to be in their will, you trust them to keep family members from fighting each other or sometimes, because they’ve been around for too long to just get rid of them. Vladimir Putin, somewhat surprisingly, somewhat expectedly, seems to be turning into this relative.

When you take the Transsiberian Express, your sense of time gets messed up surprisingly quickly. First of all, from the second day on, you have nothing framing your days that you can hold on to: you do not leave from and you do not arrive anywhere. You wake up in your compartment and a couple of hours later you will fall asleep at the same place. Between the two, you will try to juggle three times in your head: the Moscow time, displayed at each stop that the train makes, regardless of the local time zone; the local time, in an attempt to keep up with your daily routine; and the time at your destination, to calculate how much time you still have to spend on the train. Not an easy exercise, especially if you are travelling through time zones all along. Somehow, you will end up feeling that all of these times are wrong and your daily routine collapses.

In the past weeks, I have gotten nearly this confused about time when I was reading news from Russia. Alexey Kudrin was rumoured to return to the government, possibly as prime minister. The government is about to launch a large-scale privatisation programme. There seems to be a split in the pro-Putin majority, or even inside the elite with major Putin allies going rogue. A significant part of the population is tolerating Putin’s foreign policies but would not support his going further. This sounds like 2011. But the time does not seem right for Kudrin – or any other technocrat, i.e. German Gref, the head of Sberbank – to take over the government: he is afraid, and probably rightly so, that he would be made an ornament and possibly a scapegoat in a political elite purged of liberals, with no real opportunity to carry out reforms. Meanwhile, Russia is trying to project power to its near-abroad, arm-wrestle Belarus, influence Moldovan politics, and Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya is threatening opposition activists and journalists in the most aggressive and savage way possible. This sounds like the apex of Putin’s power, in 2006. 

But the price of crude oil does not seem to be in synchrony with Kadyrov’s crude “humour”. Rather, it gives the impression that we are in the mid-80s. Or does the level of Russia’s international isolation suggest that we are, rather, in the early 70s? Then, however, the oil price is wrong again.

In the end, it is neither: we are in 2016 and the situation, just like Russia’s federal budget, does not quite add up. And there is one person in the middle of it who pretends to be able to solve the equation: Vladimir Putin.

Out of touch

Brian Whitmore and Mark Galeotti discussed Putin’s interview with the German newspaper Bild in the Power Vertical podcast. The bottom line was that Putin behaved as a grumpy old man. He said what he wanted, the way he wanted, he probably had not even sought expert advice before the interview. He either thought that he had to appear strong and impertinent to serve his political goals and the political elite’s expectations the best, or he simply did not care. As a matter of fact, he may even have understood that, as the professor of MGIMO, Valery Solovei has warned several times, the elite wants a rapprochement with the West, and he tried his best to achieve that for them. But he lacks either the skills, the credibility or perhaps even the manners to deliver.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the way that Russian foreign policy was formulated in the past years and the names that hallmarked it, i.e. the rise of Maria Zakharova, Putin’s online foreign policy scourge, now the spokesperson of the ministry. A long article in January 2015 documented the details of how the background institutions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were taken over by an orthodox group who turned the muddy, shaky belief system supported with flawed data that the Russian government often promotes abroad as propaganda, into a doctrine or even a belief system shared by political leaders. Switching off effective feedback will lead to bad decisions and even worse, it will diminish your ability to modify your path.

But one does not only get the impression that Putin has turned into a grumpy old man from that interview. Take Kadyrov’s story.  The Chechen leader’s running amok must be partly about oil and federal funds as Liz Fuller suggested on RFE/RL. But Putin seems to be fond of the man. Fond, at least, in the same sense as a grumpy old man is fond of an old, rusty, inconvenient household item that everyone else in his family hates. Kadyrov has led Chechnya since 2007, his appointment worked out well from Putin’s perspective. He may have gone rogue, recently – but is this really a good enough reason to change him?

Of course, the Kremlin’s remarkably evasive response to the Kadyrov case – Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said that he was “unaware” of the Chechen leader’s last threatening video – may also reflect fear. If this is indeed the case, it suggests a rather alarming phenomenon: namely that Putin does not only lack the ability to resolve matters of foreign policy, but he is also unable to take on a man who is officially his subordinate. I will not start speculating on what the likely effect of the realisation that the same Putin who was propelled to power by the promise of solving the problem of the restive Chechnya is ironically no longer able to wrestle the Chechen president, would have on the Russian population – increasingly irritated by Kadyrov – or the political elite. But could it be that the message of those bizarre, animated videos that have recently gone viral on the Russian internet, and in which Putin nonchalantly annihilates corrupt regional leaders, is that, contrary to what the Kadyrov story suggests Putin is still able to settle scores in domestic politics? And if it is, are people still buying it?

Bad or worse

When Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russian Railways and one of Putin’s closest associates unexpectedly left his position at the end of last year, and then turned down a seat in the Federation Council, some spoke about an orderly retirement and others about the forced removal of a man who had become a burden. In January, Yakunin issued a strange warning to Putin’s “so-called inner circle”: the circle will keep rotating, so you’d better know your place. Hodie mihi, cras tibi – today it’s me, tomorrow it will be you, comrades, Yakunin seemed to say. Was it a sigh of a man with a hurt self-esteem? Or was it an elaborate warning to the political elite?

There was a similar question about Kadyrov: if we forget about his selfish interests that, without a doubt, had to do with his recent activity, is he a loose cannon of the system or does he serve as a warning to the Russian opposition and the population? Was Boris Nemtsov’s murder part of this warning? Know your place, because there is worse than Putin.

Does it matter?

Whatever one’s answers are to the above questions, they will either lead to the conclusion that Putin needs warnings, contrasts and fear to preserve his legitimacy domestically because all other means have been exhausted and the public sphere is too corrupted for any actual political discussion; or that he has lost his ability to act decisively – not only in foreign policy, but also domestically. A grumpy old man who is growing weak.

But as we all know, grumpy old men are difficult to get rid of. They stick around, even if they are annoying people around them. And Vladimir Putin’s extended family, the Russian electorate seems unlikely to ask him to leave. As Andrey Kolesnikov warned on, even if we choose not to believe in the myth of Russians’ almighty endurance – as I think we should not – Russian citizens will not automatically start demanding democracy even if they are asked to make peace with rising food prices, partly also because, as a recent study find, they are afraid of telling their actual opinion. The question is whether his the ones closer to the president, the Russian political elite, will ask him to leave. And if yes, whether it will be a polite suggestion or a kick.

It will also not necessarily happen. The old man still holds a lot of keys – maybe many more than we might think. But one thing is sure: trying to act like a Cold War superpower on the global stage and to recreate the USSR domestically and in your neighbourhood when circumstances are more similar to those preceding the end of both is not a workable idea. Rather, it is the nostalgia of grumpy old men who bitterly reminisce about past ways when, in fact, all that remains is inefficiency and nihilism.


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