For most people, the question was not whether, but when, Vladimir Putin would finally confirm that he was standing for re-election as Russian president. On Wednesday, the waiting was over. Echoing the solemnity of American presidential hopefuls, he told a shop-floor worker in Nizhnii Novgorod: “I will put forward my candidacy for the post of president of the Russian Federation”.
And so, to the burdens of the West’s “liberal elite”, who already face at least three more years of Donald Trump, the bad-tempered intricacies of Brexit and the twilight of Angela Merkel, must be added six more years of Putin. After all, if he is standing, as he has now confirmed, the combination of his genuine popularity, the election date – which is the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea – and the flaws in Russia’s electoral system, will ensure that nothing goes wrong.
Whether his fourth stint will be more of the same, however, is another matter. For all the speculation about his going “on and on”, the new term will be seen as his last. And, as Merkel’s current difficulties show, that perception alone brings uncertainty: the jostling for the succession and concerns with legacy, from which Russian politics is not exempt.
The stage management of Putin’s announcement hinted at how he will campaign – and, yes, he will campaign, even if he doesn’t really have to. After ducking questions about a fourth term at earlier, more international or intellectual gatherings, Putin chose the shop floor of Russia’s biggest homegrown car plant as his backdrop. Putin rarely misses a chance to promote Russian cars, so the choice was authentic; but his walkabout also suggested that his constituency, as he sees it now, are the skilled workers, not the new professional and managerial class that he has seemed to court in the past.
The choice of Nizhnii Novgorod might, or might not, have been calculated, too. For those who lived through the end of communism, this ancient Volga city was the test-bed for urban redevelopment and the free market – under Boris Nemtsov, the opposition figure who was assassinated in Moscow almost three years ago. By then, his credibility as an opposition leader was fading, and “his” city still resented his move to Moscow and central government in the mid-1990s. But it is worth asking whether the Kremlin considered there might be ghosts to lay.
I confess, I had entertained the possibility that Putin might decide against seeking a fourth presidential term. He could have set an example by retiring at the standard pensionable age – though how many politicians have ever observed that particular convention? There might have been wisdom, too, in leaving office at what might well be seen with hindsight as the top of his game.
Having restored Crimea (as most Russian see it), placed Russia back on the global map, without so far becoming bogged down (in Syria), having stabilised the economy despite low oil prices and Western sanctions, and having slain the dragon of post-Soviet inflation, Putin could well have sat back and declared “job done”. Putin has also made a start with the transition to a new generation of regional and central government appointments. The risks of embarking on a new six-year term seem in many ways to outweigh the advantages.
Then again, as seen from the Kremlin, there is unfinished business. There can be no real east-west rapprochement in Europe without a settlement on Ukraine. Putin had clearly hoped for improved relations with the US, which the anti-Russia frenzy in Washington has so far blocked. It seems to me, though, that neither Donald Trump nor Putin has yet given up all hope: note the absence of personal scolding between them. What is more, Russia seems to have adopted a new restraint, at least in the rhetoric of its foreign policy: has it identified near-silence as a novel form of soft-power? Could this be the starting point of Putin’s fourth term? And if it is, can it hold?
After 17 years at the top of Russian politics, Putin is now Europe’s longest-serving leader (no Stalin parallels are necessary). He is constitutionally within his rights to seek another six years. And while a decision not to stand would have made for an absorbing election and the emergence of a whole new political landscape, that landscape has so far evolved only slowly. Some of those who emerged as political players as the Soviet Union disintegrated more than 25 years ago will have their hats once again in the presidential election ring next year.
Some of the blame for such slow progress might attach to Putin’s gradual domination of Russia’s political scene; more, I would submit, to the insecurity felt by so many Russians after so many years of upheaval. Stability is not something most people want to jeopardise just now.
Still, some of the contours of the future landscape can perhaps be sensed. There is Alexei Navalny, the modern anti-corruption campaigner with a nationalist edge, who has been stumping the country and drawing big crowds. He looks likely to be barred as a candidate because of a – probably trumped-up – criminal conviction, but he has a constituency, and it will still be there.
The latest entrant, Ksenia Sobchak, is a household name in Russia, having made her name in reality TV, but she also moves easily not just in the inner circles of power – as the daughter of the first democratic mayor of St Petersburg who was also a patron of Putin – but among the new middle-class opposition that reared its head before the last presidential election in 2012. Again, her constituency may transcend her personal appeal. Can we glimpse, perhaps, in these vivid personalities, in secondary tiers of government, and in the regions, the early shoots of post-Putin politics?
As things stand, Vladimir Putin could hold office until 2024, by which time he will be 71. Might he misjudge the public mood and outlast his welcome? Might he decide to bequeath power earlier, to secure the succession, like Boris Yeltsin before him? Or could it be that Russia’s next-but-one presidential election will offer Russians a free, fair, orderly and open choice? Don’t bet on it, you may say. But don’t bet against it, either.
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