Each year a group of academics and journalists is invited by the Russian government to agonise about the fate of Russia. What results is a cross between a seminar and group therapy. The last day is set aside for Vladimir Putin himself.
Anticipation is spiced by uncertainty. No one knows until the last minute where, or even if, the meeting will take place. Last year the group was flown from Moscow to Sochi, where it was bussed past the reconfiguration of the subtropical landscape for the Winter Olympics to an opulent guesthouse on the Black Sea coast. And back again in one night, even though, it emerged, we could have all stayed put. Putin was at his desk in Moscow the next day.
This year’s magical mystery tour wound a serpentine path through the birch forests outside Moscow, a discreet spot beloved by generations of secretive nomenklatura, until we arrived at the New Century Equestrian Club. At 7pm on a snowy Friday night you would not have expected this place to be a hive of activity, but it was.
In the veterinary surgery a horse on a slab was undergoing an examination of the bronchial tract. In the air-conditioned dressage centre no lesser a horseman than the president of the Russian Equestrian Federation, Anatoly Merkulov, was putting horses through their routines. And in the club’s restaurant, one-and-a-half hours late, Putin breezed past bottles of 1888 Armagnac and invited his guests to try the bottled mushrooms — he was intimately familiar with their preparation.
The rest of Russia is in no mood for this. After two decades of freedom of expression and movement, Russians are still waiting to live the normal life for which they rightly yearn. Many have given up waiting. A private poll of 5 000 students at Moscow State University found that 80% intended to leave the country. Nor are Russia’s filthy rich too patriotic: negative capital flows doubled this year from $34-billion to $70-billion.
Even if the price of crude oil hit $125 a barrel, more money would be flowing out of the country than in.
As it is, four times as much money — as a percentage of gross domestic product — is going out than in. It tells one everything one needs to know about a Russia digging in for another 12 years of Putin.
Putinism, the selective autocracy that he created, is a giant car boot sale. The going rate is $50-million for a governorship; $500 000 for a middle-ranking bureaucrat. Little wonder that, once in power, their job is to get a healthy return on their investment. There are decent governors, and the group saw one at work effectively attracting foreign investment in Kaluga, south of Moscow. But the directly appointed system is rotten. Putin makes little secret of his disdain for the alternative — freely elected governors. To underline his disdain he has now, for the second year in a row, told the story of the elected governor who legged it out the back door rather than face the fury of the mob after a local disaster.
But, truth be told, Putin is also at a loss when he gets jeered. And this, according to the pollsters, will happen more often. It is not just that Putin’s personal brand is ageing. The popularity of the entire St Petersburg clique around him is falling with him. United Russia, the party of apparatchiks he created will, by hook, but largely by crook, get the required percentage of votes in Sunday’s Duma elections.
Putin’s problem is not staying in power. It is leaving it without all hell breaking loose between rival buyers and with his personal fortune intact.
Russians are not looking for another revolution. They have seen enough of those. But they see clearer than any experts how sclerotic Putin’s “manual guidance” system of government is. There is no one at the helm. He is truly on his own. A government run like that does not govern. It gets by, by buying people off. —