Russians tire of Putin

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. —

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Soundtrack to a pandemic: Africa’s best coronavirus songs

Drawing on lessons from Ebola, African artists are using music to convey public health messaging. And they are doing it in style

In East Africa, the locusts are coming back for more

In February the devastating locust swarms were the biggest seen in East Africa for 70 years. Now they’re even bigger

Western Cape Judge Mushtak Parker faces second misconduct complaint

The Cape Bar Council says his conduct is ‘unbecoming the holding of judicial office’

‘My biggest fear was getting the virus and dying in...

South African Wuhan evacuee speaks about his nine-week ordeal

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories