By Greg Feifer
Fall comes suddenly to Russia in mid-August, a dose of harsh reality that ends summer’s brief respite with a foreshadowing of the legendary winter that shapes the Russian psyche. With temperatures near record-lows, last week was no exception.
August is a special time for another reason: It has revealed something about the state’s failures thanks to an uncanny string of disasters since Vladimir Putin’s rise to the presidency. From the sinking of the Kursk submarine 15 years ago to a series of wildfires that swept the country more recently, they exposed problems that were either man-made or made significantly worse by human mismanagement.
His handling of the public-relations disasters provides a window into one of the most important aspects of Putin’s presidency: the crucial facades obscuring his kleptocratic system. So what to make of the muted reaction to what should have been the latest public relations disaster for Putin’s regime?
The opposition leader Alexei Navalny revealed this week that Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was in Sardinia, spending his honeymoon on a yacht costing more than $420,000 a week – three times the annual salary of someone who has worked only as a civil servant. Even more surprising was the timing: Social media are still circulating memes about the $620,000 watch Peskov was spotted wearing during his marriage ceremony. Many believed he would follow by lying low.
The revelations come when Russians are confronting what is now officially a recession after the economy declined 4.6 percent in the second quarter compared to last year. Real wages are steadily declining – by almost 10 per cent in July – along with living standards for the first time since Putin came to power in 2000.
The Kremlin has responded not with actions aimed at alleviating or countering the decline, but showing itself to be fighting Western sanctions with its counter-ban on Western products – that is further eroding Russians’ quality of life. State television broadcast images of bulldozers destroying illegal European food, squashing frozen geese and pulverising vast piles of cheese. Contraband clothing is said to be next on the list, along with the threat of a ban on Wikipedia.
Tens of thousands signed a petition protesting the food destruction in a country of widespread poverty haunted by memories of mass famine. But that’s a tiny minority of mostly liberal-minded dissenters. Why aren’t more ordinary Russians outraged about being forced to support Putin’s cold war by eating Russian kasha when his own trusted spokesman was living like an oligarch in the Mediterranean? Why didn’t they back Navalny’s demands for investigating how Peskov funds his extravagant lifestyle? Or at least a public censure?
More to the point, how does Putin continue to enjoy near-90 per cent public approval ratings? Why is it that what seems starkly obvious to Westerners about the hardship, isolation and corruption his rule has brought doesn’t seem to be sinking in among Russians?
The answer lies in their different expectations. Although rising living standards helped boost Putin’s popularity for a decade, his presidency has really been about something else from the beginning: restoring Russia’s traditional political system.
Peskov is a perfect symbol of how it functions. Although his apparent riches can’t possibly be legal, they’re a legitimate reflection of the informal structure of personal loyalty that really governs Russia under Putin. Unlike the 17th-century French nobleman Nicolas Fouquet, who hosted a party so lavish it gave Louis XIV an excuse to arrest him, the faithful presidential aide is simply enjoying the just rewards of his hard labour.
The resignation of the railways minister this week provided another case in point. Vladimir Yakunin’s official post never adequately reflected his real importance as one of Putin’s closest cronies. Now some believe his departure for a more ceremonial post in the upper house of parliament doesn’t reflect a diminishment of power as much as the simple fact that recession means less state cash in the massive railway infrastructure to channel or pilfer.
As the fortunes of Yakunin and other billionaires remain hale, the Kremlin is selling privation to ordinary Russians as their way of contributing to the fight against what it presents as the real common enemy: the West. Indeed, the worse their suffering, the more likely an envious society will buy that line. Like Stalin during World War Two, Putin is playing on Russian and Soviet history to help inspire their patriotism.
Fantastic as it may seem to some in the West, the scheme is working well. Although Putin has engineered Russia’s newest cold war to help empower a kleptocratic regime that enriches a small elite, the masses paying the price for it feel he’s protecting them.
His fearless, unapologetic persona is a crucial asset in that effort. The president was shoring it up with his usual public relations antics this week, this time on a vacation in his conquest Crimea, where he took a ride in a cool-looking minisub, audacious if only for coinciding with the 15th anniversary of the Kursk’s sinking. It’s no surprise that tensions are on the rise in eastern Ukraine again. That conflict’s ebb and flow is going well for stoking Putin’s ruthless image, with the rest of Ukraine playing its part by teetering on the edge of economic crisis.
Over the decade and a half of Putin’s tenure, any one of the August catastrophes would have been enough to end the career of a Western leader. He has weathered them with flying colours because his virtuoso ability to blame others – hapless ministers, greedy oligarchs, power-hungry Western leaders – has helped sustain his presidency.
Although there seems to be no way in sight out of Russia’s current economic trouble – with all-important oil prices sinking to new lows this week – this August’s bread and circuses are showing that rather than any correction, we should expect more of the same. The sickening show trials of foreigners, including military and border guard officers abducted from Ukraine and Estonia, represents a further display of confidence that comes from a sense of stability.
None of which means that Western policy toward Russia is to blame. Rather than a sign of fundamental failure, ordinary Russians’ support for Putin must be taken as evidence that his challenge will probably remain long-term. But just because Putin has everything to lose by toning down his displays doesn’t mean his actions are sustainable or that support for his authoritarian rule is anything but brittle. That’s why his choice to confront the West must be met with far clearer signs that it will ultimately not work. Western countries should make them by doing more to advance their values and interests. More serious military and financial support for Ukrainians on Europe’s front lines would be a good start.
Gregory Feifer is author of “Russians: The People behind the Power.” A former NPR Moscow correspondent who reported from Russia for almost a decade, he is currently working on a book about anti-Americanism.