Vladimir Putin has one almighty CV. A former KGB agent, ex-President, and current Prime Minister of Russia, Putin has the look of a man with the conceivable ability to slam a revolving door. There would be little surprise if he were airlifted via helicopter into the Kremlin astride a growling Harley Davidson with some unruly political opponent in a headlock.
As such, the recent announcement of the ambitious 58-year-old’s intention to once again run for the Russian presidency in 2012 – inexorably taking the reins from his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev – was hardly a bolt from the blue. The news stemmed from the recent United Russia annual congress, where a beaming President Medvedev proceeded to welcome Putin to the stage amid rapturous applause.
Should he win the election (as some believe is inevitable), it would be Putin’s third stint at the presidential helm – and with recent constitutional changes, he could be set to hold the position for as long as 12 years.
But how should the international community react? By shaking their collective heads despondently? Shrugging indifferently? Or applauding enthusiastically while struggling to prise the lid off their official PuTin pickled cabbage?
Thus far, the worldwide reception has predominantly been lukewarm – a few blithe words from certain quarters rejecting the oxymoron of a ‘managed democracy’, but little in the way of outright condemnation. Why the indifference? Of course, Putin has been a key player on the world stage for well over a decade, and one can only admire the audacity of a man who is willing to shake hands with Fidel Castro and Condoleezza Rice at virtually the same time.
However, the significant monopoly he holds over Russian politics is causing some unease. Putin’s United Russia party is the predominant political force in Moscow, with its’ rejection of traditional left and right-wing ideals in favour of pragmatism earning the party a comfortable 315 of 450 seats in the State Duma. Clearly, therefore, many will be delighted to see his return – with the obvious exception of protestors, ‘dissidents’ within United Russia and high-profile liberal nemeses such as former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.
No amount of Putin-branded t-shirts can cover up the more undemocratic elements of his premiership – namely, accusations of censorship, limited freedom and the elimination of high-profile rivals. It’s precisely these factors that have strained relations with the West and prompted accusations that Russia could be reverting back to its grainy-pictured Soviet days. Although the prospect of scarlet posters demanding that grain quotas be tripled by November emerging from St. Petersburg seems unlikely, the imposition of an authoritative long-term leader (possibly until the year 2024) does prompt some nervous sideways glances.
Another cause for anxiety in the corridors of the UN is that Putin, the master of persuasion, is notoriously unyielding when it comes to international discussion, making it all the more difficult to address the aforementioned problems. David Cameron’s recent trip to Moscow gave us a glimpse into the slippery nature of dialogue with Vladimir; setting out with the intention of tackling the poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, the Prime Minister instead came away with confirmation – from Medvedev himself – that yes, Cameron might have got along quite nicely in the KGB if he had actually been recruited. So at least one burning question had been laid to rest, but perhaps it’s not quite the indicative, fiery sermon of democracy which we hope Russia is aspiring to.
Speaking of President Medvedev, what will become of the man described as Robin to Putin’s Batman once he stands aside for The Great Man? Medvedev had previously shown glimmers of liberal reform, claiming that he would, “strive to protect civil and economic freedoms.” Alas, his ties to Putin are binding, and few reforms have been enacted.
Putin himself looks set to maintain his popularity for a while yet – especially if current criticisms of him give way to tangible improvements. But why is Putin adored by so many Russians? It seems that our answer will ultimately be found in the history textbooks of the mid-2040s. He might even still be the President by then.
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