Vladimir Putin has enjoyed an aura of invincibility ever since his meteoric rise from intelligence functionary to president in 2000. He was the man who could bring a dead economy to life and make Russia matter in the world again.
But the Putin mystique was built on more than economic performance and Russian nationalism. It has also rested on a third pillar, one that is poorly understood in the West, where democracy is invariably associated with free elections and civil liberties. That pillar of Putinism may be called demophily, or love of the people.
Most Russians accept demophily as an alternative to “Western-style” democracy. They do not insist that their leaders supply civil rights and honest elections, but they do expect the man at the top to care about their well-being. Putin convinced them that he did.
But a reputation for demophily depends on at least appearing to be more concerned with popular welfare than with amassing a personal fortune and feeding cronies. It hinges on acting more like Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s development-minded strongman during the 1960s and 1970s, than like Chun Doo-hwan, the kleptocrat who succeeded Park. It depends on resembling Indonesia’s President Suharto between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s, when the dictator cultivated an image as a stern disciplinarian who was bent on rapid development, rather than the crony-stroking bandit that Suharto became during the decade preceding his ouster in 1998.
Putin’s reputation as a Park and not a Chun, as an early and not a late Suharto, is under threat. The cracks in Putin’s image appeared suddenly in late 2011, following elections for parliament that many Russian regarded as rigged. These were the first mass demonstrations since Putin’s ascent to power that had a distinctively anti-Putin flavor, and they prominently included upwardly mobile urbanites.
Yet Russians are used to electoral fraud, and the 2011 elections were probably no more badly rigged than previous contests. What is more, they were for parliament, a body that holds virtually no power.
What fueled the furor was growing public unease with rot at the top. Aleksei Navalny’s attack on Putin’s United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves” sustained the energy of the demonstrations for months. The stench of total impunity had grown palpable, and it seemed to be worsening.
The demonstrations shocked Putin, who felt betrayed by the very people whose standards of living he thought had benefited the most from his rule. But he took notice, and launched new efforts to constrict the flow of public information as well as to burnish his nationalist credentials.
In order to see how justified Putin’s fears are, we need to distinguish between the corrupt but still functional regime that Putin managed during his first term and the criminal state over which he now presides. Gone are the days when Putin used Russia’s oil and gas rents to retire the country’s foreign debt and build a stabilization fund that helped Russia weather the global financial crisis. Hydrocarbons billions now flow elsewhere. Preparations for the Sochi Olympics provided a cornucopia of fresh opportunities for pilfering the coffers of the state. One Putin crony alone, Arkady Rotenberg, received over $7 billion in contracts, more than the entire cost of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Dictators love huge construction projects due to the opportunities for kickbacks, and rarely has a dictator enjoyed a bonanza on the scale of the Sochi Olympics. The dimensions of Putin’s own fortune are impossible to assess precisely, but recent reports that place it at over $40 billion are not implausible.
The turn to kleptocracy has occurred as the economy has sputtered. With economic prospects gone wobbly, Putin now perceives that preserving the other two bases of his mystique — the restoration of national greatness and his reputation as a demophile — is imperative to his political survival.
The thrust into Ukraine seems to Putin to be the perfect mystique-preserver. It obviously plays to great power nationalism. But it also provides Putin with a pretext for restricting the inflow of information from abroad — including and especially revelations about his government’s increasingly predatory ways. By convincing Russians that the West is bent on undermining him because he is aggressively pursuing Russia’s interests in a manner that challenges the West, Putin hopes to inoculate Russians against revelations about his malfeasance emanating from Western sources. The play for Ukraine and the wartime atmosphere it creates in Russia also enables Putin to characterize muckraking Russian journalists as traitors. Discussion of corruption at the top is verboten in the state-controlled media, but Russian bloggers, sources from abroad that reach Russians via the internet, and some small-circulation independent newspapers published in Russia still publicize embarrassing information. We should now anticipate a new push to control and censor the internet in Russia in order to choke off the information that Russians can obtain about their own country, from both Western and domestic sources.
Does all this mean that Putin does not value his international reputation? Analysts have suggested that Putin does not grasp how badly his stock has been tarnished by his behavior in Ukraine, that he recognizes the scope of the damage but does not care, or that he is intentionally playing crazy as a ploy to befuddle Western leaders. These ideas are plausible but not compelling. Before Crimea, Putin worked hard to build a reputation for respecting international norms of multilateralism, state sovereignty, and the inviolability of borders. He has treasured his status as a responsible statesman, from Washington to Rome to Berlin to Beijing. He understands that his Ukrainian venture has spoiled his carefully crafted image, suddenly transforming him into a kind of Slavic George W. Bush in the eyes of much of the international community. But he is now so fearful that revelations about his corruption will destroy his mystique at home that he is prepared to sacrifice his statesman’s credentials abroad.
But Putin’s ploy will backfire. It may retard the deterioration of his demophilic reputation for a while, but sooner or later it will quicken it. Putin is stoking and riding a wave of nationalism at home, but the costs of taking over responsibility for public services in Crimea will be high. Still more onerous will be the price tag for the boost in Russia’s military spending that will be needed to deal with nervous neighbors and a sharp rise in Western antagonism. And making a staunch enemy of Ukraine, or at least the central and western parts of it, ensures that Putin’s dream of a Eurasian union is dead — unless he intends to march on Kiev and force Ukraine under Russian occupation to join his union. Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, can no longer be expected to embrace Putin’s Eurasian vision. Russian nationalists regard northern Kazakhstan much as they see Crimea: as Russian domain. Nazarbaev is more likely to reinforce his northern borders and tilt toward China than to seek union with Russia.
The market alone will impose costs. Aleksei Kudrin, the architect of the economic reforms of the first decade of the 21st century, estimates that Russia may lose $200 billion this year in capital flight due to the conflict with Ukraine. This is real money in a country whose total annual output is $2 trillion — slightly less than that of the state of California.
Furthermore, while Putin and his cronies try to stem the flow of information about their ever mounting impunity, the United States and other countries are naming names of those whose assets they are freezing. The American sanctions require the Treasury Department to publicize clues on the magnitude and location of the assets of Putin and his cronies. According to prevailing diplomatic norms, governments normally stay mum about such malfeasance on the part of the leaders of all but sworn enemies. The U.S. government heretofore has not discussed publicly what it knows about Putin’s fortune and that of his cronies. That policy has now changed. The political effects of the revelations included in Bthe sanctions may be even more damaging to Russia’s rulers than the sanctions’ economic effects.
Putin hopes that his Ukrainian gambit will discredit or shut off the information Russians get about his burgeoning malfeasance faster than that information comes out, thereby enabling him to extend the life of his increasingly tenuous reputation as a demophile. But he will almost certainly fail, all the more given the social and intellectual sophistication of Russia’s expanding urban middle class.
The good news for democracy’s advocates in Russia and around the world is that Crimea is burying the Putin mystique and discrediting demophily. The Russian experience provides evidence that demophily is no substitute for democracy; government for the people ultimately requires government by them as well.
From University of California, Berkeley political scientist M. Steven Fish, the author of “Democracy Derailed in Russia: The Failure of Open Politics.”