By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
Russia often invites brutal comments, and Vladimir Putin even more. The numerous articles written to mark the 20 years of his presidency offer a collection of declarations and predictions made at the time that their authors would prefer to forget. The best of all being the question that an American journalist, Trudy Rubin, obviously proud of his audace, asked to a panel of Russian officials and businesspeople “Who is Mr. Putin?”. That was a few weeks since Putin appeared “from nowhere” – translation “from where Westerners did not see him coming”, contrary to Russians for whom he has been prime ministers for almost 5 months.
This reflects all what Putin disliked, and still dislikes, from Westerners: self-centrism, arrogance, despite for Russians, ignorance, lack of respect. This is what he wanted to change, and he did it playing with time and not hesitating to use brutal methods he knew would cause deep reactions outside Russia.
Changing, a little
In many ways, he is much of the same man who appeared 20 years ago. But the photographs tell a more complex story. In December 1999, the man president Yeltsin just selected as his caretaker until the next presidential election was uptight, slim, gauche, deprived of any charisma, the perfect communist apparatchik. Everyone was trying to guess what his promotion was meaning for the country. For the intellectuals, everything, even his physical appearance, was attesting the milieu he came from – not their own. For the military, he was part of the “jacket military men”, those who had not attended military academia, and on the top of that he came from the despised KGB. For many, he was and will stay “this little colonel”. But for the population, he was the great hope for security (the second Chechnya war had just started), and for reconstruction of the country and society after the terrible financial crisis of 1998.
In December 2019, the man is plumper, still very private despite the number of people saying for years that they know for sure he is secretly married with a former gymnast; they have even the name of the doctor who helped her to deliver 2 (sometimes 3) children. He certainly gained in social manners, despite a recurrent taste for barrack’ jokes. He is the center of attention during international gatherings – and obviously savours the evolution from the time when a Russian president was a beggar or an unwelcome nonentity.
He has turned into an advantage the hostility of the West, knowing too well that his will position that “the world in not limited to the West” and lately that “liberal democracy is obsolete” are shared by a cohort of countries weakened by botched transitions to democracy and free market conditions imposed by Westerners on indebted countries. And that other poles of influence are emerging regionally, and not only that of China. Putin also benefited from the vacuum left, notably in the Middle East, by Western powers that embraced revolutionary changes, but dropped their support when chaos turned uncontrollable.
He has fulfilled most of his promises, but he deceived those Russian liberals and Westerners who hoped for an internal liberalisation and fully open markets. He always supported a strong state, as do most of the Russians, but the apparition of social medias and open borders make a full control of the information more and more difficult. In the same time, an aging elite did not see the emergence of a young generation, mostly Muscovites, who are part of another world than the one Putin has been building so proudly. The paradox being that this social group is largely composed of the children of elites and members of the clans he surrounded himself with.
Another paradox is that, after 20 years, one is back to speculation concerning his intentions – again an eventual change of the Constitution to prolong his mandate. It is true that he behaves growingly not only as a “Russia first” leader, but a patriot with a mission. This is giving credence to the idea that he does not have the lucidity to understand the importance, including for his legacy, of transferring power.
In this context, much attention focused on the topic during his annual press conference on late December leading to conclusions that he “might” contemplate another mandate encouraged by his evasive answer to the questions. In the meantime, another good old speculation is back: that he will move from the Russian presidency to that of a Belarus-Russia Union. A view that seems dubious bearing in mind the recent frictions between Russian and Belarussian officials, the new quarrel about Russian oil deliveries to Belarus, and the rapprochement between Minsk and EU.
In short, 20 years into his successive mandates, Putin is still a blank sheet on which one can project what once wants. A mystery he enjoys as a sign of his power.