Putin for ever

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

As Vladimir Putin enters his fourth presidential mandate, the question is “What will Vladimir IV be like?”. Part of the answer emerged from his body language and the 7 May ritual. The contrast with 2012 was striking. At the time, he appeared extremely tense after months of demonstrations in which he was the object of violent and unusual personal attacks by Russians feeling they had been “robbed” of their electoral rights. Putin resented the “outsider forces” he saw – and continues to see – in the accompanying movements on the streets. The tension explains his outburst of emotion when he came to address the crowd outside the Kremlin after his victory was announced.

This time, the inauguration ceremony was held entirely inside the Kremlin, a rupture with 2012’s badly choregraphed passage of his cortege from his Novo-Ogarevo residence to the Kremlin through deserted streets. Instead, in 2018, the cameras followed him from the moment he left his cabinet office and moved to St Andrew Hall, through gilded corridors and chambers full of guests. All the way, and during his brief address, he displayed an unusual air of well being and relaxation.

All the same, the next 6 years of his mandate will not be an alley of roses. In his inaugural speech he repeated campaign declarations about the priority he means to give to national issues, including promises to better the life of ordinary Russians. For years, these have been complaining about prices rises and inflation – and, according to a recent poll by the Levada Centre, 46% give as their main reproach towards Putin the fact that he has not reduced the gap between riches and poor.

Between election day and inauguration day, the country was shacked with two big popular expressions of discontent, not about political freedom, but about social issues – such as health and the environment in Volokolasmsk, where Moscow dumps its waste; and in Kemerovo where incompetence, corruption and lack of attention for public security recently led to a dramatic fire in a mall.

All will depend of his capacity to “liberate” talents to modernise the economy and increase prosperity. This is obviously the way he wants to be remembered after he leaves power. Before his inauguration he gave a first signal by announcing a reduction of military spending –  an electoral promise but also a move urged by Alexeï Kudring, one of the liberals of his team, against pressure from the military and Kremlin hard liners.

But economics is not merely an internal question, because economic development depends of the international situation, especially in the context of persistent Western sanctions, the degrading situation in the Middle East and widespread confusion created by president Trump.

Inauguration speech

In his inauguration speech, Putin repeated what he has said so often since 2000 – that he will use his fourth presidency to fulfill his ‘mission’: to enrich citizens and to make Russia an incontrovertible power in the world. This includes international recognition of Russia’s borders – including Crimea – and a promise that Moscow will respect the independence of its neighbours.

The position has been tested quickly with the revolt in Armenia and a change of prime minister through a truly peaceful street movement. Russia did not intervene, claiming immediately the move was strictly internal matter, probably conscious that Nikol Pashinian was no longer a partisan of violence and that no external power will risk destabilising a country of the volatile Caucasus, in war with another regional power, Azerbaijan. Whatever the deepest reasons, this is a good sign in the ex-Soviet landscape.

Another test has come from the Middle East. Putin has quickly received prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Israel targeted Iran positions in Syria and profiled himself, again, as a go-between and appeaser, in contrast with the sterile “indignation” shown by Western powers.

The current tension in Transatlantic relations with be another test. We have to see if Putin will again be taken over by his urge to confront the West with its contradictions – especially bearing in mind that he has been accused of wanting to divide the United States and the Europeans – or whether he will try to proceed in some other way to project Russia as de facto part of solutions.

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