Europe Russia’s president
Alone at the top
All this feeds a sense of uncertainty, with the Moscow political elite “disoriented,” according to Mr Petrov. Investigative files on the two defence cases have existed for years, only to resurface now. Are the rules changing? What could be unearthed tomorrow, and against whom? At the same time, the mood of rudderless leadership has been worsened by questions over Mr Putin’s health.
For much of October and November, Mr Putin worked at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, rarely going to the Kremlin and cancelling foreign trips to Bulgaria, India and Turkey (though he is now going to Turkey next week). News reports discussed a possible back problem caused by flying an ultralight plane beside some wild cranes in September. The Kremlin dismissed this, saying only that Mr Putin had pulled a muscle while exercising. In another political system, the story might have stopped there, but in Russia the mystery took on symbolic resonance.
Over the years, Mr Putin has played on traditional Russian deference to the leader while relying on manipulation of the media. The “charismatic aura” for Mr Putin, says Lev Gudkov of the Levada Centre polling group, has produced a system like “Byzantium, only on television.” The real point of the story about Mr Putin’s back was not the supposed ailment but the breaking of a taboo over discussing his health—and his future.
The biggest concern is Mr Putin’s isolation. His claim to Germany’s Angela Merkel that Pussy Riot members had hanged the effigy of a Jew in 2008 was bizarre and inaccurate (in fact, the band was protesting against anti-Semitism); either he was misleading her or he had himself been misled. Mr Putin has spent over a decade in power and Yevgenia Albats, editor of the liberal New Times, talks of the “typical syndrome of an ageing general secretary”.
Compared with his early years in charge when he relied on economic aides like German Gref and Alexei Kudrin, Mr Putin has less faith in the counsel of those around him and more certainty in his own judgment. After a difficult year, he believes that he “owes his position to a hard-fought electoral victory, unlike his colleagues who have no mandate from the voters”, says Sergei Guriev of the New Economic School. On many issues, says one former adviser, Mr Putin “thinks he understands the situation, but in fact it can be quite incomprehensible for him”.
Decision-making in the Kremlin appears to be on hold. Mr Putin has slowed down progress on the budget, on pensions and on privatisation. This may partly be a prudent move to sit out recent turmoil in global markets. But the danger of what Chris Weafer of Troika Dialog calls a “deliberate policy of inactivity” is that Mr Putin waits too long, acting only when the next political or financial crisis hits him.
As for the campaign against corruption, it will go only so far. Corruption is a pillar of Putin-era stability as much as a threat to it. Much of what could be called corruption has become formalised, if not legalised, through official tenders, court rulings and bank-approved loans. That makes it both more prevalent and amorphous—and harder to eliminate.
Alexei Venediktov of the Ekho Moskvy radio station likens the situation to “turbulence” in an aeroplane. The ruling class may know “in which direction and with which pilot” they are flying, he says; but the plane is shaking disconcertingly.