11 December 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky
He has finally confessed. He has given us his so-called news. He’s up for re-election again. Most likely, Putin will try to retain the presidency until the moment of his physical death. It seems he didn’t really like the way Nazarbaev’s fate turned out after his voluntary resignation from his position.
A popular question: why does Putin need these elections? In my opinion, the answer is clear. From a political point of view, cancelling the elections (or replacing them with a referendum on lifetime rule) is a less winning and less convenient option for the dictator. Given that he sees no threats from the elections. From the economic point of view, a new election campaign does not cost much. Compared to, say, the cost of ammunition.
Putin also likes to get a big percentage of the vote. He probably wants to feel a new surge of love from the people.
From a propaganda point of view, a good result is also a convenient thing. We will be told a hundred times afterwards that the people are in favour of the war (although now it is not quite obvious – we can say that the demand to end the war is growing).
I don’t even want to look at the legal side of the issue. A three-day election is not practised almost anywhere. Neither is voting outside polling stations. The same can be said about the electronic remote voting. In essence, everything has been done to make any independent oversight of the elections almost impossible.
It’s more interesting to talk once again about the person at the centre of the forthcoming triumph.
Way back in 2000, was it possible to imagine that this short, young man with closely set eyes, a clever official, and a former member of the security services would be able to remain at the head of state for almost a quarter of a century? ,is what I would like to point out: Boris Yeltsin was not the only one who saw in reasonable KGB officers who had ‘accepted the new reality’ a decent personnel reserve for a democratic state. Indeed, even in one of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s last short stories, ‘Apricot Jam’ (written in the late 1990s) I found a rather favourable picture of cooperation between a former dissident and a general of the special services. In fulfilment of duty to the State. Here, by the way, there is certainly no need to rush to blame the classic for shortsightedness. He managed to speak about much more important things, which we will mention later.
But in general, no two officers are the same. Different people came out of the KGB. At that time Putin’s main vice was not recognised, and probably could not have been recognised. Many people have not understood it even to this day. Namely, his willingness to put his personal interests and ambitions above the interests of the state and society at all times and in all cases. The thing is that it was not difficult for him to pass off his personal self-interest and rather vulgar desires for what later came to be called, with pathos, “the national interest”.
I would like to emphasise that all matters great and small initiated by him (and not by his servile economists) were based solely on his personal self-interest.
In his first term, even in the first years of his term, he used the resources he now controlled to take over all private TV companies that could criticise him. Precisely because he couldn’t stand criticism. Nobody likes it, yes. But not everyone is able to take offence and harbour a grudge like Putin.
He achieved the complete dependence of the courts on the executive branch. With the courts in his pocket, he could easily solve his personal problems – establishing control over economic assets and eliminating political opponents.
Using the resources of the law enforcement and security agencies and the already tamed courts, he took down Yukos, taking revenge on its owners Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. Mainly to show that now he could put anyone in jail. In addition, Khodorkovsky unwittingly revealed Putin’s personal interest in the sale of one oil company (Severnaya Neft) to another (Rosneft).
Later on he was mainly preoccupied with only one thing – building up his own power and eliminating any limitations on it. And that is most important.
This explains the elimination of direct elections of governors and the establishment of control over the Accounts Chamber. And, of course, amendments to the Constitution. Does anyone remember what the first one was? Increasing the term of his presidential powers – from four to six years. Medvedev was given the job of implementing it. And he did.
But tell me, why did he need the right to appoint regional prosecutors, who had previously been appointed by the Prosecutor General? The same reason why he needed to take over the appointment of the Prosecutor General himself (who until 2020 was appointed by the Federation Council). Neither Sobchak nor Yeltsin sensed such an astonishing, unquenchable lust for power in Putin.
The crowning achievement of his constitutional creativity has been the abolition of the main constitutional prohibition: the prohibition for the same person to hold the presidential office for more than two consecutive terms. No, the norm itself is still in the Constitution, but Putin has rid himself personally of this restriction.
Yes, he showed great cunning, ingenuity, will and determination when it was necessary to strengthen his position and the benefits for himself and his inner circle. Yes, many people thought that his demands would be limited by the desire to grab as much as he possibly could. They underestimated him.
I had the opportunity to work as a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights from 2012 to 2019. I sincerely believed that it was possible to have a dialogue with an authoritarian regime to help specific people in specific situations. Council members had to meet regularly with the president, sometimes several times a year. I saw how Putin changed during those eight years. Although since 2012 he has had, in my opinion, no more important task than consolidating his own power, the evolution has been noticeable. At first, he could still listen to those members of the Council whose criticism he disliked. But by 2018, he was getting irritated very quickly and simply did not let, say, me or Lilia Shibanova finish what we were saying.
At first, he spoilt us with rather old jokes, such as “crushing a human rights defender is like shaving a pig: there’s a lot of squealing, but not enough wool”. But then, getting annoyed, he demanded that the members of the Human Rights Council concern themselves with the situation in Donbas, where the DNR and LNR gangs and Putin’s troops, with whom the Ukrainians were trying to fight, were already ruling the roost. Ordinary people were suffering from this, and we were supposed to put all the blame on Ukraine. Lena Masiuk or Nikolai Svanidze could gently point out to him that this was Ukraine after all, and we were dealing with human rights violations in Russia. Such reminders enraged Putin even more.
He embarked on a tortuous and terrible involvement with the “people’s republics” in Donbas, without yet having decided how he would annex that part of the neighbouring state. He spent some time considering which approach to choose. He has condemned millions of people to suffering, based on his own cooked-up version of the history of the two countries, in which he allotted for himself the special role of the great unifier and “gatherer of the lands”. That was his decision. He got this into his head. That’s how, he decided, he wants to go down in history.
Generally speaking, this is the path that many dictators have taken once they are sitting on the throne and looking for the most convenient opportunity to increase their popularity through foreign policy adventures. In 1974, already at the end of the dictatorship of the “black colonels”, the Greek dictator Ioannidis plotted the annexation of Cyprus to Greece and used Greek Cypriot militias for this purpose. In 1975, Indonesian dictator Suharto used the army to annex the eastern part of the island of Timor, the now independent state of East Timor. In 1982, Argentine dictator Galtieri decided to snatch the Falkland Islands, which had long been the subject of a dispute with Britain. In 1990, Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein chose an easy prey – Kuwait, because he could thus quench his thirst for territorial acquisitions and acquire additional sources of oil.
And just recently – one could say, before our very eyes – the authoritarian ruler of Venezuela, Maduro, announced the annexation of the Essequibo region, i.e. a significant part of the territory of Guyana, a neighbouring state.
So Putin’s strategy is commonplace in the history of dictatorial regimes. With such a strategy – the idea of expanding the country’s territory – one can always and everywhere count on the support of a significant part of the electorate. True, in the end, all the above-mentioned adventures turned out badly for their initiators. But in the historical process nothing is predetermined. And politicians, especially dictators, are not particularly eager to learn from the mistakes of the past. They consider themselves more cunning and clever than those who have gone before.
Some people try very hard to see some kind of global plan behind Putin’s geopolitical adventures. Did Putin, as some experts believe, think about creating a new security system for the Russian Federation? Putting the question in this way in itself seems to me to be flawed.
The main thing that’s important to understand is that Russia’s international position had never been as secure or the economic situation as favourable as it was in 2008 or 2012, at the beginning of Medvedev’s presidency and then Putin’s third presidency. Russia receiving a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (thanks, incidentally, to the diplomacy of Kozyrev and Yeltsin), the country’s standing as a G8 member and participant in dozens of other agreements — this all created a fairly reliable system of international security and real safeguards for our country.
This didn’t change much after the occupation and annexation of Crimea. Although economic sanctions slowed the development of the Russian economy, they certainly did not cause a crisis. The Russian Federation isn’t under threat of attack from any NATO member state. Even now, these states are hesitant to engage in direct confrontation.
Putin saw all this perfectly. And he thought he was in for another victory. By 2022, he felt he had the power to start a new war. True, it was supposed to have been a short one. The country didn’t need the war, a certain individual did — the head of the State, who had lost all sense of perspective.
Could you say that the idea of war was consonant with some ignoble aspiration lurking in the depths of the souls of several million compatriots? Possibly. But in 1917, the idea of “steal what was stolen” also appealed to several million people in Russia. And one group successfully used this for their own selfish interests. This group maintain themselves in power. But the country suffered a devastating catastrophe. And probably still hasn’t recovered from it.
At this point it’s fitting to turn back to Solzhenitsyn. Yes, he did repeatedly express regret that Russia was unable to form a unified state with Belarus and Ukraine after 1991. But in 1992, when meeting with Stanislav Govorukhin and having just returned to his homeland, he laid out his main conclusion: the highest wisdom of government is to direct all the efforts of the state domestically, to secure the flourishing of its people, and not to issues or actions abroad. Unfortunately, we have violated this principle over the last three centuries.
Clearly the incumbent presidential candidate has paid no mind to Solzhenitsyn’s idea.
Over the past 10 years, this candidate has put the country in an extremely difficult situation, despite a highly favorable economic situation and an assurance of security, ruining hundreds of thousands of lives and depriving the economy of any advantages it may have had. And for what? For his own vulgar ambitions and… out of boredom.
What’s in store for us during the campaign and after the election?
Most likely the continuation of a grueling, pointless war. This winter the presidential candidate is again hoping to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The goal is, clearly, to freeze out and demoralize the population. This, it must be understood, is an important part of the campaign. Voters will be encouraged to rejoice in bullseye hits. The slow militarization of the economy will continue. It will surely not get by without the Central Bank regularly printing more money.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bolshevik power was so entrenched in Russia that no hope remained for a speedy return to the country of those who considered Bolshevik power to be the bloodiest, the most savage and lawless in Russian history. The most steadfast of them, including the writers Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov, have left us their reflections, from which at least two conclusions emerge. Do not submit to authority that is imposed by force and malice. Maintain confidence that the abnormality of such a regime will lead sooner or later to its collapse.
Putin’s power is a parody and simulacrum of Bolshevik power, in its nationalist variant. And it quite literally reproduces a number of its propaganda cliches. But it is most certainly destined to last for a shorter historical time period — as a type of personalist power. There is hope that most of this period is behind us. However, there will be more bloodshed and suffering in what remains than anyone thought. And the so-called elections of 2024 have absolutely nothing to do with this.