Alexander von Hahn analyzes reactions to Putin's election.
Vladimir Putin sheds the fig leaf of constitutional correctness and reassumes the title – not the role, which he has been playing for nearly ten years – of Russia’s president for the third term. Many commentators contemplate accepting the reality of yet another decade of his rule. But just how real is this reality?
A clue came as the helicopter broadcasting live Putin’s triumphant ride through the Moscow city centre to his Kremlin inauguration passed over the Russian capital’s busiest streets. Europe’s most populous city was eerily empty, swept clean – as if struck by some deadly virus in a horror movie. Not even Putin’s supporters were allowed to cheer their beloved leader on the way to his triumph. This city of the dead stood still, witnessing yet another wonder of the “managed democracy” engineered by Putin’s ideologist Vladislav Surkov.
Only one man before Putin had had the honor of such a reception. Exactly 200 years ago, Napoleon had entered an abandoned Moscow. "My lord Brother,” wrote Napoleon to Tsar Alexander I soon thereafter, “Beautiful, magical Moscow exists no more. How could you consent to the destruction of the loveliest city in the world, a city that has taken hundreds of years to build?”
A cheering crowd might present a security threat. But what it really represents is legitimacy.
Often blamed for failing to protect Russia’s ‘true’ national interests, Boris Yeltsin did not fail to remind his critics of his thousands of enthusiastic supporters, who propelled him to Russian presidency in August 1991. Authoritarian style and idiosyncratic government, alcoholism, the encouragement of regional autonomy which threatened a united Russia, almost a decade of wild free-market economy reforms – despite all this, for the majority of Russians Yeltsin remained the country’s first democratically-elected leader.
Not having Yeltsin’s ‘heroic past’, Putin depends on popular support. After all, he is by many still regarded as Yeltsin’s puppet, with no political history of his own.
As the presidential election results were disputed by all but his own party, the father of the Russian version of neo-conservatism has had to search for inspiration elsewhere. And if, when troubled by ill health and waning popularity, the late president Yeltsin found an alternative to Vox Populi in the hands of the KGB, Putin’s choice, it seems, is to seek the endorsement of the Russian Orthodox Church, which rose to prominence after more than seventy years of militant atheism. The Moscow Patriarchate also benefited from the massive property restitution and direct state support of the first “Putin Decade”.
For almost a thousand years, the Orthodox clergy has accused the West of indulging in all sorts of sins, democracy among them. Generations of conservative Russian ideologists have been preaching about the West’s corruption and decadence. Russia may be “too big to fail”, but fail it will, they warned, should it succumb to the promises of material wealth and prosperity. For many in the Russian church, political pluralism is nothing but temptation, lies and deceit. Democracy, with its insufferable burden of compromises and deals, is fatal for the state, stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific. If choosing is inevitable, they argue, we should choose faith, not face.
A few days before the last election, the leading Orthodox website declared that “the duty of every true believer is to support and elect Vladimir Putin as our next president”. If the Vox Dei are ignored, Russia’s demise will be unavoidable, argue Putin’s supporters from the Moscow Patriarchate. Patriarch Kirill misses no occasion to praise Putin as a ‘gift from heaven”, while stressing his orthodox credentials and adherence to traditional values.
Holy or not, with Putin in the Kremlin for at least another six years, Russia’s decline is insured. This global power, once capable of being an alternative to the US or emerging Chinese leadership in the Eurasian region, now bleeds heavily in the hands of corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats. In 1812, the narrow victory at the battle of Borodino allowed Napoleon to take Moscow unobstructed. Less than two years later, Cossacks entered Paris, thus saving Europe from the hands of a dictator. Whether the Russian military has a part to play in the drama of 2012 remains to be seen.
For Putin, Russia might be too big to fail. The island of St. Helene, on the other hand, might be too small.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.