x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Putin's return as president of Russia threatens stagnation, say critics

As Russian prime minister seeks another term as president, supporters credit him for stability, but detractors say he is building a brittle and corrupt system dependent on one man.

Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, left, and president Dmitry Medvedev greet United Russia party members at the United Russia Party Congress in Moscow. YEKATERINA SHTUKINA / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / EPA
Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, left, and president Dmitry Medvedev greet United Russia party members at the United Russia Party Congress in Moscow. YEKATERINA SHTUKINA / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / EPA

MOSCOW // Vladimir Putin says he stands for stability, but his critics say his return to the Kremlin in March could ultimately bequeath an era of stagnation and even turmoil in Russia.

The prime minister, who announced on Saturday he would seek a new term as president, prides himself on bringing order after the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But even Mr Putin's protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, said there was a danger of stasis in Russia in a speech to the ruling party on Saturday, just minutes before he suffered the humiliation of proposing Mr Putin take back the presidency from him next year.

"Formalism and bureaucratisation are very dangerous: they lead to stagnation and the degradation of the political system," Mr Medvedev told a congress of Mr Putin's United Russia party.

Mr Putin handed him the chance to be president in 2008 after serving the maximum two successive terms as head of state, but is the driving force in their power "tandem". Mr Medvedev's offer to stand aside in March was clearly stage-managed by Mr Putin.

For many Russians, Mr Putin's return cements a doom-laden view of prospects for the world's biggest country, which is also the largest energy producer and home to the biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the only other man alive to have held the top job in the Kremlin, referred to this feeling last week and said Russia faced turmoil unless its leaders embraced change.

"It is the very absence of change which threatens to provoke instability and put the future of the country in question," Mr Gorbachev said.

He said Russia was returning to the era of Leonid Brezhnev, whose rule from 1964 to 1982 is widely portrayed as an era of stagnation when strong oil sales masked economic decline.

When Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned as president on the last day of the millennium and handed the office to Mr Putin, it was a breath of fresh air for many Russians.

He promised order and reform - as he did again at Saturday's party congress - and supplied the longest Russian economic boom in a generation.

Russian nominal gross domestic product (GDP) has risen more than seven-fold since 1999, while the average monthly income multiplied by 10.

But Mr Putin, a former KGB spy also brought tight control and promoted former fellow spies who cared little for the freedoms many Russians hoped could change centuries of oppression and turmoil.

Mr Putin made clear that Russia would no longer be ordered about by anyone. Foreign leaders were lectured, and oligarchs who crossed the Kremlin were exiled or thrown into jail.

Oligarchs still whisper about new businessmen who have made billions of dollars under Mr Putin but few dare to publish their names for fear of lawsuits. Mr Putin's message remains clear: rich businessmen should stay out of politics.

When Mr Putin was asked about corruption at a dinner for reporters at his residence outside Moscow during his presidency, he hit back by saying that other countries were just as corrupt.

Technically he was right: by 2010 Russia was ranked by the watchdog Transparency International as being as corrupt as Cambodia, Kenya and Laos. Although foreign investors talk openly of the wealth of his friends, Mr Putin has denied a vast personal fortune.

It is the presence of such friends and Mr Putin's love of control that place him in a trap, his opponents argue: he wants order, but his striving for control may ultimately destroy that very order, they say, by constructing a brittle and corrupt system dependent on one man.

For his supporters, Mr Putin is a saviour: an almost God-like tsar who has saved his country of 142 million people from chaos.

As Russia's most popular politician, he is almost certain to win a newly extended six-year term.

The country's most prominent whistle-blower put it bluntly in June, saying Russia could face an uprising like the Arab Spring protests or the revolts which swept through several former Soviet republics in the early 2000s.

Alexei Navalny said: "If they do not voluntarily start to reform by themselves, I do not doubt that this will happen in Russia.

"There is a shaky balance between the different interests and any significant event could destroy the balance in seconds."