Politics

Political stagnation looms as Putin cements his rule as 'president for life'

By Caravanserai and AFP

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Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at military aircraft flying over the Kremlin and Red Square to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Moscow, May 9, 2020. [Alexey Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP]

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin urged Russians to envisage the country they wanted to leave behind for their children and grandchildren during a historic vote last week to extend his rule.

But by pushing back the crucial question of who could someday replace him, Putin risks years of political stagnation that could fuel frustration with the Kremlin, say analysts.

It was just such an era of stagnation -- the infamous "period zastoya" between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s mainly under Leonid Brezhnev -- that precipitated the end of the Soviet Union and threw Russia into chaos for years.

And like then, leaving Russians without the hope of change could be dangerous.

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An elderly woman begs for money in central Moscow in 2019. The Russian economy has been crumbling for years, making life for ordinary Russians very difficult. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]

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Putin made a meticulous calculation in postponing the date of the annual Victory Day parade  to June 24, about a week before the referendum, to 'pump Russians with endorphins and a sense of unity'. [Kremlin]

"The regime's weakness is that it doesn't have a mechanism to transfer power," said Maxim Trudolyubov, editor-at-large of the Meduza news website.

The president's cohort "strongly mistrusts" free and fair elections as a way to decide who may one day rule after Putin, he said.

"They simply pretend they will never die."

Putin, already in power for 20 years as president or prime minister, proposed a package of sweeping changes to the constitution in January that included populist measures to boost pensions and the minimum wage.

They enshrined conservative values long touted by the Kremlin, with a clause mentioning the country's "faith in God" and another effectively banning gay marriage.

Then Putin, 67, backed a last-minute amendment that would zero his presidential term limits and allow him to potentially remain in power until 2036, a move critics denounced as a ploy for him to become "president for life".

'Not capable' of reform

For political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the changes went beyond just resetting Putin's presidential term limits.

"We shouldn't underestimate the reforms, all these amendments concerning traditional values, social rights," she said.

"This is a way to cement Russia as it is, the current regime... to institutionalise Putin's legacy."

Russians backed the reforms in a week-long vote that ended July 1, with 77.92% voting in favour.

Yet the overwhelming "yes" vote comes at a difficult time for Putin and does not reflect unbridled popularity for the Russian leader.

Putin's approval rating has plummeted to historic lows of 59% in recent months, partly over the government's early handling of the coronavirus pandemic but also over longstanding economic malaise.

Putin wanted to get the vote over with before Russians -- already suffering from several years of falling incomes -- were hit by the full economic impact of the pandemic, say analysts.

But long term, observers say, the Kremlin may not be up to the task of overhauling the economy and introducing the much-needed changes that would win the president back some of his shrinking popularity.

Putin "is not capable of introducing fundamental economic reforms", said Alexander Titov, a political analyst and professor at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"And if he doesn't do it, then there will a gradual decline... like stagnated Brezhnev, with decreasing popularity and legitimacy among the population."

'Paranoia for Putin'

Stanovaya agreed, saying Putin's administration in the coming years will not be able to improve the efficiency of the economy or protect business.

"For Putin, the most important thing now is at least to avoid financial and social crises."

The frustration is particularly felt among younger voters, who, as independent polls showed, largely opposed the reforms.

Putin has failed to introduce younger political figures into the fold of the ruling elite and is unlikely to cede power to rising politicians who might introduce reforms that appeal to younger voters, note analysts.

"Generational change is long overdue in Russia. It's only a matter of time -- when and how," said Trudolyubov.

The Kremlin's determination to keep the status quo could lead to "paranoia for Putin", he added, and "with time, that will make the situation more and more fragile."

The longer the Kremlin puts off the problem of how to choose a successor, "the more sudden the change will be", said Titov.

"If you withhold this demand for change too long, it will burst in much more radical forms than it would have otherwise."

Central Asians scoff

For many in Central Asia, the prospect of Putin ruling Russia decades into the future is alarming.

"Economic stagnation in Russia likely will reflect on the socio-economic situation in Kyrgyzstan too," said Bishkek economist Elmira Suranchiyeva.

"Obviously, we will see a deterioration of the economic position of thousands of families, those who have lived on remittances from relatives who work in Russia."

"That's one of the consequences of Kyrgyzstan's tight economic integration, or more precisely, its dependence on Russia, since we're wrapped up in the bonds of the Eurasian Economic Union," she said.

Kyrgyzstan last month considered boycotting the Russian-dominated economic bloc, which has been accused of enabling Russian protectionism.

"Public opinion in Kazakhstan will not accept political integration with Russia," said Gaziz Abishev of Nur-Sultan, an economic analyst in the Kazakh government's Central Communications Service.

"Kazakh nationalists are resisting the imperial chauvinism of Moscow, while urban liberals are revolted by Russia's anti-Westernism and attempts to convince people how terrible it is in the West and how magical it is in Russia."

"I don't expect anything good from the extension of Putin's presidency," said Umar Yunusov, a Tashkent schoolteacher.

"In 20 years of rule, he didn't modernise his country's economy, which to this day depends on exporting oil and natural gas."

"Now because of the pandemic, the Russian economy will suffer acute problems for a long time and Russians will be forced to endure difficulties," he said.

"Uzbekistan needs to rethink whether it should place its bets on economic relations with Russia."

[Kanat Altynbayev contributed to this report.]

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In my opinion, united we stand, divided we fall.

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We must not let our Republic to become dependent of countries such Russia, China, instead we must develop and keep our independence by taking example from progress of developed countries.

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[The city of] Khabarovsk has rebelled against Putin. His rule is nearing its end

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Moscow, Mitino district, police took a passport and cell phone away from someone https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4Ehvcy6dwY

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What happened in Russia is a constitutional coup d'état. Civil war and, most likely, the collapse of Russia lie ahead, and that's it.

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