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International Affairs Editor

Putin : Down, but far from out

Le 13-12-2011

Try as I might – and I admit, I don’t try very hard – when it comes to Vladimir Putin, my journalistic “objectivity” often takes a backseat to righteous fulmination.

The recent wave of protests across Russia has exposed Russia’s paramount leader for what he is: a self-infatuated cynic, with an outsized sense of his own political worth.

Putin has been caught on the back foot by all the invective hurled at him by his bright young detractors in Moscow, St. Petersburg and residents of half a dozen other millioniki – cosmopolitan cities with a population of a million or more.

His deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression on the morning after the election - when fresh results showed his ruling United Russia in a 15% freefall from 2007, despite allegations of massive fraud - was a mirror image of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ashen-faced astonishment after the ex-Soviet leader’s release from house arrest following a short-lived coup attempt 20 years earlier.

Both leaders were dumbstruck, but for very different reasons.

Gorbachev had failed to anticipate the magnitude of the resentment he had stoked among the Soviet-era old guard.

The brief backlash against “Gorby” was a last-ditch gambit by Communist has-beens to purge their Motherland of glasnost and perestroika, and claw back power and prerogative.

Putin, by contrast, has failed to anticipate the magnitude of the progressive forces stacked against his sclerotic leadership.

Today’s protesters answer to a myriad of political and ideological callings: there are liberals, Communists, anarchists, monarchists and nationalists – as well as legions of the proudly unaffiliated.

But all are united in a common disdain for a regime that took them for fools ready to pay blind fealty to their leaders for the right price.

My fear is that Putin has a lot more ammunition in his clawback arsenal than meets the eye.

While he may seem down on his luck, he’s anything but out. He is still popular in strict polling terms, and can count on the axiomatic apathy of the Russian hinterland, as well as the time-tested Russian propensity for a strong hand at the helm in times of trouble.

In another historical time and place, Tsar Nicholas I summarily dealt with an uprising of a group of liberal-minded officers – the so-called Decembrist Revolt of 1825 – by cracking the whip hard and fast.

The monarch rounded up the rabble, dispatched his secret police, and imposed censorship and surveillance throughout his vast realm.

I have no doubt that Putin, if he had his druthers, would favour a similar solution – perhaps streamlined with more pseudo-democratic trappings for a modern age.

Restraining his riot police, for now

I’m equally certain that if the Kremlin cabal has restrained its riot troops until now, it’s not out of altruism or empathy for the democratic aspirations of the young protesters.

It’s because they are all too aware of the gaze of the international media and the need – despite the rhetoric – not to alienate foreign investors at a time when Russia’s oil-dependent economy is on the brink.

Putin is now counting on the protesters “protesting” themselves out. He’s betting that the arctic Russian winter will help put a deep freeze on all the ferment.

The bottom line is that while Putin has been irrevocably weakened, he still has the potential to wreak more havoc on his suffering country in the short to medium-term.

And he remains a scary man, as I bluntly told him to his face at a press conference in Paris a few months ago.

I had asked the Russian prime minister whether he intended to run again for president – and, if so, when he would make his decision?

Before (not) answering the question, he trained an icy gaze on me, and asked, “What is your name?” To which I blurted out, to my own surprise, “I’m afraid to tell you.”

The Russian journalists behind me burst out laughing. But Putin didn’t laugh; he just stared.

And I shivered. I’m still shivering.