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Russia is the house that Vladimir Putin built and hell never abandon it | Dmitri Trenin

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By co-opting the masses against the elite, the president has shaped a country to echo his values and grievances. And now hes working to secure his legacy

When Vladimir Putin was asked about hisjob, two years after becoming master of the Kremlin on New Years Eve,1999, he said somethingabout being a hired manager elected by the Russian people for a termof office. When he is asked about his jobnow, he calls it fate. Yesterday saw thousands joined the biggest since anti-government demonstrations in many years to protest against Putin and his prime minister/protg Dmitry Medvedev.

Even so the Russian people, Putin is above all a symbol of stability after a decade and a half of turmoil that included the misguided and botched reform of the Soviet communist system; its abrupt end and the sudden advent of freedom that often looked like a free-for-all; the painful dissolution of the Soviet Union; market reforms, often dubbed shock without therapy; virtually instant crass inequality; the end of ideology and the collapse of morals.

Putin was appointed by Boris Yeltsin, Russias first president, to be his successor, but he earned his stripes by taming the oligarchs, bringing to an end the seemingly endless war in Chechnya, breaking the backbone of the once powerful Communist party and marginalising liberals. He recreated the traditional Russian system of hierarchical government. The state that had been privatised by the high and mighty could now strike back, reasserting its awesome power.

In much of what he was doing, Putin responded to the paternalistic demand of the bulk of the Russian people who had not particularly succeeded in the post-Communist era. Not only did he genuinely win elections, which under his rule became a means of confirming people in power not replacing them. He also cracked the code of staying in power in a country that had rejected both his predecessors, the once widely popular Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. When faced with the choice, early on, to go with the elites including the intelligentsia or with the ordinary people, he chose the latter.

Putin understood that to rule Russia he had to stay genuinely popular with the masses and from time to time crack his whip at the elites: a good tsar reining in the greedy boyars. Popularity ratings are important: to rule effectively, one needs at least 60% support; to rule comfortably, 70%. Approaching 50%, however, which is totally fine in the west, is fraught with the dangers of civil strife in Russia. Thus by his own personality, his public actions and attitudes, Putin managed to confer legitimacy on the Russian state in the eyes of the vast majority of the population.

Vladimir
It is unlikely, however, that Putin will leave the stage even in 2024. Photograph: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Putin has restored Russias status of a great power, lost with the Soviet Union. He first tried to fit Russia into an enlarged west, as a senior ally of the US in Nato and a close partner of the EU within a greater Europe. When his efforts failed, he steered Russia away from the western orbit, rebuilt the countrys military power and used it to protect Russian security interests in Ukraine as he saw them as well as to project force outside the former empire, to send the message to the world that Russia was back in play. Publicly and resolutely, he stood up to US global dominance.

Seen as disruptive in the west, Putin has struck a conservative tone at home. He allowed economic reforms in his first term, and later tolerated talk of modernisation, but his method of governance is essentially bureaucratic. Putin is both a capitalist and a statist. He understands the power of the market but is also wary of it, keeping the state always at the ready to step in and reassert control. He has reduced former oligarchs to obedient servants ever so keen to oblige him. He has seen his old friends rise to riches knowing that he can rely on their unquestioning loyalty the one quality Putin appears to value particularly highly. The question about Putins own wealth misses the point above a certain threshold, money turns into raw power, and in these terms the Russian president has few, if any peers.

An autocrat with the consent of the governed, Putin has preserved the essential personal freedoms that the Russian people first earned with the demise of the Communist system. People can worship and travel freely; Facebook and Twitter are essentially unrestricted; there are even a few tolerated media outlets overtly in opposition tothe Kremlin. Political freedoms, however, are more tightly circumscribed, so as to leave no chance to potential colour revolutionaries or politically ambitious exiled oligarchs. For the bulk of the population, this matters little; the relatively few activists have a choice of taking it or leaving.

Putin once described himselfas Russias top nationalist. He has also proclaimed patriotism to be Russias national idea. On his list of values, the Russian state features at the very top. Since day one as president, he has been following Yeltsins parting request: Take care of Russia. The Soviet Union was one of Russias historical names, and so its little wonder that, to Putin, its downfall was a great catastrophe. His basic frame of reference is Russias rich history. Once Putin quipped that there was no one in the world worth talking to after the death of Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, he talks with many, but he truly keeps company with Russias past rulers: tsars,emperors and party leaders. He isjust the latest in a long line.

Having no peers in the land and very few abroad is a heavy psychological burden. One needs to look to a much higher authority. To Putin, however, religion is more than a personal matter. Christian Orthodoxy, in his view, is a spiritual and moral guide, the essence of Russias unique civilisation, and without it the countrys history and its classical literature and the arts cannot be fully understood. To Putin, the Byzantine symphony, an alliance of the state and the established religious organisations, first among them the Russian Orthodox church, is the core of national unity.

Next year, Russia is due to hold its presidential elections. Virtually everyone expects Putin to run, and no one has any doubt about his victory. The only question is how many people will come to the polling stations, and how many of them will vote for Putin. The Kremlin is now shooting for 70% in both cases. This fourth term in the Kremlin fifth, if one counts Putins regency during Dmitry Medvedevs stint may be Putins last, not so much because he will turn 72 after the next six-year term expires, but rather because he was loth to change the constitution previously.

It is unlikely, however, that Putin will leave the stage even in 2024, after nearly a quarter of a century in power: his job is in fact a mission that will not be done as long as he is active. His challenge in the long term is to pass on leadership to a new generation of Russias leaders, and make sure that this works. Right now he is busy identifying people, most of them in their 40s and even 30s, who might form that group. Some have already been appointed to senior positions as ministers, governors, or other high officials. All will be tried and tested and given tasks to fulfil. Putinhimself, a father figure to his proteges, would then become a pater patriae, or, to use a Singaporean formula, a president mentor.

It is much too early to pass final judgment on Putin. He has kept the country in one piece and restored its global status. He continues to be a formidable figure, and is always ready tosurprise. He has made a deep impact on his country. It is Putins Russia largely because he is Russias Putin.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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