Since the start of his presidency, attempting to understand Vladimir Putin has turned into a not-so-small cottage industry. With the advent of the Yukos fracas, we have been asked again to assess as to whether Putin is a strong leader or a weak one
Is Putin a prisoner of the security agencies that he has empowered and which surround him? Or is Putin merely a representative of a small group of powerful special moneyed interests? Even the usefulness of the Russian presidency has been called into question. Maybe it is nothing more than a fig leaf representing a political culture that is either stagnant or in the process of coming into being. Irrespective of this, after almost fours years, it would seem that either no one single person could take on Putin or the office of the presidency has taken on a critical mass.
Strong arguments can and have made supporting the above interpretations of Putin's presidency and Kremlin politics. Some western analysts and journalists have attempted to explain Russia's current state of political affairs through models borrowed from the west, others have taken a more domestic and hermetic approach. Whatever the model accepted to 'explain' Russia, all of these point towards the enormous popularity of the Russian president among Russians. Is it possible that Putin's popularity is a model in and of itself 'explaining' Russia? If this is true, is Putin's popularity a substitute for politics in Russia?
In democratic systems, politicians understand that personal popularity can be key to passing into law a political agenda. Public opinion polls are obsessively observed to determine how best to pitch or spin the same political agendas. This has become commonplace, even accepted and expected in these systems. One could go even so far as to say that extreme attention to public opinion (constructed or otherwise) is the nexus of political decision-making in democratic political systems. The United States, at present, is probably the best example of how attentiveness to public opinion motivates and influences government policymaking. This is something that Russia's Kremlin has picked up on and is using to its advantage, though for very different reasons and practised in different ways.
Most observers of Russia have become comfortable with the constantly repeated concept of political stability in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. This concept is cited endlessly and has, not surprisingly, been accepted as the new conventional wisdom. As an aside, this particular interpretation has become the standard of Russia's foreign-controlled financial and brokerage community. Most foreign observers of Russia's politics probably won't admit it openly, but much of what they write, beyond the skating rink and caviar, orientates - in one form or another - from this particular source of information creation.
Needless to say, this same information source has a specific interest in spinning Russia's political situation as being stable. The recent Kremlin-directed political tug of war with Yukos has been an inconvenient hiccup for the new conventional wisdom. However, by all accounts, the new conventional wisdom is as vigorous as ever - passing off the Yukos affair as an anomalous and not too important glitch in an otherwise stable political environment. This particular form of information creation also fits well with the perception the Kremlin (and much of the media it controls in Russia) desires to have politics understood. Both sources of information base their claims of political stability on the perceived political role of one man, not a political system.
Putin's popularity has been confused, constructed and endlessly cited for reasons that have little do with how to assess the real state of Russian politics. In many ways, Putin's popularity obfuscates the very real instability of Russia's political establishment. This suits the Kremlin and others just fine. His popularity is in many ways a substitute for politics. The focus on popularity lessens the need to draw attention to the political system that the same popularity creates.
Respect, even near-deification, of the leader has a long tradition in Russian political culture. For many in the West, the fond remembrance of Stalin on the part of many Russians today is a mystery, even considered as some form of social psychosis. It should not be. Strong leadership is what the entire history of Russian political culture is all about. Moral and ethical elements hardly enter into how to assess a leader. Results are what matter most. Interestingly enough, this approach to leadership dovetails in the Western understanding of leadership as well, especially in business. Results, stated in a different way, is an approach that appreciates success, with down-playing policy failures as if they were unfortunate 'collateral damage.' Many speak of Putin's popularity, but fewer and fewer speak of the 'collateral damage' of his government's stalled reform project for the economy.
What is the nature of Putin's popularity? After almost four years, they are among the following: He was always standing above the political fray. Putin is never seen as strongly siding with any party during a political conflict. Accepting political decisions mostly likely beyond his control (exile of and attacks against certain oligarchs, for example) with demure. He is always portrayed as always supporting policy agendas that are designed to reflect popular prejudices, e.g. Chechnya. Gingerly avoiding conflict among political interests (the state bureaucracy and the oligarchs) that are taking advantage of Russia's lawlessness called the 'dictatorship of the law.' Putin's constructed popularity has little to do with the manipulation of public opinion found in Western politics. Putin's constructed popularity is more about ignoring politics than assessing real political differences among Russians.
In many ways, it could be said that Putin's popularity is the result of anti-politics. Anti-politics is defined as how the form of power is cultivated, while not addressing its substance. Non-engagement in the political sphere also reflects the general attitude toward politics in Russia. It is no wonder that most Russians can somehow relate to the president. It could also be said that Putin's popularity is a reflection of the current government's addiction to the status quo. The same status quo has been shown to be not as stable as the new conventions would have us believe as of late.
It has been said that Stalin as a despot was much more the party's creation that its creator: he was the personification of a system that irresistibly sought to be personified. One has to ponder if the system being created under Putin is no different. There is no doubt that the system that came into being under Stalin's obviated politics, creating a truly anti-political system while Stalin maintained his personal popularity. Is history repeating itself? To be popular in Russia does one have to be anti-political? The Kremlin's current spin and the new conventional wisdom would seem to agree.