Persian Gulf on the Moscow River


The main question for Russia's future is whether its people will countenance the transfer of his personal power to the political system he built.


Nathan Cox

Soon after Vladimir Putin more-or-less fully consolidated power in 2007, an astute observer of politics in that country predicted some of the main problems the Russian president would soon confront. Comparing his regime to a fascist state, Rutgers University’s Alexander Motyl said it was inherently unstable because cults of vigorous leaders can’t be sustained as they grow old and decrepit.

At the same time, he wrote, some segments of society — the young, educated and middle class — would begin refusing to submit to the humiliation his unconditional authority imposes.

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has been one of their most dogged enablers since he broke with Putin shortly after his rise in 2000. The former deputy prime minister once widely seen as Boris Yeltsin’s chosen successor has co-authored several reports about corruption under the man who eventually beat him out.

His latest, released on Tuesday, is a study of the populist president’s perks of office.

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Titled “Life of a Galley Slave,” after the deprecating description Putin gave of his job when he swore to step down in 2008, it details some of the benefits the authors say have ballooned during his tenure. Among them are 20 residences, including a palace near St. Petersburg that cost tens of millions of dollars to restore, 43 airplanes and fleets of luxury cars and yachts.

Using photographs of the president’s various wristwatches, the writers estimate them to be worth almost $700,000, six times his annual salary. His lifestyle, they conclude, can be compared to a “Persian Gulf monarch’s.”

As the yawning gap between the Soviet elite’s relative luxury and the lot of everybody else who used newspaper scraps for toilet paper shows, Russians aren’t unused to their leaders’ lavish lifestyles.

Nemtsov’s criticism shouldn’t faze Putin for other reasons. Although he no longer enjoys approval ratings of more than 80 percent, he spent much of his twelve years in office preparing for the time his popularity would wane. His firm grip on all important levers of authority as well as the vast energy industry makes his current position virtually unassailable.

But Putin is known to be hypersensitive to criticism: for all his power, his authority is brittle in the way of all similar regimes with no real popular mandate. He also surely knows about a recent poll that showed half of Russians are against his running for a fourth term in 2018.

If that number is accurate, and if the sentiment grows, last December’s mass protests may help convince him to try to hand over power while he believes he still can, which would provide the opposition with its next real opportunity.

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He may already be grooming the outspoken nationalist Dmitri Rogozin, recently promoted to a powerful position as deputy prime minister, for that role. If history is a good indicator, he’ll also put forward rivals.

The critical question for Russia’s future as Motyl posed it five years ago remains whether Putin’s political system will consolidate after he finally steps down by surviving the transfer of his personal power, which is critical for uniting competing political clans.

However expected it may have been, the brusque manner of his return to a third term prompted the first organized stirrings of those ordinary people who are tired of being humiliated. Reports such as Nemtsov’s are important for maintaining their support for the daily pushback against the Kremlin’s authoritarianism.

However, they will be no less crucial as a record the next time society is made to decide what kind of future it wants — even if the results of its voting will be fixed. Although it’s generally unwise to predict developments, that may come during the next election in 2018 — if Putin heeds the polls.