The Russia of an eternal Putin | International

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After a visual sweep of the Duma seats, Viacheslav Volodin, the Speaker of the Lower House, was blunt: “With the challenges and threats that exist in the world today, our advantages are not oil and gas which, as is You can see, they can lower the price ”, he stressed with a serious gesture from the gallery of the room. And he asserted: “Our advantage is (Vladimir) Putin. And we must defend it ”. The message from the Kremlin is crystal clear: in the face of imbalances and uncertainty, more Vladimir Putin. It is the mantra that has been growing and permeating in Russia for years; and it is fired in the means of the orbit of the Government before any shock. It is also the argument that the Russian leader exploited last Tuesday, when he announced that he supports a change in the Russian Constitution that would allow him to return to the presidency, despite the fact that current law dictates that he should leave his chair at the end of this term, in 2024.

For Natalia Klímova, who remembers the years when her pantry only had black bread and the shops were empty, the idea that Putin remains at the helm of Russia comforts her. "There has been no better president," he says in front of the huge statue of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, which gives its name to the square in the center of Tula, a city of about 550,000 inhabitants about 200 kilometers south of Moscow. Russians like Klímova, a 70-year-old pensioner, and her friend Valeria Yegórova, who belong to a generation that lived through the poverty, chaos and crime of the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR, Putin represents stability. “Those who had money in their accounts lost everything. His savings were reduced to nothing. Was a shock. The uncertainty was immense. We suffered a lot, ”says Yegórova, 67. At that time she was working as a secretary. He went months without receiving his salary. And like her, thousands.

And in a tumultuous time, fueled even more by the oil price war and the coronavirus pandemic, the Russian leader has relied on that argument to endorse a path that would allow him to perpetuate himself in power. A surprise move – setting his presidential counter to zero to circumvent legal limitations – but whose goal analysts had long anticipated.

With two decades – between his years as president and prime minister – at the helm, the former KGB agent, who brought a washing machine back from his mission in West Germany, has been designing a country that suffers from a weak institutional architecture and dependent, erected in a pyramidal structure towards the so-called “vertical of power” (the presidency), which fosters the cult of the leader's image and personality. The Kremlin frequently distributes images of Putin playing hockey, of the president bare-chested after hunting, of the leader being flattered by a young teacher's marriage proposal in a town famous since Soviet times for its single crop. The Russia of an eternal Putin. If he potentially served two more terms, the president would overtake dictator Iosif Stalin and almost overtake Catherine the Great. He would be 83 years old. And more than three decades in power.

Tula, a tricentennial artery of the defense industry, has also become one of the bastions of Putinism in recent years. The Russian leader, who achieved a historic majority of 77% in elections two years ago, swept the region (1.4 million inhabitants) led by the man who was his security chief for years. Alexei Diumin, who later rose to the leadership of military intelligence and played a leading role in the annexation of the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. With a meteoric career in the institutions of the State, he came to sound like a successor when many analysts thought that he was "making the provinces" to take the great leap; can still.

Tula and the region languished like other cities far from the most peripheral focus of Moscow, Saint Petersburg or Yekaterinburg, says Liudmila Mitiaeva, 27. “Many places were practically a garbage dump, most young people did not want to stay. Now it has flourished, ”says the accountant, finishing a cigarette. Mitiaeva, like almost 80% of the inhabitants of Tula, voted for Putin. And "most likely" I would vote for him again. “It is the Russian mentality, we vote for who we already have, for stability. And if everything continues as it is now, let it stay ", abounds the young blonde on the pedestrian boulevard, flanked by huge houses; many, scaffold from top to bottom. Downtown Tula, which has renovated its nearly half-century reddish Kremlin and converted many of the old downtown factories into galleries, concert halls and exhibitions, is undergoing a refurbishment. Although slightly off-center, the cosmetic changes are not as visible.

Tourism development in a bastion of Putinism

One of the goals is to make Tula an attractive tourist spot, explains Sergey Sudnitsyn, head of the regional executive committee of the All-Russian Popular Front, a nationalist organization founded in 2011 by Putin. “In the last ten years, the region has transformed a lot, especially in terms of innovation and development; also in infrastructures. Some roads, for example, have been completely renovated ”, assures the regional deputy for United Russia, the government party, who recites the great reforms of Tula, its new bus line, the remodeling of historical elements such as the farm-museum Yásnaya Polyána, which was the last residence of the writer Leo Tolstoi, or the Polénovo museum-estate of the famous artist, which is currently being rebuilt. "There is serious progress, which is reflected in the level of support for the authorities," says the deputy, who believes that Tula can serve as a good example of development and diversification to other regions of Russia.

Sudnitsyn, which claims that the amendment that opens the door for Putin to stay in power is "good news," also points to the point of having a governor like Diumin in Tula. "His great ability to do lobby for the interests of the region it has meant a lot. It is a great advantage for us when the governor is known and has ties to certain circles ”, recognizes the politician on the walk along the banks of the Upa river, the pride of the city, which holds the title of heroine city, for its role in World War II (or Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia). In the careful walk, inaugurated in 2018, several young people take photos to upload to Instagram or videos for TikTok. A little further on, a fisherman unsheathes his rod. On Friday afternoons or on weekends, says Sudnitsyn, there is no room for a pin.

Sergei Krétov, an opponent of the liberal Parnas party, led by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, does not perceive the same. He believes that the changes in the region are a facade. "Tula is the perfect symbol of Russia, it is given a coat of paint and the cracks are still there," he says in a new cafe in town, with a good assortment of organic milk. The young man, 30, assures that the investments are in exchange for Tula hosting a large landfill that will also end up receiving the garbage from the capital, one of the biggest problems in the entire Moscow province, with almost 12 million inhabitants . Kretov acknowledges that the region has changed, but attributes it to the fact that it has become a "business arena" for the governor and other players in the orbit of the Russian president.

This is also defended by Karen Dawisha, who in Putin's kleptocracy, argues that 110 people control 35% of Russia's assets, one of the highest levels of wealth inequality in the world. And many of the men who worked with Putin in the KGB or were members of his team in his years in the St. Petersburg Administration have built meteoric careers in business that, despite having no prior experience, have earned them enormous riches, Dawisha points out.

Krétov, who owns a small business and believes that Russia's changes and stability are due "to the normal development of the country and not to Putin's magic hand", points out the repression suffered by the opposition. On Thursday, in Lenin Square, almost at the same time as the daily walk of pensioners Klímova and Yegórova, the police arrested two young people for protesting against the reform of the Constitution. This Saturday, the police arrested almost 50 in Moscow. In recent times, the Kremlin has worked to silence any dissonant voice, repress the protest and try to reduce the social fabric with measures to restrict associations and hinder political representation; also to try to control the internet.

Putin, even after two decades in power, consistently enjoys approval ratings unthinkable for the leaders of Western countries. Although their numbers are falling to pre-crime levels, which spurred Russian patriotism. Probably because the economic sanctions imposed by the West and the fluctuation in the price of hydrocarbons are taking a toll on the pockets of Russians, whose real income has fallen. With all those wickers, but also with the perspective that there is no unified opposition (in fact, it does not have parliamentary representation at the state level), the citizen consultation on the reform of the Constitution – which is studying the Constitutional Constitution since this Saturday – is scheduled for the April 22 will also become a "referendum on Putin", considers the political scientist Alexéi Makarkin, deputy director of the think tank independent Center for Political Technologies. Makarkin has no doubt that the public will support the amendments, which also include elements such as that pensions must rise according to the standard of living or that the minimum wage cannot be lower than the poverty line. One more decade with Putin at the helm (four years left, plus another hypothetical six) would leave a Russia even further away from the West and European values, he argues.

The Russia that emerges after the constitutional changes is a country even more detached from liberal values, more conservative and more nationalistic. The amendments include "faith in God", restrict marriage to the union between a man and a woman, indicate that Russia is "heir to the USSR", introduce allusions to the Russians as "the backbone people of the State" and mention the importance of patriotic education. A Constitution with which Putin reaffirms his goal of being the "guardian of the Russian soul."

Or what he considers the "Russian soul", remarks Irina Rócheva. "Putin is not a person, he is a system," he asserts in the small independent bookstore he runs in downtown Tula. The 37-year-old political scientist, who made her thesis on the so-called “controlled democracy”, compares the Government of Russia with a “criminal regime”, dominated by intelligence services and officials related to state security (the so-called siloviki) , who control the speech and who have "toiled" to rewrite history to present only Russia as a victorious and proud power, he says.

The change, says Rócheva, who has an eight-year-old daughter, whom he has schooled in a school specialized in music education, may be in the younger generations; in the hands of the nearly 31 million people under 25 years of age. People who have not met another leader other than Putin. For many of them there is not. Others, who are informed through independent media, on Telegram channels or on YouTube to circumvent the propaganda of the media from the orbit of the Kremlin, begin to think that it could be among them. Although this transition from Putin to Putin, notes the bookseller Rócheva, can lengthen it. Or cause the flame to "wake up" everything.

"Historical analyzes tell us that in autocratic states, staying in power is a rule and resigning is an exception," says Ekaterina Schulmann, a professor at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (Ranepa). Even so, there is a lot of time ahead to try to guess what will happen between now and 2024, says the political scientist. "The important thing is that Putin has created options for himself and has preserved a state of uncertainty for the elites who were quickly becoming familiar with the idea of ​​his departure," says Schulmann.

In addition to the situation derived from the coronavirus pandemic, which could even lead to the postponement of the vote on the constitutional reform in April, the expert points out, there are other factors that can shape the future of Putin's Russia and that can lead to the opposition options to rearm. In the elections of some regions, this fall, or in the parliamentary elections of next year, as the political scientist points out, the massive protests could be repeated over the rejection of opposition candidates and against elections that they consider fraudulent that heated up the summer of last year in Moscow . All amid the free fall in the popularity ratings of the government party, United Russia, and still unable to predict the economic and social effects of the oil price war and the coronavirus pandemic.

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