Saturday, January 19, 2019

Trust in Putin at Historic Low, Russians Talk about His ‘Fatal Mistakes,’ His Possible Exit from the Scene, and Its Consequences

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 19 – Only one Russia in three – 33.4 percent – trusts Putin, according to a new VTsIOM poll, his lowest rating ever ( and one that is prompting Russians to discuss his “fatal mistakes,” what his sudden departure from power might mean, and whether it would change the system or leave it largely in place.

            Russian commentators have been talking about the problem of “transition” to a post-Putin future for some time, just as backers of the regime have been considering how to ensure that the Kremlin leader remains in his post well beyond the end of his current term. But with the collapse of his ratings, these discussions have taken on a new urgency.

            One of the more interesting debates is over what has been Putin’s “fatal mistake,” the one that ensures his regime will not prove as long-lasting as his supporters hope. Many Russians now believe it was the annexation of Crimea which led to the new cold war and greater economic problems at home (

            But an increasing number, the same commentators say, point to Putin’s initial support for free market capitalism and his return to that everything else notwithstanding. That has created a class of wealthy people who are blocking the development of Russia in order to maintain their wealth and power.

            Depending at least in part on the outcome of this debate, Putin or his successors will move in very different directions, toward a new rapprochement with the West or in the direction of new isolation and a retreat from capitalism and democracy.
            These discussions have taken on new urgency not only because of the decline in Putin’s popularity but also because of reports, widely circulated in the Moscow media, that a man in Serbia planned to assassinate Putin during his visit to Belgrade. The plan was foiled, but Russian reports have prompted questions few have asked in public before (
            One of those who has done so is Anatoly Baranov, the editor-in-chief of the pro-communist Forum.MSK portal. He asks bluntly whether it would be good for Russia if Putin were to be killed and says that he doesn’t have an answer to that fateful question (
            How real the possible attack on Putin in Serbia in fact was is something that those beyond the intelligence services can’t know and even they can’t be sure, Baranov says. But it is always possible that some lone individual, seeking glory as was the case with the murderer of John Lennon, will succeed in killing his selected target.
            “There is also the possibility that people from his closest entourage could kill Putin,” as has happened with other rulers like Paul I or Sadat; and such actions could either lead to continuity if the new leaders believe that will help them to legitimize themselves or to radical change if that is what they assume is required.
            “It is senseless to guess,” Baranov says. “Would it be good if Putin were suddenly to be killed?” he asks. “I answer honestly: I don’t know. I do not feel any great love to him or the regime he has established but experience doesn’t’ allow me to think that all changes would be for the better.”
            Igor Eidman, a Russian sociologist and commentator for Deutsche Welle, however, has no doubts: When Putin leaves the scene, voluntarily or otherwise, his regime will collapse and do so with remarkable speed just as the Soviet Union collapsed despite expectations in only a few days (
            “Putin’s power rests on crude force and false propaganda,” he argues. “If one of its components fails or ceases to be effective, the regime could fall quite quickly. As people say, Russians take a long time to saddle up but they ride fast after they do.” Everything will depend on “subjective circumstances,” Eidman continues.
            These could arise from a major military defeat, an intensification of the economic crisis, or “simply the unexpected death of the dictator.”  Given how much the system depends on Putin, the situation “after his departure” will change a great deal and do so far more rapidly than many now expect. 
            Remember how rapidly things changed after the death of Stalin, Eidman advises; and remember how the comrades in arms of Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Andropov left the scene not very much after the death of their leaders. “As soon as they died, Perstroika began, and a new generation came to power.”
            “The Putin regime too to a significant degree rests on the personality of the autocrat, on Putin’s person. If he will leave suddenly his post or depart into another world, this will lead to a serious cataclysm within the political elite.” It could even lead to “a serious democratic transition,” far more rapid and radical than most imagine.

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