To the surprise of no one, Czar Vladimir Putin won the election last Sunday as Russian president for the next six years.
He said even before the vote that he would seek re-election in 2018. That means he is already indispensable, a Maximum Leader for life. And he’s just 59.
Many cases of vote fraud turned up in the December parliamentary elections. Demonstrators called Putin a thief.
Fraud again raised its ugly head in the Sunday vote. One precinct reported 1,482 Putin votes in a registration of just 1,389.
Anti-Putin protests reverberated in Moscow on Monday. But none of that matters: the czar rules. His henchmen count the votes.
Alexei Navalny, a blogger and enraged foe of Putin, has become the star of Russia’s political awakening.
He says it’s time to hold regular protests and establish a permanent encampment in downtown Moscow. He even suggests the possibility of nationwide strikes.
The Occupy movement has reached Moscow!
American journalists describe Navalny as “the charismatic, fresh face of the opposition.” His anti-corruption and whistleblowing website has an enormous following.
The Internet, with its easy availability and swift give-and-take, gives him a mighty platform. The New York Times credits his Twitter feed alone with 135,750 devotees.
But Putin has enormous power. He controls the media. He is constantly on TV.
When Navalny appeared briefly on a popular TV talk show, the government promptly booted him off.
Putin’s dictatorship is harsh. Navalny is smeared as a CIA agent and a Hitler-like nationalist. But worse, he gets jailed for rebelling.
In a speech smuggled out of jail, Navalny called Putin’s party, United Russia, “the party of swindlers and thieves.”
Putin abolishes regional elections for governor, gets juries to convict people on trumped up fraud charges, limits participation by political parties, bars creditable presidential candidates from running and bans Duma elections.
Putin figuratively rubs his hands with glee while numerous journalists investigating corruption are murdered. Or they are beaten. No wonder the only recourse for most Russian reporters is to become flacks.
Even when Dmitri Medvedev was president everyone knew he was a figurehead. The real boss was Prime Minister Putin.
Intellectuals complain, as the Times phrases it, of “the stagnation, corruption and the inertia that are the hallmarks of Putin’s rule.” But like the tiny Left in America, Russian intellectuals are easily ignored.
They can do nothing when Medvedev appoints former KGB officers and Putin loyalists to top jobs. They can do nothing when the Kremlin sends foes to jail or forces them into exile.
As is often the case with a powerful figure, Putin had an éminence grise doing his dirty work: Vladislav Surkov. He was, according to an article in the London Review of Books, “Putin’s Rasputin.”
Surkov was the puppet master who privatized the Russian political system. He maintained the democratic façade but little real democracy. He was the behind-the-scenes political manipulator, Kremlin strategist and man who often inspired fear.
But Surkov finally drew so many complaints from the Russian public that even Putin had to shuffle him from power.
The harshest view of Putin comes from Masha Gessen in a book, “The Man Without a Face.” A Wall Street Journal book reviewer, Paul Starobin, writes:
“Behind the image of a bare-chested, horseback-riding, scuba-diving national superhero is an unremittingly malevolent figure.
“Her Putin is ‘the godfather of a mafia clan ruling the country’ who parcels out Russia’s juiciest economic assets to his cronies and presides over the murder of his political opponents.
“He is also a mediocrity: ‘a small, vengeful man, a ‘thug,’ puffed up by Soviet-style propaganda artists into a savior of the Motherland.”
Surkov used the euphemisms “managed democracy” or “sovereign democracy.” But everyone knows Putin reigns with an iron fist.
The last democrat to rule Russia was Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago.
His perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness) meant freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion. He favored nearly everything Putin opposes.
Gorbachev offered the world “socialism with a human face.” Putin offers czarism with a malignant face.
Putin, a former KGB colonel, is a KGB colonel in the guise of president. Once a KGB agent always a KGB agent.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.