By Kirill Guskov
On September 24, 2011, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin « accepted aproposal » to run for president in March 2012, which means that he is very likely to be Russia’s next president. Since he has been a mainstay in high politics for twelve years – Boris Yeltsin appointed him as his Prime Minister in 1999 and he then served as President from 2000 to 2008 – some Russians and outside observers had expected current President Dmitry Medvedev to stand for office again, but Putin’s announcement means his longtime number two has given up.
When I heard the news, I suddenly felt sick. It is not because I am scared of Putin, but I’m devastated with the idea of potentially 12 more years of Putin. In 2024, I will be 34 years old, having spent the majority of my life living under one president. Many other of my fellow Russians share this sense of despair.
“I am not scared, but I feel hopeless,” said Tatyana Gusarova, a Russian language teacher. “It is like déjà vu. I lived under Brezhnev (the Soviet Union’s General Secretaryof the Central Committee of the Communist Party from 1964 to 1982) whoruled the Soviet Union for 18 years. He could hardly speak at the end of his reign. It was both funny and tragic. Our educational budget has recently been cut off. And [the government] is going to spend billions of rubles on military industrial complex. Is it modernization of our education? It seems to me they do not need educated people. I might change my job if he strengthens the regime and become a housekeeper because my country does not need me.”
Personally, I have thought about leaving Russia because I cannot tolerate its lack of democracy, enormous levels of corruption, and murders of journalists and human rights defenders. I want to write what I want to write, I want to say what I want to say. Yes, Russia is not the Soviet Union, I can always leave the country and drop a line in my blog, but that is not enough for me: I want a government accountable to the Russian people, appointed to power through free and completive elections, accountable to a real rule of law, subject to the separation of powers, and which allows freedom of speech. Hopefully, I am not alone.
“I don’t accept the regime that lies outrageously aimed at the suppression of personality, eternally. I feel only the urgency of freeing Russia from its government,” said Viktor Safronov, a student.
I can fight, but what if my struggle takes all my life, and I have got just one life? Can we ask people to be heroes?
Do the Russian people support Putin? His approval rating is about 50% ( 44% by WCIOM November 2011 and 61% by Levada Center (another poll conducted by the center has revealed that Putin’s approval rating fell to its historical lowest level- 35%) October/ November 2011), levels that would make any western leader jealous. After the Second Chechen war, the Kursk tragedy, the Beslan school siege, thebombings in Moscow, the financial crisis, enormous levels of corruption, police and government official abuse, he is still relatively popular.
Ruslan Shevchenko, a student, echoed this Russian ambivalence towards Putin. “I don’t feel a lot of extremely negative emotions against Putin while at the same time the need for political and economic reforms is obvious,” he said. “But I haven’t lost the hope that this necessity can be recognized at the top level and that some radical reforms could be easily implemented within the existing framework. I don’t feel pressure to leave Russia. Firstly, I haven’t really started achieving my planned goals. So I haven’t faced many obstacles so far. For me, the decision about leaving the country should be based on the personal experience and not on someone else’s opinion. Secondly, from a very practical point of view, the existing system has some loopholes which can be turned into your advantage.”
Although Russians have started to question his legitimacy (his approval rating has fallen from 80 % a few years ago), they do not see any real alternative to Putin. However, Putin will face challenges he did not face in 2000 or 2004 when he was very popular: the great dependence of the Russian economy on oil and gas revenues and the demographic crisis.
“[Russians] tolerated communism for 70 years,” said Peter Dunken, a senior lecturer in Contemporary Russian Politics and Society atUniversity College London, “ but if [Putin] is not able to take some very needed changes in the Russian economy, then his regime will come to an end, I think. The dangers are more coming from the attachment to the economy of oil and gas rather than any other dangers.”
The question of Putin’s eternity in politics is still debatable, but I believe that his days are numbered. He is only supported by half of the people due to high oil and gas price, but if the price goes down, he is doomed.