What happens in Putin’s pretend democracy when things don’t go his way?
Well, he imprisons his political opponents, then threatens them with violence, beats up protestors, lies about his secret agents caught dishing out Novichok and sends 300,000 troops on war games just to let us all know he wants to be taken seriously.
1. Political Opponents.
Russia is a sort of pretend democracy, but actually Putin has manipulated the rules and changed the Constitution to ensure that he will have been president from 2000 until 2024 (except for a spell when he was Prime Minister and someone whose name no one remembers was a kind of puppet president for the sake of appearance). His main presidential opponent is Alexei Navalny who was arrested three times in 2017 alone – the principal purpose being to ensure that he wasn’t eligible to stand against Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Navalny is, yet again, in prison now. This week, Victor Zolotov, Putin’s Chief of National Guard elevated the quality of political debate in Russia to a new high level when he challenged Navalny to a duel.
“I simply challenge you to a fight,” he said, “and I promise to make nice juicy mincemeat of you in a few minutes.”
See his wonderfully bizarre rant on YouTube here.
Until recently Putin has enjoyed stunning popularity at home. In polls conducted by Gallup in 2016, 81% of Russians approved of Putin’s presidency and 87% approved of his handling of foreign policy.
But that’s all gone now. Putin’s popularity ratings have plunged on the back of deeply resented new retirement age policies. Originally Putin announced that the male retirement age would rise from 60 to 65 and 55 to 63 for women but this dropped his popularity to a five-year-low. Suddenly, only 54% of Russians approved of him and would vote for him in an election. And this was borne out in his party’s poor showing in Russia’s regional elections this month; the level of public trust in Putin has now fallen from a high of 70% after the annexation of Crimea to just 37% now. Whoah! That’s almost like a normal, properly elected leader of a real democracy! To Western eyes, these reforms may not look too draconian, but you’ve got to bear in mind that life expectancy is very low in Russia – about 66.5 years for men, so on average they would expect to get about 18 months of golf or fishing or horse riding or generally just feeling like shit and very old indeed between retirement and death, which hardly seems worth the bother.
For a while, Putin looked spooked. He made very public concessions – the retirement age for women will be 60 not 63, and mothers of 3 or more children will be allowed to retire earlier; men will still retire at 65, so many won’t live long enough to enjoy a single day of it. So those concessions are not enough. People, many thousands of them, have been out demonstrating against them – and against Putin. In Moscow, about 2,500 people ignored police warnings to disperse. They chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “No increase in the pension age!” 800 people across Russia have been detained so far. Sure, these are still small numbers, but 80% of Russians are against Putin’s plans.
As his approval ratings fall, we get a glimpse of how Russia’s pretend democracy will really work when Putin lacks popular support.
3. GRU Secret Agents were innocent civilians who just happened to be in Salisbury for a day without any other engagements.
Mr Putin said on Wednesday: “We of course checked who these people are. We know who they are, we found them.” (No, actually, you didn’t Mr Putin. British security services did.)
“Well, I hope they will come out themselves and speak about themselves. It will be better for everyone.” (But if you ‘found them’ surely you can ask them to ‘come out’ or are you saying that you found them but have carelessly lost them again?)
“There’s nothing particularly even criminal about it, I assure you.” (Ah well, Mr Putin assures us that there’s nothing criminal about it, so that’s OK then.)
4. War Games
On Tuesday this week, Mr Putin gave himself a break from ordinary violence against his own people by deploying 300,000 soldiers, 36,000 vehicles, 1000 aircraft and 80 ships in the biggest ever war games exercise with his new best friend, Chinese leader for life, Xi Ping.
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