Jeremy Kinsman: Russia's Vladimir Putin, democrat or dictator?

President Vladimir Putin — soon to be Russia's Olympic host — began his political career as a helpful fixer and a reluctant politician. But he has changed into something altogether different, Jeremy Kinsman, Canada's former ambassador to Russia, writes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin began his political career as a helpful fixer and a reluctant politician, but he has changed into something altogether different, Jeremy Kinsman, Canada's former ambassador to Russia, writes. (Sergei Karpukhin/Associated Press)

There are good reasons democratic republics place term limits on their leaders.

Among the most important is the dysfunction affecting those who simply stay in office too long, in the process losing connection to the mood of change that they rode into office with in the first place.

For these types of leaders, power becomes top down, and self-perpetuation becomes the motif. They are the ones who tend to think they know it all and instead of taking genuine advice they wallow in admiration from cronies and docile hired help.

Road to the Olympics

CBC is the official Canadian broadcaster for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Russia. This week, begins indepth coverage looking at preparations for the Games and life in Russia today. will have full coverage leading up to Olympics, which begin on Feb. 7, 2014.

Take the example of Russia today.

President Vladimir Putin, who will be welcoming the world to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in a year's time, is a very talented and competent man. But he has been in office too long and is no longer the democrat he once pretended to be.

He sneers at those who question his rule and abhors competition. He pursues, as "foreign puppets," those demonstrators who dare to imagine a "Russia without Putin," as their slogans would have it.

He thinks he is Russia. He reeks of personal entitlement, including to the top office in the land.

In power, Putin has changed from the man I met in St. Petersburg in 1995. Then deputy mayor, he was modest, self-effacing, an effective problem-solver, including on behalf of the Canadian Embassy.

Then he had an air of personal austerity that reflected his modest upbringing in a communalka, a flat shared by several working families.

He didn't hide his past as a KGB officer in East Germany, but he gave the impression that he had turned the page to identify with the reform movement that was then roiling Russian society.

As time went by, his efficiency in tackling tough assignments, and his apparent lack of ego, won the notice of the Yeltsin family when the ailing Boris Nikolayevich could no longer carry on as president.

When Putin fast-stepped into the presidency in 2000, Russian voters embraced the novelty of a sober, in-shape, clearly competent, and unusually candid successor to the rambling Yeltsin. Few paid attention to Putin's initial reluctance to be a candidate.

"I don't like elections," he said at the time. Prophetic words, even if he did laud the country's recent democratic freedoms in his inaugural speech.

Stopped the chaos

Putin came to office on the heels of extended disappointment over the chaos caused by post-Soviet Union economic and social upheaval that was unprecedented in its scale.

Radical economic reforms pushed by smug, uncomprehending Westerners were poorly organized and financed, and the economy was soon in shambles.

The effect of what was called "too much shock, not enough therapy," between 1990 and 1998 drove Russian GDP down by 42 per cent.

By contrast, in Putin's first incarnation, from 1999 through 2008, GDP increased by 140 per cent, helping enshrine his image as a great stabilizer.

During that period, he confronted terrorist outrages (which, conspiracy theories to the contrary, he did not foment) and showed who was boss.

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His popularity soared.

Having lived through a "decade of shame and humiliation," as it was being called, the public rallied to his self-confident assertiveness.

Russians had begun to feel underappreciated for having voluntarily ended the Cold War and peacefully evacuated a military empire, all at great cost, while NATO blithely expanded eastward.

Many Russians concluded with Putin that the West's urging of more democracy on Russia was actually aimed at weakening them further. In the process, Russian democrats became discredited, blamed for bungled reform.

Picking up on the mood, Putin moved to subtract from Russia's newly won democracy.

But the relish with which he concentrated power in his own hands seemed to come from his true autocratic nature.

The Putin bargain

At first, Russians went along with it. They were OK with a spell of calming down, to enjoy the kind of prosperity and personal freedoms they had not known for generations of Communist rule.

If the price to pay so as not to fear the knock on the door at 4 a.m.. was to avoid political competition with the man in power, that was, for most, a pretty good deal compared to what they knew before.

But what Putin hasn't understood is that this deal had a limited shelf life.

He still fails to notice that during these past 10 years or so, Russians developed a noticeable competence for civic consciousness and responsibility.

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Many in Moscow described the experience to me recently as "growing up." So they bristled when Putin continued to treat them as political infants and these tensions came to a head over his return to the presidency in May 2012.

In 2008, obeying the constitution, Putin stepped down after two consecutive terms. He parked his junior sidekick Dmitry Medvedev in the job while he himself took most of the power to the prime minister's office.

Urban middle-class Russians presumed Medvedev was only playing Robin to Putin's Batman in this period, but they also welcomed the fact that Medvedev was modern and deferential to civil society.

That Putin would take the job back was not unexpected, and it was legal.

But the way he sprang the news offhandedly in a September 2011 interview, with an aside that it had all been fixed between the two a year before, made Russians feel duped. Particularly when Putin made it evident he didn't care how they felt.

Democrat or autocrat?

Though street protests rocked the big cities — awakened citizens had wanted to make their mark in the December parliamentary elections only to see their votes thrown out with the trash of a childishly fixed election  —  Putin still won the presidential election in March. (Albeit with a much reduced majority from his earlier victories and against a basically phoney field.)

The first question asked was: Which guy would show up for work, the democrat or the autocrat?

Pussy Riot members Yekaterina Samutsevich, left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, who chanted against President Vladimir Putin from a pulpit inside Russia's largest cathedral, sit behind bars at a courtroom in Moscow on July 20, 2012. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

The jury on that is now in. Post-election, the Kremlin has bashed peaceful dissenters and gone out of its way to suffocate the country's nascent civic society.

The measure of the man goes beyond the jailing of the punk-feminist group Pussy Riot for its intemperate art.

It can also be seen in the Putin attitude towards the roughly 2,000 advocacy groups in Russia, whose members now face prison if there is any indication they receive any kind of support from abroad.

Once a unifying figure for Russians struggling with convulsive change, Putin is now a divisive figure who represses change.

Only 23 per cent have a "positive view of the ruling team," a poll from the independent Levada Centre found in the spring of 2012.

Phoney stunts

Russians often have a problem seeing how they look to others.

While many now travel freely to the West, Putin almost never has. He wouldn't grasp how phoney stunts like catering to actor Gerard Depardieu's aversion to paying French taxes, or his odious law forbidding adoptions of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens, look from abroad.

This ought to be a time when a matured and revived Russia would partner with its modern counterparts, and play an influential international role, more positive than simply being a resentful spoiler to anything the U.S. proposes.

French actor Gerard Depardieu, left, greets Russian President Vladimir Putin after his arrival on Jan. 5, 2013, at the president's residence in Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics. (RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service/Associated Press)

Instead, all we seem to be seeing from Putin is his pitch to retro-nationalism and to fake delusions of historical grandeur.

This line might have worked in the totalitarian society of old.

But today's partly free Russians are educated and tech-savvy like few other societies, with more cellphones than citizens, and widespread, unimpeded internet connection.

They are more than aware that Western economies are not in such great shape that they can pretend to have great lessons to give. And in any case, it is obvious that what happens in Russia depends on Russians themselves.

Russians also now know that democracy takes time to build. But they also realize that its successful construction needs openness, accountability and freedom to dissent and compete.

They do see these values in the West, and unlike their president, they increasingly expect them to be their norms as well.