Storm clouds for Putin

Storm clouds for Putin

On the heels of last night's buoyant election news, I came across this article in the Financial Times. It is not good news for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

It has been less than five months since Russian voters re-elected Vladimir Putin with the highest share of the vote for any president since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But if that result indicated a ringing endorsement of Mr Putin’s policies, people appear to have changed their minds. A series of opinion polls published in the course of the past week suggest Russians are fed up with hating the west, disagree with the country’s direction and are ready to protest.

Many on the extreme left and right whine to those of us who are concerned about Putin's intentions: "Why can't we get along with Russia?" And I agree with them. I would love to have cordial relations with Russia. I'm much more for cooperation than confrontation.

The problem is that the current Russian leadership has stoked the fires of ethno-nationalism for a decade now as a means to attain and maintain power. Such a government can't be treated as a normal power in a liberal world order.

But, if this poll by independent pollster Levada is anything to go by, ordinary Russians are getting tired of this soi disant Orwellian state. Unlike the Chinese, Russians, by and large, have access to the same internet and information that those in the West do. They are able to get unfiltered news, and aren't exclusively reliant on state television. They know that for all his promises of reclaiming Russia's place in the sun, all that Putin has done is isolate the country.

The numbers make for squeaky bum time for Putin and his cabal. The percentage of people with warm feelings for the US rose from 21% to 43%. The percentage of people with negative feelings about the EU dropped from 55% to 38%. And 41% of respondents to the Levada poll would consider joining in protests over economic issues, up from 17%.

Ironically, one of the things which is fueling this rethink among Russians is the just completed World Cup. 

Putin intended it as a latter-day Berlin Olympics, showcasing that Russia was back. Russians saw it in a different light.

Hosting football’s World Cup may have played a role. Millions of Russians revelled in friendship with fans from all over the world, a surprise reprieve from the propaganda wars of the past four years.

Yes, Putin's attempt to show a strong, united Russia under his thumb backfired. The world went to Russia, and Russians saw that the world wasn't scary. Football fans celebrated with Russians, basking in the spirit of the game. Once the facade cracks open, it's hard to plaster it over again.

It seems that the appetite ordinary Russians have for reclaiming an imperial role is fast diminishing. They don't want to send their sons to fight in Ukraine or Syria. And the latest troubles for Putin began when his government bruited raising the pension age from 63 to 65. Considering the parlous life-expectancy in Russia, such a proposal was not going to be met with sanguinity. 

Putin reads the tea leaves, and his recent rhetoric has shifted from blood and soil to improving people's lives. But it may be too late. He has spent the past ten years trying to subvert the West, and selling his people that they were surrounded by enemies and had to stand united. Russians have seen no benefits from Putin's foreign policy. In fact, they've seen sanctions and loss of quality of life. And they're fed up. 

It would be one of those happy moments of historical convergence if Russians rise up against Putin at the same time that Americans rise up against his puppet in the White House. Were that to happen, then we could truly see a rapprochement between the two nations. One can only hope that Russians prefer holidaying in Ibiza to holding onto the Crimea.

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