The Disappearing Act
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin disappeared from the public eye for almost two weeks. A meeting with the Head of the Republic of Karelia, purported to have taken place on March 11, six days after his so-called disappearance, was found to have actually occurred on March 4. He also reportedly missed an annual meeting with senior officers of the Federal Security Service, or the FSB, which he headed in the years leading up to his presidency. Understandably, given the (to put it mildly) tense situation in Russia and Ukraine, Western media was whipped into a frenzy and rumors swirled, from illness to the birth of illegitimate children to his death. “#PutinIsDead” began making the rounds on Twitter. All the speculation was accompanied by persistent denials by Dmitry Peskov, the presidential spokesperson, and the Kremlin, that all was well with the president, although they failed to provide an adequate explanation for his “disappearance.”
Given a similar situation late last year when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vanished from public view for over a month, and subsequent unannounced meetings of his top generals with South Korean officials, another theory was thrown around, and slightly more sinister: a coup had taken place. If the answer was as simple as the flu, why was it being denied? Why was there so much misinformation being distributed by the Kremlin? A comment by former Putin aide Andrey Illarionov insinuated that he had been overthrown. And it did seem plausible, at least to Western audiences, with Russia’s economy in shambles, the ruble having declined by around fifty percent to the dollar, and the perception of growing unrest in Russia.
However, what many of us misunderstand is Mr. Putin’s actions have not been playing to the West – they were meant for his large base of support in Russia, one that is motivated and excited by Mr. Putin’s fervent nationalism. By catering to these feelings, his popularity has soared, especially after the annexation of Crimea last year. Opinion polls show almost three-quarters of the country would vote for Mr. Putin in the 2018 elections, which would make it his fourth term overall, and his second six-year term as president. With widespread public support for his policies, as well as close ties with Russia’s oligarchs who would do well to stay on Putin’s good side despite growing concerns about Western sanctions, Putin has built an infrastructure that has nearly insulated him from coups and political rivals.
This does not mean there is no opposition in Russia – indeed, there is – but with security forces cracking down on virtually any dissent, a ubiquitous state-controlled media, the fear or unwillingness to get involved in political issues, and the genuine support that many have for their president, this means that this opposition still has a long way to go. With the opposition in disarray, especially after the tragic murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, their chances of unseating Mr. Putin look increasingly bleak.
Which is why the fear (or hope) of a coup having taken place in the Kremlin was largely unfounded. Perhaps we can simply take solace in the fact that the disappearance might have just been due to a botox treatment.
- Kanak Gokarn