Vladimir Putin became President of Russia on December 31, 1999. Since then, he has served two terms (from 2000-2008) and, due to term limits, became Prime Minister from 2008-2012. He is now serving his third term as President. He says that he does not know if he will run again in 2018, but, let’s face it, he probably will. And he will undoubtedly win, for despite the almost 15 years that Mr. Putin has had in office, there has never been an opponent strong or organized enough to beat him. Put simply, Russia can either be seen as an oligarchy run by a handful of elites who answer to Putin, or simply as a dictatorship in which we can expect Mr. Putin to stay in office for decades, like his peers Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong Il, and Saddam Hussein.
But who is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin? Born in 1952 to a modest family, Mr. Putin grew up in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad. After a brief time at law school, he signed up with the KGB, the Soviet Union’s infamous intelligence agency, in which he served for sixteen years. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin worked in St. Petersburg for Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, where he acted as an adviser on both political and financial matters. But Mr. Putin was not satisfied with local politics. Following Mr. Sobchak’s removal from office, Putin took up with the central government and became a top advisor to Boris Yeltsin, the first President of Russia. Then, following Mr. Yeltsin’s unpopular tenure, Putin succeeded him.
Despite President Putin’s Frank Underwood-style rise to power, Mr. Putin's private life has often proved to be quite colorful. In his spare time, you can find the president riding horses while shirtless, lounging in one of his twenty houses, singing jazz with Kevin Costner, playing piano, or enjoying his favorite pastime: judo. But being a political tyrant is only Putin’s day job—he has an estimated $40 billion in personal assets, given, among other investments, his 3.5% stake in oil conglomerate Gazprom, 37% stake in oil conglomerate Surgutneftegaz, and 50% in the oil-trading company Gunvor. He maintains four yachts, fifty-eight aircrafts, and twenty homes. And his 8 million square-foot, $950 million residence on the coast of the Black Sea is reminiscent of Versailles or El Escorial, not to mention a house fit for a czar.
Mr. Putin demonstrates that if you want to run Russia, you need more than intelligence—you need guts. This guy gives a new meaning to corruption. His rise to power would not have been possible had he not cultivated connections with elite Russian businessmen, worked with the Mafia, participated in election fraud, handled bribes, seized companies, imprisoned opponents, and in all likelihood, participated in calculated murders (Putin’s Kleptocracy). Many of his most outspoken critics have been jailed or killed. It is no wonder that Russia ranks 136th on Transparency International’s list of the 175 most corrupt nations. Mr. Putin has also extended the president’s time in office to six years from four, despite widespread complaints and findings that the elections in which Mr. Putin “won” were interfered with in order to guarantee his victory (Putin’s Kleptocracy). As Stalin once said, “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything”.
Of particular significance to Mr. Putin and his power structure is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin critic who served ten years in prison for rubbing the President the wrong way. During the late 1990s, Khodorkovsky was Russia’s version of Warren Buffet. He headed an oil conglomerate named Yuoks, took advantage of President Yeltsin’s “radical market reforms” by obtaining swaths of oil fields and, at one point, became the richest man in Russia with a net worth of $15 billion (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/12/remote-control-2 ). He took what he could and became an opportunist amidst an economy in transition. In 2003, at a business meeting with Mr. Putin, Mr. Khodorkovsky drew attention to one of the President’s corrupt business dealings, only to be arrested on fraud and tax evasion charges soon afterwards. Mr. Khodorkovsky’s surprise release and exile in December 2013 was likely influenced by increased global media attention on Russia due to the Sochi Olympics. Mr. Khodorkovsky is now a democratic champion of sorts, one who has even expressed interest in succeeding his archenemy: “It wouldn’t be interesting for me to be President of the country when the country is developing normally.
But if the issue becomes that the country needs to overcome a crisis and undergo constitutional reforms, the main aspect of which is the redistribution of Presidential power to the courts, parliament, and civil society, that part of the job I would be willing to do. Still, Mr. Khodorkovsky is no enlightened philosopher. He is a prime example of one of the oligarchs, someone who took advantage of the country when he could, but somehow wound up as the chief opponent of the most powerful man in Russia.
Although fewer in number than his enemies, President Putin’s friends are undeniably loyal. Aside from his troupe of business oligarchs, he demands loyalty from his politicians, most notably former President and current Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, who was once remarked to “play Robin to Putin’s Batman”. Medvedev is essentially Putin’s puppet. He served as President from 2008-2012, only to cede the presidency back to Putin who, in 2012, could legally be president again. Whether or not the two will play the game of back and forth until one of them is dead is uncertain, but it is apparent that Putin will not be leaving the political landscape anytime soon.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian people seem satisfied with their government as a kleptocracy, at least according to the polls. Mr. Medvedev won 70% of the vote in 2008; Mr. Putin won 63% in 2012 (Putin’s Kleptocracy). But polls can be misleading, even fraudulent. More than 1,000 were arrested in post-election protests, signaling an undercurrent of constituent resistance. Some Russians are furious. The arrest of 3 members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot in March of 2012 also caused political unrest, signifying the beginning of a new pro-LGBTQ movement in Russia. Yet homophobia is a deep-rooted Russian sentiment. Most Russians hold traditional, religious values and will support a leader who maintains that status quo.
From an objective standpoint (and sanctions and oil price drops aside), President Putin has done good things for Russia. Russian GDP per capita grew from $2,400 in 2000 to $12,000 in 2014. Under his leadership, the percentage of citizens living in poverty level has dropped from 40% to 11%. Unemployment has been reduced from 55% in 1999 to 15% in 2013. The inflation rate has decreased from 36% in 1999 to 6.6% in 2013. Most importantly, the Russian middle class has swelled from 11% to 48% under Mr. Putin’s long reign. From 1991-1996, every Russian household acquired a new television set and a new washing machine.
Indeed, on the environmental front, Mr. Putin even initiated a program to save the Amur tiger from extinction. Despite an increase in capital flight as well as income inequality, the Russian standard of living has increased dramatically since the end of the Cold War. During the 1990s, no one wanted to touch the ruble. Now it’s available in London currency kiosks.
The Russians are a proud people, and, following the humiliating fall of the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin has revitalized Russia, won the confidence of at least some people, and once again made Russia a global power. Rather, Putin has been able to take Russia into the 21st century as a global power. He may be a bully, and perhaps even a murderer. So do Mr. Putin’s ends justify his means? It depends which Russian you ask.
Regardless, the future of Russia is problematic. The recent activity in Ukraine—specifically, Russia’s annexation of Crimea—symbolizes Mr. Putin’s lust for power and territory. A greater point of concern, however, is the Arctic. Over the last few years, Russia has mobilized its military to initiate practice war practice games in the north, intimidating the other Arctic-bordering nations—Canada, US, Norway, and Denmark. With the melting of the ice caps due to climate change, new trade routes have been opened up and, more importantly, new areas to drill for fossil fuels. As evidenced by the cohesion between Russian fuel companies and Russian politics, fossil fuels is an essential Russian industry. In 2008, explorer Artur Chilingarov planted a Russian flag at the North Pole in an attempt to claim the Arctic for Russia. The Arctic is estimated to hold 1/3rd of the world’s oil and gas reserves, making it a place of contention. But this is not the Age of Exploration. How this dispute unfolds will shape the future of Russian foreign relations.
Is Mr. Putin a good leader simply because Russia needed one? Could some other ex-KGB official have done an equally sound job without the bribery, kleptocracy, and palaces? Or do the ends justify the means? Are President Putin’s corruption and crimes the cost of upgrading a withering communist union into a modern “democratic” federation? When we do not consider Mr. Putin, and look solely at the statistics, Russia has flourished economically. But when we look closer we see the price paid: reduction of political freedoms and increasingly frayed relations with the West. Only time will tell if these sacrifices will make him another legendary Russian ruler, akin to Stalin or Lenin, or another Gorbachev simply managing Russia’s decline.
- Kyle Sims