Despite no clarity on who was behind the attacks, Putin, like many others rulers placed in similar situations, whipped up mass frenzy around the “terror threat” to consolidate his grip on the Russian voters. A man who had opposed the invasion of Iraq by the US without UN approval had no qualms in sending the army to Georgia without consulting the international body.
In March 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea following widespread unrest in southern and eastern Ukraine where the majority Russian-speaking population was up in arms against the Ukrainian dominated government in Kiev, the Western media saw in it Putin’s push to restore Russian pride and not regard for International law.
Muzzling free speech and eliminating dissident journalists, Putin’s administration largely succeeded in keeping the public in the dark about the real cost of the Crimean war. In the Russian nationalist imagination, still nostalgic for the country’s lost superpower status, Putin had become a hero.
The oligarchs who helped Putin, hoping he would be their best bet after Yelstin, were made to bite the dust once his real motives became more apparent. He brooked no dissent and gave no quarter to those who could challenge his authority.
“The oligarchs were suspected to have an agenda to influence the domestic policy which the Kremlin does not tolerate. Parallels were drawn with the abuse of power in the Soviet era, when it was fraught with danger to challenge the communist party,” writes Ericson. The government takeover of many firms owned by the oligarchs antagonised foreign investors but boosted Putin’s popularity, helped in no small measure by soaring international prices of crude oil that led to a boom in the Russian economy.
In 2008, Putin laid bare the fragility of Russia’s democratic system when he circumvented the constitutional barrier for a third term as President by appointing his man Friday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, as President for four years. After becoming President again in 2012, Putin extended the term of his office from four to six years. He has already hinted that he will run for President the next time, too.
Putin’s proclivity to see threats everywhere and the ruthlessness of his determination to weed out every threat, real, potential or imagined, has been key to the persistence of his rule. He has dominated Russian politics for 15 years and counting. He might well break the record set by Joseph Stalin (30 years) and Leonid Brezhnev (18 years).
“If people hurt him… he reacted immediately, like a cat… he would fight like a cat — suddenly — with him arms and legs and teeth,” Ben Judah quotes Putin’s teacher Vera Gurevich to explain his political character. There are enough examples from his 15 years at the helm to prove this.
Every time he saw an opponent evolving, he didn’t lose even a minute to deal with them. First, it was business tycoons, who were made to feel the heat after the honeymoon with Putin, when they started challenging the administration. Berezovsky, the oligarch who helped Putin rise to power, was hunted down by the Russian State after he turned against Putin. Micheal Kurudovsky, another influential businessman who became Putin’s bête noire, was arrested and his oil fields were nationalised.
The way Putin crushed the massive agitations in Moscow — later known as Russia’s ‘Arab Spring’ — that followed the presidential election in 2011 again showed his ruthlessness in dealing with opposition. And, in 2012, Putin’s intolerance of dissent hit the headlines when two artistes of feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison for performing their song Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away in a Moscow church.
Over the years, Putin emerged as the sole leader of Russia, eliminating all opposition and dissenting voices. Even as his anti-US stance — for example, his stand on the Syrian civil war — gave him a larger-than-life image among those who oppose America’s aggressive international policies, at home, his Machiavellian policies turned Russia into a democracy-deficit State.
Russia’s rulers during the Soviet period had subjugated citizens in the name of socialism and communism. Putin has so far carried on that legacy of power. The trajectory from then to now shows, if anything, that the powerful can hijack even a democratic system and deny the very people whose struggles brought the system into being, the rights that define a democracy. As along as there is no popular resistance à la 1989, it seems all is well with Putin.