Putin and me

The Guardian's Luke Harding assesses Russia's prospects under a second Putin presidential term and recalls his own harassment in Moscow

The year is 2024. The world’s economic prospects have perked up a bit since the collapse of the euro. The Germans are happily spending deutschmarks again, the Greeks are back with the drachma.

Almost all of the leaders in power a decade earlier have been swept away – Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg (remember him?). Even Silvio Berlusconi has reluctantly accepted retirement. Italy’s former premier now spends his days in his Sardinian villa with a group of showgirls.

Only one leader has defied the iron law that all politicians eventually leave office. His name? Vladimir Putin. Now 71, Putin has served two more terms as Russia’s president – bringing the tally of his stints in the Kremlin up to a remarkable four – the final two lasting a total of 12 years.

Medvedev was merely Robin to Putin’s Batman, Russia’s real boss

He is fitter and more vigorous than ever: Russian state TV has recently shown him wrestling heroically with a python after it “escaped” from a Moscow zoo. In theory, this is the moment when Putin should finally step down after a quarter of a century at the apex of Russian power. He has already outlasted Brezhnev (18 years) and is closing in fast on comrade Stalin (a whopping 31).

Ridiculous predictions? Well, no. Last month Putin was controversially “re-elected” for a third time, having elbowed aside his weak temporary replacement in the job, Dmitry Medvedev. During Medvedev’s four years as “president” it was clear that he was merely Robin to Putin’s Batman, Russia’s real boss.

Putin’s third term takes place against a backdrop of unprecedented public unrest

Putin’s election “rivals” for the presidency – a billionaire businessman, a washed-up communist and an ultra-nationalist joker – were there to give the illusion of choice. Under Russia’s system of “managed democracy” there was only going to be one winner. In the run-up to the poll Russia’s state TV provided blanket coverage of only one candidate.

Putin’s third term in the Kremlin, however, takes place against a backdrop of unprecedented public unrest. Last December the authorities fixed parliamentary elections in favour of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Election fraud has long been a part of Russian political life. But on this occasion the falsifications triggered the largest street protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. There were demonstrations in Moscow and in other cities.

The protesters – mostly but not exclusively middle-class – have demanded fair elections, greater political pluralism and proper television, currently a blend of state propaganda and showbiz trash. Commentators have been quick to dub this uprising the Russian Spring or the Snow Revolution. (In reality it’s still too chilly in Moscow to talk about any kind of spring; the mood of those on the streets is more playful and satirical than tear-down-the-barricades.) Many have predicted the end of Putin’s regime – if not now then a couple of years down the line.

The Kremlin routinely bribes young Russians to take part in pro-government rallies

In reality, however, Putin shows no signs of stepping down. And after 12 years in which Russian democracy was virtually extinguished there is nobody who can make him resign. He has refused to make concessions to his opponents. Instead, Putin has wheeled out the same dismal KGB tactics against his critics that have served on previous occasions: black PR against opposition leaders; riot police; arrests; intimidation.

Two weeks ago the state-controlled TV station NTV broadcast an “investigation” that claimed western spies had paid demonstrators to protest. In fact, it’s the other way round: the Kremlin routinely bribes young Russians to take part in pro-government rallies. A thousand people demonstrated outside NTV’s offices in protest against the slur; 100 were dragged off and arrested.

I am familiar with these methods. I arrived in Moscow in early 2007, with my wife Phoebe and our two small children. Within a couple of months we found ourselves unwittingly plunged into a badly-scripted Cold War spy drama. The trigger was an interview two of my Guardian colleagues did with Boris Berezovsky, the Kremlin critic and London-based oligarch. Berezovsky fancifully claimed he was plotting a revolution against Putin. I phoned Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov. I asked him for a quote. The following day my name appeared on the Guardian’s front-page story.

A team of FSB agents broke into our Moscow flat. They didn’t take anything

Almost immediately the sky fell on our heads. Russia’s Federal Security Service or FSB – the main successor agency to the KGB – took a keen interest in me. I found my emails hacked. Unpromising pimply young men in leather jackets began following me into cafés and restaurants. A team of FSB agents broke into our Moscow flat. They didn’t take anything. Instead they left deliberate signs – opening the locked window of my son’s bedroom (we lived on the tenth-floor; the plunge would have been deadly) and setting an alarm clock that went off in darkness at 4.10am.

This was the beginning of an extraordinary psychological war by the FSB against us – a war that went on for nearly four years, and culminated with my expulsion from Moscow in February 2011.

The campaign was punishment for some of the stories I was writing for the Guardian – about top-level corruption, Putin’s alleged secret fortune, and the Kremlin’s vicious tactics in the North Caucasus.

The FSB summoned me to Lefortovo, the KGB’s notorious Moscow detention centre. Here a young FSB major – AV Kuzmin – asked me a series of pointless questions. The real purpose of the interview was to intimidate. On his office table was a glass with the initials of Russia’s spy agencies – beginning with the Cheka, the Bolsheviks’ secret police, founded in 1917 by Felix Dzerzhinsky.

The break-ins became a regular feature of our Moscow life. They were not without a certain dark humour. On one occasion
I discovered a sex manual in Russian left by the side of my bed. Someone had helpfully inserted a bookmark.

I turned curiously to page 110. The page offered advice on how to have better orgasms. Given the weakness of Russia’s opposition, and drawing on my bitter knowledge of the Kremlin’s undercover methods, I am relatively pessimistic about the prospects for real change in Russia. Rather, I fear Russians are looking at an endless Putin epoch, and a long period of political and economic stagnation.

International reaction to news of Putin’s return has hardly been ecstatic. Putin’s world view is reflexively anti-western. He doesn’t believe western countries are genuine democracies. He is by temperament suspicious and prone to a belief in conspiracies. His mindset is resolutely “Chekhist”, and his worldview one of insecurity and Soviet xenophobia.

Relations with Britain, meanwhile, are unlikely to get much better. Andrei Lugovoi – the man who allegedly slipped radioactive polonium into former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko’s tea – enjoys the personal protection of Putin. When the Crown Prosecution Service requested his extradition in 2007, Putin responded by lambasting Britain’s arrogant colonial mentality. David Cameron did manage to meet Putin in Moscow last year, the first contact for four years; Putin has said he will come to the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. But an inquest into Litvinenko’s death scheduled for this autumn will make uncomfortable reading for the Kremlin. It may lead to a further sinking in relations.

The logic of Putin’s corrupt vertical state is that he is forced to carry on

Some insiders have suggested that Putin is tired of being Russia’s leader. He would like nothing better, they argue, than to relax in his new palace in Sochi, on Russia’s balmy Black Sea coast. The logic, however, of Putin’s corrupt vertical state is that he is forced to carry on. Putin is the only person capable of arbitrating between the Kremlin’s rival factions, who are locked in a permanent and exhausting battle for money and influence. Without him, the system would fall apart.

Most crucially, Putin faces the prospect of law enforcement investigations into his alleged secret assets should he ever decide to leave the throne. According to US diplomats, his main motivation for carrying on is to guarantee the safety of his own assets and those of his inner circle. No one quite knows how much Putin and his friends are worth. But the sums involved allegedly total many billions of dollars.

With no prospect of removing Putin from power peacefully, Russians face a long period of frustration. True, Putin is still Russia’s most popular politician. But he is less popular than he was. And though another Russian revolution seems unlikely, Putin’s nervousness that he may one day be overthrown can only grow.

Luke Harding’s book, Mafia State: How One Reporter Became An Enemy Of The Brutal New Russia, is published by Guardian Books; ebook and audiobook editions are also available. To order a copy for £5.99 (including UK mainland p&p), go to guardianbookshop.co.uk

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