by Luke Harding

Reading through these dispatches last year, I was struck by the slightly desperate but nevertheless creative way American analysts tried to make sense of impenetrable Kremlin politics. One cable by Eric Rubin, US deputy ambassador, suggested that Medvedev played Robin to Putin's Batman. It was a good analogy; it whizzed round the world, prompting Putin to complain of US "arrogance."

Other comparisons were equally unflattering. US diplomats cabled back to Washington the widely held view that Medvedev was the "junior partner", or Putin's "capable assistant". In the words of one scathing opposition politician he was "the Lilliputian to Putin's commander-in-chief." At a reputed 5ft 2in, Medvedev is one of the shortest world leaders ever. It is "Putin who is pulling the strings."

At the beginning of Medvedev's presidential term, diplomats, political observers and journalists like myself raked over Medvedev's CV in search of clues. He was famously a fan of the superannuated British rockers Deep Purple. Did this mean that Medvedev would usher in a new, friendlier, era in London-Moscow relations? Or did it merely confirm that Medvedev was a bit of a geek?

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there was a vague optimism that Medvedev might just preside over a partial liberalisation of Russian society, after the rollback under Putin, between 2000-2008, of democracy and basic rights. For starters, Mededvev had no background in Russia's security services. He talked of reform and modernisation. Perhaps, then, Russia was finally moving away from its lugubrious KGB track.

By 2010, however, more or less everyone had concluded that Medvedev and his 'liberal' agenda were fake. Most correspondents stopped reporting Medvedev's speeches. They had become boring and lacking in credibility.

In some of the last dispatches released by WikiLeaks, US diplomats correctly predicted that Russia's "bicephalous ruling format" was fizzling out. "[Putin's] return to the Kremlin is not inevitable. But should things remain stable Putin remains in a position to choose himself, Medvedev or another person to become Russia's next president," diplomat Susan Elliott wrote presciently.

It's no shock, then, that, having carefully weighed up the options, Putin decided to choose himself to be Russia's next president. His election is a foregone conclusion: in previous polls, opposition candidates and anti-Kremlin parties failed to make it on to the ballot paper. With Russian state TV having morphed long ago into a daily Putin/Medvedev blog, Putin can expect blanket positive coverage ahead of his coronation. No doubt there will be more macho photo-opportunities. Putin recently turned up to a convention of bikers, dressed in black and riding a Harley Davidson - merely one of a succession of stunts that has seen him ski down a volcano, pose with a polar bear and dive to the bottom of Russia's Lake Baikal in a submersible. He even appears now to have had a bit of facework done.

However, this does not mean he is universally adored. Asked in the summer who they would like to see as presidential candidate in 2012, only 27 percent of those asked plumped for Putin, according to a Levada Centre survey. Putin remains popular in rural areas, among less educated voters and the elderly. But in St Petersburg and Moscow, and among younger more liberal Russians, he arouses a yawning indifference.

So what now? What can we expect from another Putin presidency? The winds of change may be blowing across the Arab world, rolling from Egypt to Tripoli's Green Square. But Russians are looking at an endless Putin epoch, and a long period of political and economic stagnation.

It's a bleak prospect. After the announcement of Putin's return, liberals in Moscow and St Petersburg posted a photo of Putin mocked up to look like Brezhnev - complete with military uniform, patriotic Soviet medals and a hammer and sickle. Putin even got Brezhnevian eyebrows.

Actually, the comparisons with the Brezhnev era are spot-on. Brezhnev presided over another era of political and economic stagnation, the 1970s, sustained by a commodities boom and high oil prices. He also had a war - he sent the Soviet Army to invade Afghanistan. In 2008 Putin did the same thing. He dispatched Russian tanks into Georgia, promising to hang Georgia's pro-western leader Mikheil Saakashvili "by the balls." It was a brutal lesson in neighbourhood geopolitics.

Brezhnev also presided over the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Putin has the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to look forward to, as well as the 2018 World Cup. (The scenario is already tantalising: an ignominious first-round exit by England after an off-form Wayne Rooney falls mysteriously ill with food poisoning. Foul play is discounted since England is playing so badly anyway. The Russian team sweeps to victory on the back of patriotic fervour and a curious offside decision.)

International reaction to Putin's announcement has hardly been ecstatic - his world view is reflexively anti-western. He doesn't believe western countries are genuine democracies. Putin is by temperament suspicious and prone to a belief in conspiracies. His mindset is still resolutely "chekist." In written evidence to the High Court, the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky noted that when Putin was head of the FSB, the KGB's successor agency, he kept a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in his office. Dzerzhinsky was the notorious founder of the "Cheka," the Bolsheviks' secret police. "I was astonished," Berezovsky recalled.

The Barack Obama administration put out a bland statement confirming that its "reset" with the Kremlin will go on. Privately, however, the White House will certainly not be delighted at the prospect of dealing with prickly President Putin again. The US administration's attempts to make Medvedev the "primary interlocutor" in negotiations - and to boost the "more progressive" forces he supposedly represented - were, alas, a waste of time.

To be fair, US diplomats always recognised that Putin was in charge, and that he was responsible for the recent modest improvement in relations following a period of mutual acrimony during the last years of the George W. Bush White House. One 2009 dispatch by the US ambassador John Beyrle puts it like this: "We are not advocating circumventing Putin; to the contrary we cannot imagine improved US-Russian relations with his concurrence." Beyrle also talks about "managing Putin and his ego."

Since announcing his "comeback" Putin has made one significant foreign policy pronouncement: setting out his vision for a "Eurasian union" reuniting the former republics of the Soviet Union. This "powerful, supranational" bloc will become "one of the poles of the modern world," he says. Putin denies he wants to bring back the USSR. But the project is entirely in line with his self-conceived historical mission to restore Russian greatness and to challenge US hegemony. Putin's "Eurasian" vision involves rolling out an existing customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But it's hard to see how much further this project could go. Ukraine might be interested, having blown its chances of European integration by the jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader. But Russia's Central Asian partners are likely to be wary of full-scale political union. (The WikiLeaks cables, for example, capture Uzbekistan's leader Islam Karimov railing against Russian arrogance and racism.)

Relations with Britain, meanwhile, are unlikely to get much better either. Andrei Lugovoi - the man who allegedly slipped radioactive polonium into former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's tea - enjoys the personal protection of Putin. When Britain's Crown Prosecution Service requested his extradition in 2007, Putin responded by lambasting Britain's colonial "no brains" mentality. David Cameron did manage to meet Putin in Moscow in September, the first contact for four years. But it's safe to assume that President Putin won't be visiting London anytime soon.

The main sticking point is the row with Russia's FSB spy agency - the same agency that broke into my flat repeatedly during my four years as the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, prior to my expulsion from the country in February.

Britain is convinced that there is an FSB dimension to Litvinenko's murder, and severed contact with the agency in 2007. The Kremlin sees this as humiliating. It wants cooperation with the FSB to resume, and has made this a precondition of better relations. The ball is in Cameron's court - or in someone else's court when his Conservative-led coalition shuffles off into history.

Some commentators have persuasively 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 step off 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. (Several of them feature prominently on the Forbes annual list. One of them, Roman Abramovich, is currently locked in an embarrassing court battle in London with Berezovsky over their share of the former Russian oil giant Sibneft). But the sums involved allegedly total many billions of dollars.

All this, of course, assumes that there is no revolt. With no prospect of removing Putin from power peacefully, and the Kremlin's succession politics as byzantine as ever, could it be a matter of time before Russians take things into their own hands? Already there are whispers of revolution. True, Putin is still Russia's most popular politician. But he is less popular than he was. And while his return to the Kremlin is guaranteed, his nervousness that he may one day be overthrown can only grow.

Luke Harding is an award-winning foreign correspondent with the British newspaper the Guardian. He has reported from Delhi, Berlin and Moscow and covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Libya. In February he became the first Moscow-based Western staff reporter to be expelled from Russia since the Cold War. 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.

 

More WORLD NEWS ...

WORLD | AFRICA | ASIA | EUROPE | LATIN AMERICA | MIDDLE EAST | UNITED STATES

Recent Videos

More WORLD NEWS ...

 

More WORLD NEWS ...

WORLD | AFRICA | ASIA | EUROPE | LATIN AMERICA | MIDDLE EAST | UNITED STATES

 

 

"Russia: Batman Returns"