John Simpson

Putin power

The Russian leader will be re-elected on Sunday, but his authority seems to be waning

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Sunday will be Russia’s Coronation Day. The emperor is back from his constitutionally imposed four-year break, Dmitri Medvedev, the fill-in, finds his coach turning back into a prime ministerial pumpkin, and Vladimir Putin will be president for another term: only this time it’s been extended to six years. President of Russia till 2018, and he’ll still only be 65. But for the first time it’s possible to ask ourselves whether the long-running Putin project will carry on working as smoothly as it has so far.

There’s no doubt about Sunday: Putin will walk it in the first round. Some of the other candidates are serious enough — the perennial communist Gennadi Zyuganov, for instance, or Russia’s third richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, who made his pile out of nickel and gold and bought an American basketball team.

There are also the usual nut-jobs. At an election some years ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, of the reassuring-sounding but über-nationalist Liberal Democrats, promised to issue free vodka to everyone if he won; Sergei Mironov campaigned in the 2004 election on the self-effacing slogan ‘We all want Vladimir Putin to be the next president’. The voters took him at his word, and he got less than 1 per cent. Still, Putin later repaid him by awarding him the Order of Merit for the Fatherland. Third class.

Some months ago Vladimir Putin warned it would be a dirty campaign. It hasn’t been, though the scoop achieved by state-controlled Channel One about a plot by Chechen extremists to assassinate Putin after the election raised eyebrows. Opposition groups wearily reacted by calling it an election stunt. Putin’s press secretary, a charming but intemperate character called Dmitri Peskov, who did a lot of shouting on Newsnight earlier this week, called the suggestion ‘blasphemous’, which placed his boss on a new level of power altogether.

It’s true that plots have been uncovered at politically useful times in the past. It’s also true that this one, which supposedly involved a couple of supporters of Doku Umarov, the leading Chechen separatist, carried a tantalising suggestion of western involvement. A third suspect, Adam Osmayev, was said to have been living in London, where he studied at Buckingham College. His face liberally daubed with the fierce-smelling green ointment which Russian medics use on wounds, Osmayev told Channel One that the final aim of the plot was to blow up Putin on his way to work.

Let’s see if we hear any more of this. The talkative Osmayev might come in useful if President Putin wants to hammer Britain for giving asylum to Chechens — or if he wants to reinforce the accusation that the West is behind the current demonstrations against him. In a country which has become inured to anti-western slogans over the years, Putin has found that this kind of thing goes down rather well. In Iran, China, Syria, Zimbabwe and a score of lesser autocracies, opponents of the government are easily smeared with the accusation that they are working for the US State Department or the Foreign Office. Political leaders can slip into Mugabe-speak quite easily, and Vladimir Putin, standing in front of an adoring crowd with a cordless microphone in his hand and the inner crooner welling up inside him, is a natural for this kind of thing.

Yet he isn’t really an instinctive dictator. He’s not a behind-the-scenes manipulator like Stalin, interested in the reality rather than the show of power. If anything, he still gives the impression of a man who can never quite believe he’s been promoted from the back office to take control of the company. ‘If you had asked me to make a list of the hundred Russians I know who were likely to become president,’ said an American adviser who sat next to him in the office of the mayor of St Petersburg before his sudden emergence on stage, ‘Vladimir Putin’s name wouldn’t have been on it.’ ‘Because he wasn’t bright enough?’ I asked. ‘Because he wasn’t interesting enough.’

Yet in person, Vladimir Putin is surprisingly natural and pleasant, even warm. I’ve only met him once, very briefly after he voted in the 2008 election. But he told me, without being asked, how much he watched the BBC to improve his English, and enjoyed it; you wouldn’t have thought that from some of his public comments over the years. He was even nice about my own performances. Perhaps, having just handed over the presidency for the time being, he felt uncharacteristically relaxed and friendly. But I was left with the feeling that he was a man who wanted to be loved.

That is certainly the view of a film-maker, Hubert Seipel, who has just completed a documentary on him which went out on ARD television in Germany last Monday. Lonely, ageing and surprisingly likeable, was the verdict; all Putin’s bare-chested antics, romping round for the camera, were simply an effort to stave off physical decline.

This may be so: but it doesn’t change the disturbing feeling that under Vladimir Putin, whether as president or prime minister, Russia has at times come to look dangerously like an outlaw state. British and American diplomats believe he has allowed an atmosphere to be created where political murder is actively condoned, and the organs of state are manipulated for political ends. Over Syria, for instance, Russia’s considerable diplomatic weight, like China’s, has been used to protect a regime which is brutalising its own people. It’s like being back in the bad old days of Soviet support for Mengistu’s Ethiopia.

Russia is changing. It can’t simply be told to shut up any more. Soon — not within six years, perhaps, but probably within 12 — people who regard themselves as middle-class will outnumber the traditional, malleable masses. When a BBC programme vox-popped people in Moscow the other day about the supposed assassination plot against Putin, they couldn’t find anyone who believed it. He’s a shoe-in at this election; but the shoe may not fit all that much longer.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor.