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A seller demonstrates a traditional Matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg March 3, 2012. Russians will go to the polls for their presidential election on Sunday. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK)
A seller demonstrates a traditional Matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg March 3, 2012. Russians will go to the polls for their presidential election on Sunday. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK)

Vladimir Putin: A 21st-century czar Add to ...

Unlike Echo Moscow, NTV has shifted from aggressive news programming to less critical coverage and much more entertainment. It was late to the protests.

“Everything done by the media is authorized, directly or indirectly, by the power holders,” says Mr. Kulistikov, who displays a picture of himself with Mr. Putin in his office, where he oversees a TV empire that reaches up to a quarter of Russian households in prime time.

Asked if he would ever allow an investigative project on Mr. Putin or his party, he replies bluntly: “Never!”

“I'm a journalist. I'm also head of a business organization and I must take into account my business interests, and my business interests depend on good relations with the government.”

Mr. Kulistikov says it's naive to think otherwise. “We have no independent fortunes and no independent political parties. Everything depends on the state. That's our reality.”

In other words, he who controls the state controls all.

As it winds down, the campaign has exposed new fissures in Russia, ones that even a man as powerful as Mr. Putin may not be able to close. Demonstrations have grown, and spread from the capital to smaller centres. On Monday, tens to hundreds of thousands are expected to take to the streets around the Kremlin. There is no single, viable opponent they can turn to, no mass leader to hold up as a foil to the presumptive president. They just don't want to be treated, in their words, like cattle.

How Mr. Putin reacts will be watched closely by his friends and his enemies, which he seems to understand.

At a recent press conference, he compared himself to Kaa, the python in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (a favourite among Russians), and vowed to strangle the opposition, after first lulling it into a trance.

Mr. Orlov, the human-rights activist, believes Mr. Putin has matured while in power, and will search for ways to avoid conflict. “He is more in control of his emotions,” he says.

Although seeming more open to other points of view, Mr. Orlov says, one thing hasn't changed: “He was and is opposed to democracy. He was and is a KGB man.”

In Sunday's vote, Mr. Putin must win a clear majority without looking like he went to extremes to fix the results. Anything else would be a signal to the elites, to the oligarchs who run the economy and the generals who run the military, that he is not so powerful, that he may have been enjoying his dacha-lifestyle a bit too much.

Even with a clean victory, he will face a host of challenges beyond his control. The country has only a few years to break its financial dependence on the great oil and gas fields of Siberia, which will soon begin to run dry. A sudden drop in energy prices would be disastrous, especially since Mr. Putin has promised fatter pensions and pay raises for teachers and doctors.

However, he is not always given to the long view, unlike Mr. Medvedev who spent much of his presidency talking about the new economy. Mr. Putin did not appear to foresee the rise of China, and continues to look perplexed by the Internet revolution. As for corruption, it is widely seen to be worse today than when he came to power. And there is little innovation in the economy, little to indicate that the scientific superpower of Soviet times can once more be a new global brain centre.

For now, Mr. Putin's macho image – augmented by pictures of him on horseback or swimming – may be all he needs. Russians have always gravitated to the “strong man” character, especially one who personifies the nation's self-image as a rugged and independent land, imbued with heroes.

“We are a victorious people!” he told a recent rally. “It is in our genes, in our genetic code!”

There is not much else Mr. Putin can fall back on. He has no ideological base, and no durable political party to carry him through bad times, should they come.

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