Before meeting Vladimir Putin, it’s best to get acquainted with his horse. Each year a group of academics and journalists is invited by the Russian government to agonise about the fate of Russia. What results is a cross between a seminar and group therapy. The last day is set aside for the guv’nor himself.
Anticipation is spiced by uncertainty. No one knows until the last minute where, or even if, the meeting will take place. Last year the group was flown from Moscow to Sochi, bussed past the fevered reconfiguration of the subtropical landscape for the Winter Olympics, to an opulent guesthouse on the Black Sea coast. And back again in one night – even though, it emerged, we could have all stayed put. Putin was at his desk in Moscow the next day.
This year’s magical mystery tour wound a serpentine path through the birch forests outside Moscow, a discreet spot beloved by generations of secretive nomenklatura, until we arrived at the New Century Equestrian Club. At 7pm on a snowy Friday night you would not have expected this place to be a hive of activity. But it was.
In the veterinary surgery a horse on a slab was undergoing an examination of the bronchial tract; in the air-conditioned dressage centre no lesser a horseman than the president of the Russian Equestrian Federation, Anatoly Merkulov himself, was putting horses going through their routines (as inspected by Princess Anne last year); and in the club’s restaurant, one-and-a-half hours late, Putin breezed past bottles of 1888 Armagnac, and invited his guests to try the bottled mushrooms, with whose preparation he was intimately familiar.
The rest of Russia is in little mood for this. After two decades of freedom of expression and movement, Russians are still waiting to live the normal life they rightly yearn for. Many have given up waiting. A private poll of 5,000 students at Moscow State University found that 80% intended to leave the country. Nor are Russia’s filthy rich too patriotic about the motherland. Negative capital flows doubled this year from $34bn to $70bn. Even if the price of crude oil hit $125 a barrel, more money would be flowing out of the country than in. As it is, four times as much money (as a percentage of GDP) is going out than in. It tells you everything you need to know about a Russia digging in for another 12 years of Putin.
Putinism, the selective autocracy that he created, is a giant car boot sale. The going rate is $50m for a governorship, $500,000 for a middle-ranking bureaucrat. Little wonder that once in power, their job is to get a healthy return on their investment. There are decent governors, and the group saw one at work effectively attracting foreign investment in Kaluga, south of Moscow, but the directly appointed system itself is rotten. Putin makes little secret of his disdain for the alternative, freely elected governors. Some observers say he has a pathological hatred of democracy. To underline his disdain he has now, for the second year in a row, told the story of the elected governor who legged it out the back door rather than face the fury of the mob after a local disaster.
But, truth be told, Putin is also at a loss when he gets jeered. And this, according to the pollsters, will happen more often. It is not just that Putin’s personal brand is ageing. The popularity of the entire St Petersburg clique around him is falling with him. United Russia, the party of apparatchiks he created, will by hook or by crook, but largely by crook, get the required percentage of votes in Sunday’s Duma elections. Last time round Moscow students were told by tutors to take digital snaps of their ballot sheets if they wanted the right grades – one of many examples of the “vote early, vote often” variety. But the party is a fragile instrument of power because it represents no one but itself.
Putin’s problem is not staying in power. It is leaving it – without all hell breaking lose between rival boyars, and with his personal fortune intact. Crushing the rival bids of political nonentities like Dmitry Medvedev is child’s play for him. Standing permanently on guard at the fulcrum of competing privatised arms of the state, armed with his suitcase of his rivals’ commercial secrets, is a more tedious occupation. And the one thing he is petrified of is genuine political dissent which he cannot control.
Russians are not looking for another revolution. They have seen enough of those in one lifetime. But they see clearer than any foreign experts how sclerotic Putin’s “manual guidance” system of government is. There is no one at the helm. He is truly on his own. A government run like that does not govern. It gets by, by buying people off.
The horses turned out not to be Putin’s. (He had his own stable; how silly, we should have realised.) Six were Medvedev’s and one a gift from another central Asian potentate, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. In 20 years the venue went from being the bankrupt dairy of a collective farm called Lenin’s Ray to a playground for the elite. Most Russians would like something in-between.