Thursday, August 10, 2017

Putin's Luck has Run Out and Russians Know It, Shelin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 9 – The 18th anniversary of Vladimir Putin in power is an appropriate occasion to remember that the successes of the Kremlin leader and those of Russia as a whole aren’t “one and the same thing, however much his regime tries to promote the opposite view, according to Rosbalt commentator Sergey Shelin.

            From antiquity, philosophers and rulers have recognized that it is better to be lucky than to be talented, the Russian commentator observes.  That is because “talent does not bring success every time but you can’t argue with achievements. Fate is after all fate” (

            Vladimir Putin was extremely lucky for the first part of his reign, but his luck has clearly run out; and he doesn’t have the talent or the energy to function successfully without luck, Shelin suggests. As a result, Russians are increasingly inclined to view his earlier “successes” as being more about luck and him personally than about real development and themselves.

            At the end of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, Shelin continues, there were “two consensuses.” The first was public and involved a conviction that the government needed to be made effective even at the cost of some freedoms. The second was held within the regime and held that this could only be done by people with backgrounds in the special services.

            Putin fit the bill perfectly, and his rise to power “was the result not only of his personal abilities but of luck. Fortune could have smiled on someone else who would have done approximately the same things he has, Shelin argues.

            Putin’s second piece of luck was the rapid growth of the economy until 2008. Its growth actually began before he came to power, but few Russians noticed that and were thus inclined to give him credit for something he didn’t begin but simply carried on. His chief contribution initially was not to get in the way of this growth but to encourage it.

            But already in 2003, the Kremlin leader had begun to become part of a group of people whose chief desire was to become wealth or wealthier – and he fell in line with that as well, enriching himself to an unheard of degree, something many forgave him because they were becoming better off too.

            All this was possible, of course, because of Putin’s luck: he was in office when oil prices rose, a development he had absolutely nothing to do with.

            Putin had another piece of luck. Most analysts forget that at the end of his time in office, Yeltsin had gotten into fights with the leaders of “literally the entire world. Putin at that time young energetic and advanced worked in a different way.” He established better relations with those in the West then in power, and again it looked like it was his doing.

            But in fact, Shelin says, this was possible because of the kind of leaders then in office in the West: Schroeder, Berlusconi, Chirac, Sarkozy, Blair and Bush. Putin drew the entirely unjustified conclusion that the West would always be ruled by such people. His failures with Trump are thus only the latest example of his luck in that regard having run out.

            2007 was the high point of Putin’s presidency and his luck: Oil prices were high, he had restored order to the Russian state, and ordinary Russians were living better than ever. But a year leader, his luck ran out: the international economic crisis began, oil prices collapsed, and Putin found himself casting about for new ways to make the world “respect” him and Russia.

            He thought he had found one with the invasion of Georgia, but that action did not have all the consequences he hoped for. Indeed, Shelin says, one can point to the exact date when Putin’s “legendary luck ran out: the middle of 2014, with the battles in the Donbass, the shooting down of the Boeing, Western sanctions, and the beginning of the collapse of the oil market.

            Because of Putin’s actions, “Ukraine lost Crimea and half of the Donbass, but it didn’t fall apart, and the divorce with it will not be described in future history textbooks as a plus for the head of Russia.” Not only did it alienate Ukraine but also the West and helped promote the collapse of oil prices, Shelin argues.

            Putin’s standing in the polls “no longer reflected the love of the people for him.  If they in general report anything then it is only the fear to say something out of line and concerns that things might become still worse.”

            Thus, on his 18th year in power, “Putin is no longer the magician he was in the first half of his rule. Around him are two rings of problems.”  The regime is no longer effective as an administrator because there isn’t enough money for all the oligarchs, for Putin and for the Russian people.

            And “the main thing,” Shelin says, is that “the people no longer is asking for the screws to be tightened.” That is especially the case with “the children of the Putin era who over the last months have produced one surprise after another.”

            “The leader if you like is tired.” He can enjoy catching fish but he no longer enjoys being asked for solutions for problems by Russians of all kinds. Indeed, it is becoming obvious that all these appeals are “beginning to annoy him.”

            “It is easy and even pleasant to run a powerful state when everything is going your way,” Shelin says, but it is “a different matter” when your luck runs out.  What to do?  Putin might throw it all up and retire, but it is far more likely that he will simply “continue to rule” for another term or more.

            However, that includes within it great risks. Not only has his luck run out, but that reality is increasingly appreciated not only by his entourage but by the Russian people themselves.

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