Russia’s social media is once again in an uproar. Following June 12 protest rallies across the country, show host Vladimir Solovyev called their participants “2 percent of excrement” who marred Russia Day festivities. In his made-for-TV, tough-guy style, the country’s leading propagandist alleged that those who heeded the call by opposition leader Alexey Navalny to protest corruption were themselves the children of corrupt officials, and suggested that “the scum should have had their clock cleaned.”
There have been other scurrilous attacks on the anti-corruption protests, but Solovyev’s was the nastiest and the most vicious. It caused widespread outrage and a petition has been circulated on the internet demanding that he be prosecuted for hate speech. The petition, of course, is useless and is destined to share the fate of other such internet petitions – i.e., result in nothing but the false sense of accomplishment for its signers. Solovyev won’t even be fired from Russian state TV.
But now imagine the following scenario. It’s Sunday, March 18, 2018. Russia goes to the polls. Navalny was allowed to take part in the election, but only at the last moment and under pressure from the West. No one expects his participation to change anything: Navalny has been kept off national TV and in any case Putin’s victory is a foregone conclusion.
The results start to trickle in and exit polls are pointing to Navalny’s victory. The votes are then counted. Navalny is the winner, having garnered enough votes to avoid a runoff. Obviously, there has been some mistake – or worse. The Central Election Commission will surely have a recount or present evidence of foreign meddling in the election and cancel the result. The nation is bewildered, stunned, waiting with bated breath for events to develop.
But then Putin delivers a short concession speech. Vox populi vox dei. The nation has spoken. After three presidential terms he submits to the will of the people. He wishes the winner well. Navalny in turn praises Putin as a great statesman. Telegrams pour in from world leaders in which congratulations to Navalny are interspersed with tributes to Putin’s wisdom. Russia is a democracy after all, and it has just proven so beyond doubt.
The streets fill with crowds. Support for the new president is unanimous, as it always is in Russia, where critics turn ardent supporters overnight. Then, in the midst of jubilation we spot a dark, solitary figure. Who is this scowling man with a haunted look in his eyes? Is it Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character in Bernardo Bertolucci 1970 classic The Conformist, wandering the streets of Rome on the night of its liberation from the fascists? No, it’s our old friend Solovyev, fearfully watching the “two percent of excrement” celebrate.
This is no doubt a far-fetched, unrealistic scenario. Most observers expect Russia to go on rotting morally and socially under its current regime and Putin to remain Russian president until he’s taken out of the Kremlin feet first sometime toward the middle of the 21st century, about the time today’s kids protesting his kleptocracy become grandparents.
But it’s pleasant to dream. In any case, Putin has clearly had enough of Russia and its presidency. He wanted to leave way back in 2008 and returned to the Kremlin in 2012 only because his choice of successor, Dmitry Medvedev, proved colossally incompetent. Since then, Putin’s boredom and disgust with the duties have only grown. In his latest annual hotline with the nation, his revulsion was palpable. It still had plenty of his creepy bathroom humor but completely lacked the spark of its predecessors.
Indeed, ruling Russia is becoming more trouble than it’s worth. The economy didn’t collapse after the drop in oil prices in mid-2014, but instead it has been crumbling slowly, Soviet Union-style. Chances that oil prices will rise have evaporated. The parasitic class of gangsters, government officials, police and “pocket” businessmen which emerged during the fat years is not going away and not curbing its appetites, despite a shrinking economic pie. Popular discontent is growing.
Since 2014, Putin has been mainly preoccupied with international politics and there, too, things have not gone especially well. The annexation of Crimea has not been recognized by the international community. Eastern Ukraine is at a bloody stalemate. Ukraine is inexorably moving closer to Europe, has been granted visa-free travel and President Petro Poroshenko taunted Putin by quoting Lermontov’s poem “Farewell, unwashed Russia.”
The costly misadventure in Syria has not made Putin into a world leader or even a player in world politics. And efforts to break up or weaken the European Union are backfiring: even the UK is having second thoughts about Brexit.
A few months ago, Putin’s hold over Donald Trump appeared to be an extraordinary coup by Russian intelligence but it has since turned out to be useless, as well. Trump can’t lift sanctions on Russia in the current political environment in Washington. Worse, Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election has earned it another round of sanctions, which could further weaken the damaged Russian economy.
In short, Putin’s job is boring and full of troubles. It is also fairly dangerous because he can be overthrown by one of his buddies at any time. You can’t blame him for wanting to chuck it all now, when he’s still relatively young, and to spend the rest of his days enjoying his reportedly massive fortune rather than grow old and senile in the Kremlin.
But how to do it? He has to make sure that his successor won’t go after him and his fortune, and also avoid being prosecuted abroad or brought before an international tribunal for one of his numerous crimes while in office.
It’s a tall order, but today’s circumstances may be as favorable to Putin as they are ever going to get. Navalny is smart enough to know he will never be allowed to win fair and square at the ballot box. He will have to strike a deal with Putin and to give solid guarantees to him and several of his powerful cronies. Navalny probably can be trusted to keep his word, but Putin would not be Putin if he didn’t have something on Navalny that would hold him to their agreement.
And then there is Trump. While he can’t prevent tougher U.S. sanctions on President Putin, he could protect private citizen Putin – or so Putin believes. Once again, whatever kompromat on Trump there is, it will come in handy.
Prior to the 2008 presidential election, Putin’s dogged search for someone to replace him was dubbed Operation Successor. If there is Operation Successor II under way, it has to be done under the cover of secrecy: Navalny will come down hard on corruption, and some of the most outrageous “korruptsionery” will end up behind bars. Russian officialdom, including various police forces, must be kept in the dark about any deals between Putin and Navalny. This would explain why the harsh treatment of Navalny’s supporters by the police and the courts is combined with only relatively minor harassment of Navalny himself.
Perhaps Solovyev is missing the writing on the wall. Putin’s stability has lasted for 18 years and seems solid enough to last forever. Since 2014, Solovyev has been a key figure in anti-Ukrainian propaganda. His garrulous, abusive, nasty shows are carried across Russia in prime time and are widely watched. He might have grown too contented on all the dollars he has been paid for his important work.
But there may be a more ominous explanation. Russia is Byzantine and ruthless. President Navalny will have to stage a number of emblematic big-name trials to demonstrate that he has broken with Putin’s past. Several prominent figures will have to become the symbols of corruption of the Putin era, starting with the most obvious candidate, Prime Minister Medvedev, the star of Navalny’s investigative report titled “I’m no Dimon for you.”
Billionaire Alisher Usmanov will go down too. He was shown by Navalny to have given Medvedev an enormous “gift” worth several million dollars, and responded with two videos addressing Navalny directly. It is certainly not how a man of Usmanov’s standing would have acted if he had a free hand, and he looks reluctant and ill-at-ease in front of the camera. He clearly did it under duress, on the orders of people he could not disobey. The question is why put on screen an overweight ethnic Uzbek billionaire speaking accented Russian and broadcasting from a stateroom of his luxurious yacht? The answer seems obvious – to present him in an odious light.
And so it may be with Solovyev. The guy has been intimately linked to Putin-era propaganda, lies and hatred. If Navalny can’t touch Putin himself, how best to show that the page has been definitely turned but put on trial those who have come to symbolize the Putin era? Someone like Solovyev, as a matter of fact.
It is probably in preparation for his future trial that Solovyev might have been made to mouth disgusting lies against the best and the brightest young people of Russia.