Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union in the Clinton administration.
A new poll released this week reveals a lot about how Russians view President Vladimir Putin. A whopping 87 percent of those surveyed say they trust him to represent their nation on the world stage.
But other results carry a warning. Nearly nine out of 10 Russians see corruption as a serious problem — second only to the economy as their top concern. And the number of those who believe Putin will do something about it has fallen sharply, from 62 percent to 49 percent, in just two years.
Last week, Putin held his 15th annual call-in show, in which people from across the country phone or email him their questions. Most media coverage treated the event as one more sign of Putin’s political dominance. Yet it also showed that he knows he has a corruption problem. As next year’s presidential election draws near, he has clearly decided to talk about it in a different way.
For years now, Putin has claimed — with brazen but disarming candor — to be fighting hard against corruption and the abuse of state power. In his 2015 speech to parliament, he complained that the bullying of legitimate businesses by bribe-seeking officials was a blight on the Russian economy. In his April 2016 call-in, he took questions about shakedowns by government inspectors, about real estate scams enabled by the courts, about the enslavement of workers in a fish cannery (ignored by the police), about the illegal seizure of a Moscow research institute by officials who wanted its land, and more. Putin has said that without fundamental reforms, the country’s economic growth will “hover around zero.” Last summer he told parliamentary candidates of his own party, United Russia, that they had to work harder to win the people’s trust.
Most of this was, of course, meaningless rhetoric. Any serious follow-through would threaten the system Putin has created.
But that’s why we should pay attention when he changes course. On the program last week, Putin announced that corruption is simply “not among the top” issues bothering Russians. When an earnest high school student complained about light punishment meted out to corrupt officials, the president’s initial, prickly response was to suggest that someone else had written the question. His lame concluding plea: “Let us rely on the work of the judicial system.”
Dismissing corruption and the abuse of power didn’t keep Putin from playing his usual role as national problem solver. Was a young teacher paid too little? The president said he’d look into it. Was a single mother in Siberia homeless after forest fires? Putin said he’d talk to the governor of her region. And the woman who lost her home to floods in southern Russia? Again, he promised to talk to her governor.
Yet through all this Putin kept repeating that there was something “strange” about the problems being raised. After all, money had been budgeted to help victims of natural disasters. Maybe, he volunteered, one of the governors was just new on the job? He steered consistently clear of the need for systemic reform or stronger anti-corruption initiatives. Sure, officials at all levels sometimes made wrong decisions, Putin admitted, adding, “I will reprimand them for this” (a typical response). And when asked what he did when people cheated him, the president modeled acceptance: “I try not to make a fuss.”
It’s obvious why Putin has gotten nervous about the corruption issue. His most visible political opponent, Alexei Navalny, has made it the centerpiece of hugely popular online videos and of recent rallies against the “crooks and thieves” of the current regime. It was always a bit shocking that Putin thought he could claim to be a champion of clean government, but somehow he got away with it. Now, apparently, he worries that even talking about corruption will validate Navalny’s critique.
To knock Putin off balance in this way is a psychological success for Navalny — one no less impressive than turning out protesters in more than 100 towns and cities across the country, as he did on June 12. But can the opposition capitalize on this victory? After all, as Putin said to caller after caller last week, the economy is slowly improving. He controls the parliament, the courts and the state bureaucracy. And because of Navalny’s politicized conviction on (of all things) corruption charges, Putin will be able to keep his most dangerous challenger off the ballot in the 2018 election.
Nevertheless, Navalny has done something unprecedented. He has forced the president of Russia to stop pretending that he is against corruption. Others may rail against it, but for Putin, corruption is now officially “fake news.”
Dismissing the very idea of corruption has in fact become the default position of the Putin regime. Talking about it is suspect, even sinister. The commander of the newly formed “National Guard,” Viktor Zolotov, claims the issue is a tool for promoting “general destabilization.”
Any Russian can tell you that corruption is a problem. Yet Putin appears to have decided that it’s safer to run for reelection saying something absurd and unpopular than to keep saying he believes in honest government. In today’s Russia, such open cynicism may be a step forward. His opponents have gotten Putin to say openly where he really stands.