September 25, 2011 / 10:13 AM / 8 years ago

Putin's return stokes fear of stagnation in Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin says he stands for stability, but his critics say his return to the Kremlin next March could ultimately bequeath an era of stagnation and even turmoil in Russia.

The prime minister, who announced on Saturday he would seek a new term as president, prides himself on bringing order after the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But prominent critics, from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, say his return could undermine stability unless he can shake the country out of inertia and torpor.

Even Putin’s protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, said there was a danger of stasis in Russia in a speech to the ruling party on Saturday, just minutes before he suffered the humiliation of proposing Putin take back the presidency from him next year.

“Formalism and bureaucratization are very dangerous: they lead to stagnation and the degradation of the political system,” Medvedev told a congress of Putin’s United Russia party.

Putin handed him the chance to be president in 2008 after serving the maximum two successive terms as head of state, but is the driving force in their power “tandem.” Medvedev’s offer to stand aside in March was clearly stage-managed by Putin.

For many Russians, Putin’s return cements a doom-laden view of prospects for the world’s biggest country, which is also the largest energy producer and home to the biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Gorbachev, the only other man alive to have held the top job in the Kremlin, referred to this feeling last week and said Russia faced turmoil unless its leaders embraced change.

“It is the very absence of change which threatens to provoke instability and put the future of the country in question,” said Gorbachev, 80, whose reforms culminated in the Soviet Union’s fall.

He said Russia was returning to the era of Leonid Brezhnev, whose 1964-1982 rule is widely portrayed as an era of stagnation when strong oil sales masked economic decline.

STAGNATION OR REFORM?

When President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on the last day of the millennium and handed over the nuclear suitcase to Putin, it was a breath of fresh air for many Russians.

Putin’s vigor and even his sometimes crude language — vowing to wipe out rebellious Chechens “in the shithouse” — appealed to many Russians after the chaos of Yeltsin’s rule.

He promised order and reform — as he did again at Saturday’s party congress — and supplied the longest Russian economic boom in a generation.

Russian nominal gross domestic product (GDP) has risen more than sevenfold since 1999, while the average monthly income multiplied by 10.

But the former KGB spy also brought iron control and promoted former spies who had little care for the freedoms many Russians hoped could change centuries of oppression and turmoil.

Putin made clear that Russia would no longer be ordered about by anyone. Foreign leaders were lectured, and super-rich businessmen, or oligarchs, who crossed the Kremlin were exiled or thrown into jail.

Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s more outspoken oligarchs, got prison. He challenged Putin’s authority and his oil company, Yukos, was broken up and sold off.

Asked what would happen if Putin returned to the Kremlin or remained paramount leader, Khodorkovsky told Reuters in writing this month: “The hopes for internal reform of the current system of power would disappear.” {ID:nL5E7KI0CY]

“Emigration of socially active and intellectual Russians would accelerate,” Khodorkovsky said from prison colony No. 7 in the town of Segezha, near the Finnish border about 900 km (550 miles) north of Moscow.

Oligarchs still whisper about new businessmen who have made billions of dollars under Putin but few dare to publish their names for fear of lawsuits. Putin’s message remains clear — rich businessmen should stay out of politics.

PUTIN’S TRAP?

When Putin was asked about corruption at a dinner for reporters at his residence outside Moscow during his presidency, he hit back by saying that other countries were just as corrupt.

Technically he was right: by 2010 Russia was ranked by watchdog Transparency International as being as corrupt as Cambodia, Kenya and Laos. Although foreign investors talk openly of the wealth of his friends, Putin has denied a vast personal fortune.

It is the presence of such friends and Putin’s love of control that place him in a trap, his opponents argue: he wants order, but his striving for control may ultimately destroy that very order, they say, by constructing a brittle and corrupt system dependent on one man.

For his supporters, Putin is a savior: an almost God-like tsar who has saved his country of 142 million people from chaos.

As Russia’s most popular politician, he is almost certain to win a newly extended six-year term .

He could also then run for another from 2018 to 2024, a quarter of a century after he rose to prominence in late 1999. He will turn 65 on October 7, 2017, just a month before the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The country’s most prominent whistleblower put it bluntly in June, saying Russia could face an uprising like the Arab Spring protests or the revolts which swept through several former Soviet republics in the early 2000s.

“If they do not voluntarily start to reform by themselves, I do not doubt that this will happen in Russia,” Alexei Navalny said in an interview.

“There is a shaky balance between the different interests and any significant event could destroy the balance in seconds.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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