Putin Puzzles Presidential Poll

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Reports suggest that opposition leader Alexei Navalny is the only capable leader who is giving incumbent President Vladimir Putin a tough time both inside and outside the Kremlin

By Shankar Kumar

Countdown for the Russian Presidential election to be held in March 2018 has begun. Although, President Vladimir Putin has not yet confirmed his candidacy, he is expected to contest polls for the fourth term in office. Reports suggest that opposition leader Alexei Navalny is the only capable leader who is giving Putin a tough time inside the Kremlin and outside it, but since he has been found guilty of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended sentence, his bid to challenge President  Putin seems to have come to an abrupt end.  A fierce anti-corruption campaigner and staunch critic of Putin’s style of functioning, this forty-year old is undeterred by charges. He has been arrested and released numerous times by Russian authorities earlier.

In 2012 after being accused of involvement in a fraud and embezzlement case, a charge which he denied, he was sentenced to jail.  In July 2013, he was again convicted of embezzlement and was sentenced to five years in a corrective labour colony, but was released from jail the next day after sentencing. His troubles didn’t end there. In February 2014, Navalny along with his brother was prosecuted on embezzlement charges and was placed under house arrest and barred him from communicating with anyone except his closest family members. While he was on the bail, Russian federal authorities again sentenced him in December 2014 with another suspended prison term of 3.5 years.  The Memorial Human Rights Centre, an NGO, recognizes Navalny as a victim of political vendetta. But he seems to be unruffled by such harsh punishment heaped upon him by his rival, Vladimir Putin. He has organized large-scale protest rallies and demonstrations against the Russian President, described by the Guardian, a British daily, as an “aloof, isolated, a digital hermit who is never out of touch; broadly supported, but very narrowly advised by an ever-tighter group of confidants.” 

In fact, Putin, a former KGB strongman, doesn’t brook criticism and those who have crossed his line, have been fired or sentenced to jail. Public dissent is no-go area. If media reports are to be believed, a deputy economic development minister who referred to a government policy as “shameful” sometimes back was immediately fired. Liberals and free-thinking officials have long been purged of the Kremlin. It is said that several key decisions are taken in secret manner by a very small circle of officials close to President Putin, indicating clearly that all is not well within the Kremlin.  While it doesn’t present a benign, positive and markedly upright picture of Russia’s incumbent President, it also invariably suggests as to why he is feared the most inside the Eurasian country. In spite of his being looked as a diehard patriot, he is the one who is detested the most by free-thinking liberals and democrats. But strangely, a new poll conducted by Moscow-based Levada-Center, a Russian independent, non-government polling and sociological research organization showed that a whopping 63 percent people interviewed, answered that they wanted Putin to lead Russia after 2018, 19 percent said they opposed his leadership and  19 percent others said they were undecided. Only 26 percent people of the total 1,600 interviewed across Russia’s 48 regions responded that a new President will replace Putin. Going by such polls, it shows that Putin wields considerable influence across length and breadth of his country.

Yet a question lying uppermost in everyone’s mind is how long the Kremlin will remain occupied by the leader who has run the country with iron hand. There is a speculation that the 64-year-old Russian strongman may not like to contest the next election and may step down due to “certain circumstances.” This certain circumstances are related to Putin’s illness. To support this claim, a Kremlin-friendly news website Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) is cited. The story about possible resignation by Putin on the grounds of ill health was broken by this news website.  However, the story was deleted within hours of its publication last year. Since then one after another expert, claiming himself or herself as pundit of Kremlin activities, has begun to feed the media with his or her piece of opinion. Valery Solovev who is a professor at Moscow State Institute of Foreign Affairs has been quoted by the British daily as saying that the President, in order to avoid publicity about his resignation, may quietly slip out of the public glare. Indian diplomats have no knowledge about it. Their common refrain is that they can’t react on any issue which is in the domain of speculation. But it started gaining ground when Putin cancelled his trip to Siberia in July. It is said that the Russian President is grooming 43-year-old Alexei Dyumin, a former commander of the Russian Army’s Special Operations Forces as his successor. In 2014, he had played a crucial role in taking over Crimea from Ukraine. In 2015, he was awarded the Hero of Russia for valour and courage shown during the Crimean War. In the same year he was promoted to the rank of General and then made Deputy Head of Russian Army’s infantry division. Earlier, Dyumin was appointed as the Governor of Russia’s strategic Tula region where he got elected to the same post in September in the election.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who has also served as the President of Russia, is seen as another potential successor to Putin. Dmitry is, in fact, considered as Putin’s shadow; he does nothing on his own until asked by Putin to do. Known to each other since the 1990s, they have also shared power together for the past more than a decade. Thereby, there is a possibility he may get Putin’s blessings to become the Russian President again. Earlier he has held Presidential post from March 2, 2008 to May 26, 2012. Yet health may not be a lone issue that could force Putin to step down from the Presidential office, he is equally concerned about the Russian economy and as such, it could be a reason for his possible resignation from office next year.  However, people close to Putin say that the Russian President is not the one who could vanish without creating a whimper. Rather they say the 64-year-old Russian leader who enjoys a daily workout in gym, horse riding and fishing has emerged stronger after the election for the 450-member Duma in September. In that election, Putin backed party secured 343 seats.  Yet to say concretely about Putin is fraught with risk. He is contesting or not the next presidential election, can be decided by none else than him. But it is true that his presence has given Russia a confidence to fight odds.