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Putin and the rouble rout

Dec 18 2014 07:39
*Leopold Scholtz

Russians are an incredibly tough nation and unlikely to blame their president for the country's economic troubles. (Shutterstock)

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MANY commentaries about this week’s financial woes in Russia made the point that the country’s economic problems may erode popular support for President Vladimir Putin. Obviously, nobody can say with a hundred percent certainty what is going to happen there.

But knowing something about Russia, its history and its people, I am inclined to differ.

It is true that the Russian economy received a hammer blow this week which would be the downfall of many a government in the West. The rouble took a dive and fell over 40% in value, while the central bank raised interest rates from 10.5% to 17%.

READ: Rouble collapses as oil prices decline

This smacked of real desperation, because few economies can withstand shocks of this magnitude. However, it seemed to pay off, as the rouble appeared to rally somewhat. It remains to be seen how lasting the recovery will be.

Nevertheless, the question remains whether this could, as some commentators suggested, loosen Putin’s iron grip on power. This interpretation, it seems to me, is based too much on a typical Western view of the world.

READ: Rouble crisis could shake Putin's grip

In modern Western democracies, stable voting patterns apparently belong to the past. People in general do not vote for Party A simply because their parents and grandparents did. Instead, they float around and vote for whomever makes the best promises.

On one level, this has damaged the democratic system’s credibility, as politicians increasingly follow a populist course and promise the voters a paradise on earth.

A typical example was President Barack Obama, who excited huge crowds with his rousing speeches. But, after he was elected, he could not deliver – how could he? – and so, many people became disillusioned. No wonder his ratings are among the lowest of any president in history.

This is how things work in the West, and this what commentators understandably had in mind when writing about Russia.

Russia ain't like the rest

But this is not how things in Russia work. In Russia chaos and suffering is the norm. The wealth of the last decade is an exception - and any Russian older than 30 knows it.

This has been the case all through history, first through tsarist times, then under Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. After that there was the era of stagnation under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, and during the 1990s the years of chaos and hyperinflation under Boris Yeltsin.

During most of this time, the leader – whether the tsar, Stalin or whomever – was never blamed personally. The fault always lay with his bad advisers. “If only the tsar/Stalin/whomever knew!” was the sigh of millions of Russians throughout the last four or five centuries.

It is the case once again. Putin is – as of now – not blamed. Listen to this reaction of an anonymous Moscow artist, quoted in The Guardian, which sounds typically Russian: “I think it’s because the West is trying to hurt Russia. But we Russians will never be defeated.”

The fact is that the Russians are an extremely hardy people, able to withstand so much terrible suffering that Westerners often are unable to understand it.

Nationalism is Putin's trump card

At the moment, Putin’s popularity ratings still hover above 80%. They may drop as the crisis starts to bite, but he has a very good trump card – nationalism.

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was very unpopular. People had endured him, but they neither respected nor loved him.

Yet, the foreign invader was the best thing that could happen to him. He rallied his people by invoking holy Mother Russia, the God-given messianic role the Russians had to play in the world. And they answered him loudly. The figure of 24 million deaths scarred the Russian psyche considerably, but they endured.

And when Stalin died in 1953, believe it or not, the earth shook with the sobbing of millions of Russians. Even today, many people remember him with awe.

Putin is invoking the same emotion. In his big speech of December 4 2014 he portrayed the reclaiming of the Crimea, a piece of the Motherland, as a holy duty.

He called the peninsula “the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation” and said that it was there that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus (as Russia was then known). The harbour city of Sevastopol has a “sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism”.

In other words, the Crimea was the birthplace of the Russian nation, he seemed to be saying. What is more, the annals of history tell us that the same Grand Prince Vladimir started the Christianisation of ancient Russia from Kiev, now the capital of an independent Ukraine.

Any Russian listening to Putin and knowing something of history must have heard the sub-text: not only the Crimea is Russian, but also the Ukraine.

With these stirring thoughts burning in the hearts of millions of Russians, entrenched by Putin’s manipulation of the news media, chances are that he will outlive the present economic woes. Russia is not the West and should not be interpreted as such.

* Leopold Scholtz is an independent political analyst who lives in Europe. Views expressed are his own.

leopold scholtz  |  vladimir putin  |  russia
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