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After Election Landslide, It's Putin's Russia (More Than Ever)

Mar 19, 2018
Originally published on March 19, 2018 11:05 pm

Vladimir Putin won re-election with a landslide victory: 76 percent of the vote. That win puts him on track to rule until 2024 — nearly a quarter century in power, second only to Stalin as far as Kremlin leaders go.

What does another six years mean for Russia?

"Given the fact that this time should be his final term, I think his mission can be formulated as: to guarantee that the system he's erected, which brought Russia back to the world stage as a significant player after a pretty big demise in [the] 1990s ... will survive him," veteran journalist Fyodor Lukyanov told NPR's All Things Considered in Moscow on Monday.

Lukyanov is editor-in-chief of the foreign policy journal Russia in Global Affairs.

These excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.


Interview Highlights

On what this victory means for Putin and his mission

To believe that an authoritarian ruler is just a cynical manipulator, it's not fair. And I think Putin is not that kind of person. He believes in his particular mission, and he believes in his connection to people. ...

If he [believed] that this system cannot exist without him, that will be perceived by him as a defeat.

This system is closely connected not to the president of the Russian Federation, but to the president whose name is Vladimir Putin.

Putin ... embodied what Russian people wanted to see after a very turbulent period of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the [flip side] of this is that the legitimacy of the whole system is actually equal to his personal legitimacy. ...

He cannot just go and put in a successor ... because this place is suited for him. No person after him will have his kind of relationship to the Russian nation. This person will have to develop his own way, but to do this he will need time, and to guarantee that during this time the system will not collapse, he will need some institutional changes as well.

On a message of stability, despite chaotic international relations

The question is, to what extent do people in Russia feel "hurt" by, for example, expulsion of Russian diplomats from Britain, or new sanctions imposed by the U.S.? ... It doesn't touch [the average Russian]. ...

If you compare the narrative now and, say, 10 years ago – the Russian discussion was much less homogeneous, and those who claimed that Russia was to blame were not the majority, of course, but a significant minority. Now ... you hear voices in support to the Western position, but very few.

On Russians' faith in Kremlin denials of wrongdoing

When I followed the [2016 presidential] campaign in the United States, I was pretty shocked. Because previously I believed that paranoia is a Russian business. So I'm afraid that we are in big trouble for one simple reason: because all the major actors have such huge domestic problems, that foreign policy issues are becoming, everywhere — Russia, China, U.S., Britain, Germany — a means to address this. And this is terrible.

Freelance journalist Anna Shpakova contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Moscow, Russia, where Vladimir Putin is closing in on Joseph Stalin at least in one regard - longevity. Putin's whopping victory in the presidential election here puts him on track to rule Russia until 2024. That's nearly a quarter century in power, second only to Stalin as Kremlin leaders go. Here's Putin playing to the crowd on a square near the Kremlin last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VLADIMIR PUTIN AND UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Russian).

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: Spasibo - "thank you," he says, "Russia, Russia, Russia." So what does another six years of Putin mean for Russia? In just a moment, I'm going to put that question to a politics watcher here in Moscow. But first I want to take you to a polling station, precinct 142 in Moscow. During the week it's a school, but yesterday this was blaring from loudspeakers as we walked up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: It's propaganda. "We are the world's biggest producer of rye," the loudspeaker's announcing. "We are the world's biggest producer of oats," and then, "we are the second-biggest producer of potatoes." It's a bit tepid as propaganda goes, but who doesn't like potatoes? After a bit, the running commentary of Russia's accomplishments gives way to patriotic songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Russian).

KELLY: This precinct had a tiny hockey rink set up to entertain the kids. They were handing out balloons to everybody who voted. And like any good party, there's lots of food.

A little mini farmer's market they've set up in front of the polling station. You can buy bags of pasta. You can buy pretzels. You can buy a lot of sausages, some yogurt it looks like. There's a woman just deciding between two loaves of - two loaves - oh, no, it's pickled fish.

Some precincts had free ice cream and picnic spreads.

LEONID AVGUSTINSKY: (Through interpreter) The administration is doing everything in their power to create a festive atmosphere, to cheer people up. And if you're hungry, you can have a snack.

KELLY: That's Leonid Avgustinsky. He's 68. We bumped into him at another polling station, precinct 148.

AVGUSTINSKY: (Through interpreter) I personally voted for Vladimir Putin. I will tell you why - because it's working well. He's doing a great job, and the whole world respects him. I don't understand how you would vote for anyone else.

KELLY: Well, we did meet people who voted for someone else - for the liberal candidates, also for the Communist who came in second overall. And we interviewed election monitors' tracking reports of ballot box stuffing and fraud, none of which dilutes the landslide that Russians delivered yesterday to Putin - 76 percent of the vote. Putin wanted a mandate to govern and he got it. So what does that mean for the next six years? I put that question this morning to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs.

FYODOR LUKYANOV: It means that he can be pretty sure that he enjoys broad support. Of course we can identify some irregularities and some measures taken to increase this turnout. But in general I think he really managed to mobilize people to believe that an authoritarian ruler is just a cynical manipulator - it's not fair. And I think Putin is not that kind of person. He believes in his particular mission, and he believes in his connection to people.

KELLY: And what is his particular mission? Have you been able to figure out what his plan is for Russia for these coming six years?

LUKYANOV: Given the fact that this time should be his final term, I think his mission can be formulated as to guarantee that the system he's erected, which brought Russia back to the world stage as a significant player after a pretty big demise in 1990s, this system will survive him. For him personally, if he will understand that this system cannot exist without him, that will be perceived by himself as a defeat. This system is closely connected not to the president of Russian Federation but to the president whose name is Vladimir Putin. Putin accumulated, embodied what Russian people wanted to see after very turbulent period of collapse of the Soviet Union. But the back side of this is that legitimacy of the whole system is actually equal to his personal legitimacy, his personal perception of people.

KELLY: You're talking about he's created a system where Putin and Russia are interchangeable in many people's minds. So what happens after Putin?

LUKYANOV: He cannot just go and put in a successor in this place because this place is suited for him. None person after him will have his kind of relationship to Russian nation. This person will need to develop his own way. But to do this, he will need time and to guarantee that during this time the system will not collapse. He will need some institutional changes as well.

KELLY: What about Russia's role on the world stage? One of Putin's big selling points I know as he made his case to voters here was stability, status quo. I represent safety. I can keep you safe. And yet if we look at international relations, just this last week has been chaos - Britain expelling Russian diplomats, Russia expelling British diplomats, the U.S. imposing sanctions.

LUKYANOV: Yeah. The question is to what extent people in Russia feel hurt by, for example, expulsion of Russian diplomats from Britain or new sanctions imposed by the U.S.

KELLY: You're saying it doesn't touch the average Russians.

LUKYANOV: It doesn't touch them. More than that, if you compare narrative now and, say, 10 years ago, the Russian discussion was much less homogeneous. And those who claimed that Russia was to blame were not the majority of course, but a significant minority. Now, in this case, you hear voices in support to Western position, but very few ones.

KELLY: And why is that?

LUKYANOV: So I think that we are now in the stage of a new Cold War which is very much different than the first Cold War in 20th century but in terms of atmosphere is exactly the case.

KELLY: The Kremlin line - whether it's on this poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K. or whether Russia interfered in American elections, the Kremlin line has been, we didn't do it and Russia gets the blame for everything. What you're saying is a lot of Russians believe that. It's worked. What about you? What do you think?

LUKYANOV: When I follow the whole line, the whole campaign in the United States, I'm pretty shocked because previously I believed that paranoia is a Russian business. So I'm afraid that we are in big trouble for one simple reason - because all major actors have so huge domestic problems that foreign policy issues are becoming everywhere. This is no difference between Russia, China, U.S., Britain, Germany. And so means to address this - and this is terrible.

KELLY: Fyodor Lukyanov, thank you.

LUKYANOV: Thank you.

KELLY: That's the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIMMY CARTER SONG, "FIRST BORN")

KELLY: And we've got more Russian stories ahead on the program drawing from our two weeks reporting here - more politics, also dance and culture. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIMMY CARTER SONG, "FIRST BORN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.