More than a year remains until the presidential election, but Vladimir Putin’s unofficial election campaign seems to be getting under way already, no matter how hard Dmitriy Peskov tries to present this as Putin’s ordinary routine. Meetings with workers’ collectives and heart-to-heart conversations with «the people» — these are one of Putin’s favorite techniques, allowing him both to be seen and to boast a bit about his achievements. It is in such a setting that the first outlines of Putin’s future election strategy are emerging.
The question of what kind of Russia Putin intends to build during his fourth term (or fifth, depending on how you view Medvedev’s term in 2008-2011) is now becoming one of the most intriguing ones. There is no money in the budget; Rosneft, which has adopted the role of a responsible business company that feeds its pensioners, is dragging out its own privatization; and world oil prices are rising, but somewhat uncertainly and with no guarantee against a fresh collapse. The government has failed to come up with any economic policy over the past few years, and Putin had other things on his mind: Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Trump, Fillon, Aleppo.
A means of rescuing the economy was found in the form import substitution, but this seemed somewhat petty and even vulgar. In late 2015 Putin timidly began returning to the topic of high technology and the need to reduce dependence on the fuel and energy complex. By late 2016, when hopes for a return of oil prosperity were bolstered by agreements with OPEC, the Kremlin began testing out an attractive new concept, combining the idea of an energy superpower from 2006-2007 with the modernizing agenda of Medvedev’s presidency. In 2007 the authorities said the fuel and energy complex would haul the Russian economy up to a leading position in the world economy, and in 2009 Medvedev promised that high technology would release Russia from the curse of oil. Putin himself is now trying to cross the hedgehog with the grass snake (technology plus oil).
The Eterno plant that Putin visited — a joint enterprise between the Chelyabinsk Pipe Plant and Rusnano — is a symbolic conceptual godsend in this sense. In 2017 Putin may present us with a new idea of a notional «nano-fuel and energy complex.» High technology plus pipes is the new recipe for a happy future for Russia — not only an energy superpower but also a country of innovation.
In this new Russia of the fifth term, the new workers are also nothing like those who promised to come from the Urals in tanks and dreamed of crushing the liberals and the «fifth column.» In 2012 the future president went in search of the workers’ support to Uralvagonzavod, to the shop where they make tanks, and where they see no alternative to Putin: This too was a symbolic message to all sorts of domestic and foreign audiences. In 2016 Putin as future president is appealing to young, modern workers in virginal clothes and sterile workplaces, looking as if they have only just left their desks at a prestigious educational institution. To them Putin recounts how he dreams of «successfully completing his career» and traveling. This is no longer the immortal national leader without whom there is no hope of progress, but the modern president of a civilized country who clearly envisages one normal option to be quietly ending his career, enjoying a carefree old age, and giving lectures in the world’s leading universities.
Putin’s recent address [to the Federal Assembly] was really strong on this score. «I want to end my career successfully» — that sounds like a verdict on the significant proportion of his entourage who have no intention of ending anything. Is the president preparing the elite and the public for the choice of a successor? If so, will Putin sit out his six years, or will he go early, like Yeltsin? Or perhaps he will not even contest the coming election at all, ceding to the temptation to go before it is too late?
Be that as it may, these words of Putin’s are far from empty rhetoric. A «successful end to a career» with the prospect of traveling and visiting various countries — that sounds like a significant political declaration, combining a reluctance to sit tight in the Kremlin until reaching a Brezhnev-like state, readiness to leave the country to a friendly successor, and an intention to preserve the sort of relations with the international community that will not obstruct free movement around the world.
But we should scarcely regard them as confirmation of the president’s imminent departure. Putin seems to be offering the public a sort of deal: my reelection in exchange for a subsequent peaceful handover of power to someone like me, with guarantees of continuity regarding both nanotechnologies and large-diameter pipes.
This rather engaging picture of the world also contains the imprint of our not particularly ideal reality. For example, Andrey Komarov, the major coowner of the Chelyabinsk Pipe Rolling Plant (ChTPZ), just last year was released from house arrest after 18 months of detention. Komarov was accused of attempting to give $300,000 to the leadership of the Promresurs Federal State Unitary Enterprise, on which depended ChTPZ’s inclusion on the list of enterprises participating in the country’s mobilization preparation. This entailed a tax concession, which was granted, but ChTPZ was not included on the special list. The Russian Investigation Committee argued that the transfer of money was documented, but the court ruled that evidence had been gathered in an inappropriate way. «A provocation by the siloviki,» anonymous sources said, not realizing at the time that a couple of years later such detentions would become one of the most powerful mechanisms for rotating Russia’s elites in 2016.
The alliance between distinguished businessman Komarov (who was also at one time a senator and United Russia member) and system liberal Chubays (Rusnano) to supply Gazprom and Transneft with supernanocomponents for megapipes — this is a symbol of our time.
Demand from the state companies, funding from a state fund, and political protection for the coming six years are guaranteed. The smallest detail is required to complete the picture — new pipelines to the east and west, in all directions, despite and in defiance of the whims of Europe, China, Japan, and Turkey. Herein, it seems, lies the cunning plan of a Putin who is prepared to retire as soon as the Eterno plant is closed, Gazprom’s and Transneft’s demand for pipes having been satisfied. This is the new strategy — or rather the well-forgotten old strategy — of the coming presidential term — to enmesh half the world with the warmth and security provided by Russian energy. Only then will it be possible to travel without fear of the consequences.