(EN) After 20 years in power, is Putin’s grip weakening?

(EN)

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg, Russia July 28, 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg, Russia July 28, 2019. -CopyrightSputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS

Friday marks 20 years since Russian president Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, back then a little known security services chief with not much experience in politics, as his prime minister.

Few would’ve guessed that 20 years later, the same man would still be in power and play such an important role in world affairs.

However, Putin’s 20th anniversary in power comes at a difficult time for the Kremlin’s top chief.

His approval ratings have taken a hit because of the stalling economy and worsening living standards.

A growing protest movement in Moscow, which has seen thousands arrested in recent weeks, is also posing a threat to Putin’s reign.

But despite the recent setbacks, Putin has undeniably built an empire on his own.

From friends to foes with the West

Early on in his tenure, Russia enjoyed strong economic growth, which Putin took credit for.

It was also a time when the leader appeared ready to work with the West. The Kremlin’s leader was one of the first to call then-president Bush and offer his sympathy after the September 11 attacks. He also helped the US fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and allowed the country to establish a military presence in Central Asia — a territory Russia sees as its own backyard, according to Reuters’ Russia correspondent Andrew Osborn.

But after the 2004 revolution in Ukraine, Putin’s attitude changed.

The Kremlin believed it was part of a foreign ploy to reduce Russia’s influence there and the West’s intervention in Iraq did not help the situation.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea helped ostracise it from the West but it strengthened Putin’s support at home and convinced many the Kremlin’s foreign policy was on the right track.

Questions over his leadership

Certain Russian liberals have questioned Putin’s command since the beginning, mainly because of his background in the KGB but also his crackdown on Chechen separatists as prime minister.

There are still doubts about a series of deadly bombings on an apartment complex attributed to separatists but some claim it was staged by the security services as a cover for further military intervention in Chechnya.

However, many still see Putin as the man who restored Russia’s dignity after the collapse of the USSR.

Economic woes mean trouble for Putin

Russia’s economic deterioration came as bad news for Putin who has seen his approval ratings slide.

In 2018, he won the presidential again but this time, political analysts were asking themselves whether his default win was because he had become Russia’s only choice.

According to political analyst Konstantin Kalachev, Putin’s ratings can be interpreted in different ways.

“Putin’s rating today is completely different from what it used to be. If it was a rating of adoration before, now it’s no alternative. For 20 years, Putin has been, let’s say, the loudest voice. But today people are looking for a different voice. And as soon as he appears, then the president’s rating may go down,” he said.

Last summer, after the elections, mass protests broke out across the country as dissatisfaction with living standards came to a head, leading some observers to talk about a different kind of breakdown in Russian society.

What will happen in the future?

Experts expect Putin and his team to find a way to stay in power even after his mandate is over in 2024.

Gregory Bovt, an analyst and commentator, told AFP this may happen through the creation of a new institution. “Some sort of collective body will be created to direct the country, and Putin will always remain the head,” he said.

“He will remain watching over the country… his task is to fulfil his historical mission,” Bovt said.