17 September 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on his people to remain vigilant against threats posed by foreign powers. Photo: AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on his people to remain vigilant against threats posed by foreign powers. Photo: AFP

How crisis helps Putin cement his power

The reason why Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to maintain his high popularity lies in how he successfully uses nationalism to construct a sense of threat from foreign powers.

His national security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, was interviewed by the official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in February. He said the Ukrainian crisis would be a chance for the United States to step in and break Russia into pieces.

“Disintegration” is an important concern for Russia. Last year, Putin’s state of the nation address suggested that Russia would not be dismantled like Yugoslavia by the “past enemy” of Russia. This “past enemy” naturally refers to America.

Even without the US, the separatism inside Russia has long been Putin’s main consideration.

Unlike China, Russia is a federal state, and a high degree of autonomy is granted to its ethnic minorities.

From 1999 to 2009, Russia’s GDP per capita has risen by 83 percent. But the development levels are uneven among its 80 regions. Among them, the growth clip of 13 regions outpaced those of some other regions by two to three times.

Forbes released a report in 2012 and described Tyumen’s economic development as close to that of the US, while Stavropol Governorate is more like Sri Lanka.

It is easier for both rich and poor regions to develop separatism.

Since his first term as president, Putin has been trying to contain local separatism through such moves as regrouping 89 executive regions into seven federal states, and appointing the local officials and police departments.

Putin also reformed the local electoral systems by selecting the possible candidates before elections are held, and not allowing local leaders of autonomous republics to be called “presidents”.

But regardless of Putin’s policies, Russia, being the largest country and given its external and internal woes, always faces the threat of breaking up.

The former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had openly talked about his idea to split Russia into three parts — Russia in Europe, Siberia and Far East — so that the former empire could no longer be a threat to the US.

In 2004, it was reported in Russia that the US had devised an elaborate plot to break Russia into six to eight parts by 2015.

At that time, there was a report from the Central Intelligence Agency, which stated that Russia was under the threat of terrorism and that its technological level was falling. It also said a plunge in oil prices could lead to the dismantling of Russia.

Today’s Russia is facing a rouble crisis, plunging oil prices and sanctions from the West, astonishingly similar to what the US predicted a decade ago.

But it is precisely such constant fears of breaking up that help Putin to firmly stay in power.

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal