Thursday, November 8, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Will Putin Become ‘Leader of the Nation’?

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 8 – Among the many intriguing comments made in the course of the two Russian holidays this past week, November 4 marking events in 1612 and November 7 recalling the Bolshevik revolution, was one urging that his United Russia Party convene a special assembly to anoint Vladimir Putin “leader of the nation.”
Leaders of this pro-Kremlin group backed away from this particular method of keeping Putin at the helm, but the fact that it was made and resonates with both those who admire how Russia escaped from the time of troubles and others nostalgic about the Soviet past says a great deal about where Russia is and about where it is going.
Earlier this week, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, who serves as United Russia’s coordinator on ethnic issues and who earlier worked as an advisor to Chechen militant Shamil Basayev, posted an article on the party’s website suggesting that its leadership should convene a People’s Council to keep Putin as leader after he leaves the presidency.
(The article was first put online at, but after party officials denied that it reflected leadership policies, Sultygov’s essay was moved and is now hard to find on that site. A copy of the original article, however, is readily accessible at
Such a council, of course, would appear to be an updated version of the one that ended the first Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, and naming Putin as “the leader of the nation” echoes the situation in Soviet times when the real “vozhd’” be it Stalin or Lenin did not always or even ever occupy the highest state post.
This duality, which one analyst argued reflects the fact that “the current Russian leadership is openly ashamed of its origins in the anti-totalitarian revolution” of the late 1980s (, helps explain its attractiveness to many Russians and also why United Russia leaders distanced themselves from it..
One the one hand, as polls, marches, and politicians have suggested over the last week, many Russians want not only to see Putin kept at the top of the Russian political system regardless of what office he holds but also to do so in ways that link the country with its past, be it tsarist or Soviet or some combination of the two.
And on the other, United Russia leaders and influential commentators like Gleb Pavlovskiy were troubled both by the manner in which Sultygov suggested this step be taken and by the notion of Putin assuming a position which would recall in the minds of many not only Stalin but also another “vozhd’” like Adolph Hitler.
What is most interesting in the reaction to Sultygov’s proposal is that party leaders have suggested they are more opposed by the method he proposes for taking this step than they are to the step itself, an attitude that suggests his article may have been a trial balloon by the Kremlin (
Those around Putin may have calculated that someone as junior as Sultygov could be disowned if people reacted negatively to it, while a more positive reaction to his ideas might serve as a useful indication of just what the Russian people and the international community might be prepared to welcome or at least accept.
And this week featured all kinds of evidence that many Russians are not at all concerned with constitutional niceties and would like to see Putin remain in charge regardless of his title so that he could continue his policy of not apologizing for the past and celebrating Russia’s future greatness.
A striking example appeared on Putin website directed at young people ( Someone wrote to the site in order to ask for guidance on ”What should someone do who loves the president too much [and] cannot live without him?” (
The site’s editors responded with the following suggestion: “First of all, calm down. And understand that the president does not need such love. The president needs only one thing: that citizens do not violate the rights of one another. And one need not love the president; [but] one needs to love the Motherland.”
That there are many in Russia – and elsewhere besides – who feel that way about Putin is beyond doubt. And read in one way, there is nothing especially wrong about either this question or this response, at least on a site addressed to children. But read in another way as an indication of just what some people want, it is clearly disturbing.
But what is not yet clear either from this response or from the discussion sparked by Sultygov’s essay is whether the Russian president and those who back him will stop before they take the kind of step which may be intended to end a time of troubles but that fact could push Russia into new and even more serious one.

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