Staunton, March 16 – Over the past ten days, most analysts and many Russians have been looking for signs as to what is taking place behind the scenes given the departure from public view of Vladimir Putin. Every report that appears to bear on that subject has been subjected to intense scrutiny and discussion.
But as often happens in such circumstances, two things have been overlooked – what has not changed in Russia over that period and what has not happened, despite the expectations of many that even the temporary disappearance of the Kremlin leader opens the way to anything from chaos to a new Jerusalem.
And their observations about what has not happened may be even more important than those about what has because they suggest that the role of Putin in Russian life, as enormous as it is, may not be quite as large as either he, on the one hand, or others, including both his supporters and opponents, imagine.
Sazonov, a Kyiv commentator, says that given earlier media commentaries, one might have expected Russia to collapse if Putin disappeared even for a moment. Without him, he suggests, “people don’t know whom to hate. Kiselyev isn’t up to date on whom to curse … Amur tigers don’t know how to give birth … [In short,] a catastraophe.”
But in an updated version of the song from “My Fair Lady,” most things have gone one just as they did. Moreover, he says, in response to a question on social networks, “Is it difficult for you to live without the fuehrer?” “The majority of Russians calmly responded that they had not noticed any differences.”
“If a favorite cat disappears, this is a catastrophe and there is panic in the family,” Sazonov writes. And all its members look for it. “But in Russia, the president disappears, and no one is even that interested;” and that suggests, all the earlier hysterical declarations of loyalty notwithstanding, “no one needs Putin” as much as he or others think.
Whether or not Putin returns to the scene, that conclusion could prove more important in the long run than any other because it takes away from him what he and his backers have insisted upon, that without Putin, Russia will collapse. For the last week or even more, Russia and Russians have managed just fine.
Gozman, a Moscow commentator, extends this analysis by pointing to four things many might have expected to happen with Putin’s disappearance but that haven’t. First and most important, he says, none of the 86 percent of the population which says it supports Putin has gone into the streets to “defend their leader.”
It turns out, he says, that “it is easy to find volunteers for pogroms but not for the defense of the President.”
Second, Gozman continues, “no one from the elites – the governors, generals, oligarchs, financial group heads – has turned out to be so incautious as to publicly express disloyalty.” Either they have adopted a wait and see attitude, or they have learned that disloyalty as such would hurt them with any new leadership.
Third, “not one of the supposedly independent branches of power has reacted to what is at a minimum an extraordinary situation,” an indication of the absence of real institutions and of the extent to which the authorities are cut off from the citizenry. One might have expected someone to raise a question; instead, nothing.
And fourth, Gozman notes, “not one of the parts of the opposition has taken any political steps.” They have not provided any assessment of the situation, organized any demonstrations, or even made demands. “Nothing.” They may have talked in private, but their failure to do something in public “testifies at a minimum” about just how weak they are.
The Moscow commentator concludes his comment with the following observation: “the last president who disappeared was Yanukovich, albeit not for long. He turned up in Rostov.”