Is Vladimir Putin Russia’s Margaret Thatcher? Or, when will the ‘men in black mercedes’ come calling?

Amidst parallels with Stolypin and Brezhnev and so forth, it may seem a touch surreal to be throwing in this additional analogue, but bear with me. In an interview in February with the (London) Times, Gorbachev raised this comparison, saying that ultimately Thatcher “stayed too long and society was tired” and that by extension the same was true of Putin. Yes, I suppose, but there is more to it than that. In her time, after the Falklands War, this unpopular and derided prime minister became unassailable. What ultimately brought her down was not that society as a whole was fed up with her, or at least not that directly. Instead, it was that she lost the support of the Conservative Party elite (even Geoffrey Howe, seemingly the meekest of figures, resigned and publicly rebuked her in the process) such that the so-called ‘men in grey suits,’ the grandees of the Conservative Party, decided she had become a liability, that their best — only — hope of political survival lay in toppling her. Thus she was confronted and induced to stand down and, indeed, there was a bump in the polls once she had gone, such that her successor John Major managed to eke out a fourth election victory for the Tories’ 18-year run in power.

Admittedly, this doesn't look much like Putin and Medvedev...

I participated in a very interesting panel discussion today at the Open Society Institute, in which it became clear that all the panelists felt that something had changed and Putin’s days, or at least years were numbered, such that the only question was how long. Thinking about it, though, a no-less-important question is how? In other words, how would Putin fall? Would it be defeat in an election and a graceful (or more likely graceless) hand-over to President Navalny (not that I would anticipate that) or whoever? I find that hard to imagine. Not because I think he’s bound to win any future election, nor even because he would flout any defeat. Instead, I suspect that the key figures within the elite who have done so well out of Putinism would be terrified of any regime change, bringing with it the prospect of retribution, redistribution and responsibility for past misdeeds. I do not think they would throw the dice and hope; nor do I think they would be planning on or even able to mount some retrospective coup if they did lose. Instead, I think that if such a loss looked even vaguely likely, the equivalent of the Tories’ ‘men in grey suits’ — let’s call them the ‘men in black mercedes’ — would turn against him and gladly throw him from the troika to be devoured by the wolves in pursuit.

One way of the other, the truth that dares not speak its name within Russian elite circles is precisely the same as the activists’ rallying cry: “Russia without Putin.” But for them it is not an ambition so much as a sober and pragmatic contemplation that this will eventually happen. Some of this generation of cynical and pragmatic political entrepreneurs will probably seek to reinvent themselves as liberal, democrats, or at least separate from the current ‘party of power’ — that may already be what Prokhorov is doing and, in a more tentative, deniable, could-still-go-either-way sense Kudrin, too. (Who knows — and this is probably pushing speculation too far — grey cardinal Surkov might yet reinvent himself, especially if kept outside the inner circle; I can’t help feeling it’s the kind of cute, tricksy kind of maneuver I think appeals to him on a gut level.) But others unable to unwilling to do this might well decide either to distance themselves from him or actively decided to oust him as their chosen figurehead.

The dilemma, of course, will be one of timing: no one wants to be the first to murmur treason, but nor does one ever want to be the last left behind. As with Thatcher’s demise, it will take a serious decline in support, such that electoral defeat looks likely. It may well also — again like Thatcher — require a public challenge by a stalking horse leadership rival, who will fail but in the process further savage the leader’s authority and then public denunciation by some seemingly loyal henchman. (Maybe this post should be titled ‘Will Dmitri Medvedev be Russia’s Geoffrey Howe’?) One way or the other, eventually those ‘men in black mercedes’ will come calling…

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