Ben Aris in Moscow -
Moscow is gripped by the disappearance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hasn’t been seen in public for a week. Is he dead? Is there a palace coup underway? Perhaps he has sneaked off to marry his girlfriend, or he is just undergoing another round of Botox injections and his face is so swollen he won't go out in public. These are just some of the theories being put forward.
Kremlinologists have gone to town on the news (or lack of it in this case) with op-eds entitled "Putin's disappearance implies a Russian dictatorship" or "The Sick Man of Moscow: Vladimir Putin may well be seriously ill, or worse”.
"Either he is fine and furiously working behind the scenes to calm the clan warfare that has emerged in the wake of the [Boris] Nemtsov assassination," wrote Brian Whitmore in a blog for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "Or Putin is truly sick and incapacitated and the recent turbulence we have witnessed – from the assassination to the muddled narratives in the investigation to the open conflict between the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – are symptoms of a highly personalised system that has lost its head."
The speculation began earlier this week when Putin unexpectedly cancelled his trip to a summit in the Kazakh capital Astana, where he was due to meet fellow leaders of the newly minted Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The air of mystery was heightened by Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s comment: "We are not giving any explanations as to the reasons. This was the decision of the leaders."
Pundits immediately assumed that there must be something wrong with Putin to cancel the meeting. However, relations between the members of the Customs Union, which was transformed into the EEU at the start of this year, have been bad, as the economic crisis that Russia is suffering spills over into its neighbouring markets. Both Nazarbayev and Lukashenko have publicly complained that the free trade agreement is a lot freer when it comes to letting Russian goods enter their countries than when their goods are trying to enter the Russian market.
Peskov has since been desperately trying to play the story down. "The president feels fine," he said in an attempt to quash the first reports that Putin's no-show was due to ill health, but without saying where Putin was, adding that the president's handshake was still so strong it could “break your hand”.
Journalists got more suspicious when the Kremlin posted several pictures online that turned out to be more than a week old. Peskov only made matters worse by announcing that Putin would not be appearing at a meeting with the Federal Security Service on March 12, which he often attends. "I think Putin would rather miss his own wedding than skip a meeting with the FSB," said one well-known commentator.
Finally, on March 13 the Kremlin announced on the presidential website that Putin would meet with Kryrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev on the following Monday, March 16.
All this talk has led to speculation that a palace coup is underway, which may have been sparked by the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on February 27.
While everyone is speculating on what is going on, as there are no hard facts available, I will add my two cents worth.
Firstly I don’t believe there is a palace coup. The clique surrounding Putin has too much invested in his rule to want to oust him. If Putin were replaced, then all the oligarchs that have benefited the most from the last decade and a half of Putinism would be the first to be thrown in jail as the new guard coming in made a grab for their companies and cash.
Moreover, thanks to Putin's sky-high popularity, any replacement would spark widespread popular demonstrations and possibly even spark a the “coloured revolution” that many in the West still hope will eventually oust Putin. His personal popularity makes Putin more-or-less untouchable politically.
However, Nemtsov's killing clearly has created waves, and those have mainly been focused on Chechnya. The authorities have been quick to arrest five men from the Caucasus; a sixth killed himself during the arrest. The case against them has rapidly fallen apart. The most significant of the six was Zaur Dadayev, a friend and former lieutenant of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who surprisingly publicly spoke out for Dadayev's character following his arrest. It now appears that Dadayev was tortured and he has since withdrawn his confession.
There have also been several reports of a clash between Kadyrov and the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, and here there really does seems to be a power play in progress.
Putin recently awarded Kadyrov one of Russia's highest honours, the Medal of Honour, as he has been a loyal servant since he was appointed. Kadyrov was instrumental in bringing peace to the region following the Second Chechen War in the 1990s and more recently he delivered a 100% vote (actually 102% according to some reports) for both Putin’s United Russia party in the 2011 parliamentary elections and for Putin personally in the 2012 presidential elections. These results were key, as especially in the Duma elections the Chechen votes allowed United Russia to just scrape over the 50% threshold and win an outright victory.
But Kadyrov is also clearly a brute and runs the region with an iron fist. Human rights groups have accused the former rebel of using death squads to enforce his authority. Also when a Kremlin aide visited Chechnya to see how $1bn sent to Grozny to finance its economic redevelopment was being spent, he said in a report leaked to the press at the time that he didn’t see any evidence of the investment at all.
More ominously, the Chechens have been accused of the killing of opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 as well as several other gangland-style killings in Moscow. Politkovskaya was murdered at the same time as Kadyrov was suing her paper, Novaya Gazeta, for running a series of articles accusing him of kidnap and murder.
Kadyrov has been operating with impunity for most of the last decade, but just suppose, as a matter of pure speculation, that he is somehow connected with the Nemtsov slaying. If so, given that the Kremlin would almost certainly be enraged by this killing, then all the recent press surrounding him – in state-controlled media that usually have clear orders to write these sorts of political pieces – suggest that he is being sent a very clear warning: you are not untouchable and you can be replaced.
The Chechen "clan" remains extremely powerful in Moscow, as it could in theory turn the insurrection back on. And if Kadyrov is under attack, then he will push back with everything he has got. Putin's removal from circulation at this time would only add to Kadyrov’s nervousness, as in Putin's Russia a direct appeal to the president is the only way to take the heat off.
As I said there is no evidence for this – or any other – theory. Nor is it clear in this hypothetical case how Kadyrov's removal would play out, if it came to that point. Chechnya is calm as it is repressed, but the constant attacks in towns like Nalchik suggest it is still seething under the surface. A change of guard could easily end up sparking a third Chechen war.
The bottom line is that this scenario is possible, and the fact that I can write a piece like this, or my colleagues can offer their own palace coup versions of the same, all testify to the central role that Putin plays in Russian politics and this is not a good way to run a country. Most likely, the real explanation is that he has simply run off to the Maldives for a week to recover from some more plastic surgery and to celebrate his honeymoon, after finally marrying former gymnast Alina Kabaeva.
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