The shocking treatment of Alexei Navalny and the arrest of hundreds of protesters expose the presidencys dark underside, says the foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall
Vladimir Putin is no ordinary two-faced politician. For Russias Janus-like president, double-speak, disingenuousness and duplicity are a way of life. For 20 years, he has shown himself the master of having it both ways. But is he about to be found out? As riots shake Moscow, with the promise of more to come, is an end to the long, dark night of the Putin supremacy a dawning possibility?
On the infrequent occasions when Putin openly presents himself to the Russian public, he cultivates the persona of a caring, fatherly figure, not unlike a tsar, valiant in the cause of people and nation. Kremlin publicists project images of a bare-chested, no-nonsense tough guy and stern, stalwart patriot, as was the case on Sunday when he was pictured reviewing a St Petersburg naval parade.
But the alternative reality was also on show at the weekend, when riot police violently attacked pro-democracy demonstrators enraged by official attempts to fix upcoming municipal elections. More than 1,300 people were arrested. It was the most serious disturbance since 2012, when protests targeting Putins rule brought a sweeping crackdown on civil and legal rights. In this netherworld that is Putins Russia, any pretence of meaningful democratic and electoral processes has been all but abandoned. Political opposition is discouraged and penalised. Free speech and peaceful assembly are severely restricted, media are censored, courts and judges are nobbled, and NGOs, religious minorities and human rights activists are harassed and persecuted.
Nor, on the dark underside of the Putin presidency, is he the universally respected, almost omnipotent figure his backers and boosters like to pretend. His latest nationwide telephone call-in show in June produced sharp criticisms, despite the risk of reprisals. Just one question: when will you leave? one brave caller asked. Another compared Putin to Leonid Brezhnev, whose Communist-era reign remains synonymous with harsh economic times.
The Russian regimes shocking treatment of Alexei Navalny, the best-known opposition leader, is cruelly reminiscent of that cold war period, when dissidents were jailed and tortured. Navalny was picked up again last week, for no good reason, and jailed for 30 days. Now it is feared he may have been attacked in prison with a chemical agent, as has happened to so many Putin opponents in the past.
In any healthy political system, it would be Putin in the dock and facing possible jail time if only for his criminal incompetence. If unrest is growing in Russia, it may be because the economy is at a five-year standstill, living standards are falling, businesses are closing and 13% of the population lives in poverty. Last week, Russias central bank warned that economic growth was slowing further.
These chronic problems have several causes. One is endemic corruption at state and local level. Another is the way the government has squandered Russias oil and gas revenues, failing to invest in jobs, healthcare, education and infrastructure in periods when energy income was high. Lack of diversification is another structural problem boding ill for the future.
Russias political and economic woes share one factor in common: Putin, and the self-serving, unrepresentative, opaque regime he runs. He insists, for example, that US and EU sanctions imposed after his illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea are not hurting Russia. Yet analysts estimate the sanctions provoked massive capital flight, in excess of $317bn, in ensuing years and continuing, dramatic falls in foreign direct investment.
Putins popularity, although still relatively high, is sharply down on previous levels. Signs of growing political weakness were discerned in recent decisions to bow to public pressure to release an investigative reporter, Ivan Golunov, who was framed by police; and the scrapping of controversial plans to build a cathedral in Yekaterinburg. In another country, this might have looked like responsive flexibility. In Russia, it looked like cracks in Putins once impregnable authoritarian edifice.
The conflicted faces of Putin are evident, too, in Russias dealings around the globe. The Kremlin portrays him as a master statesman, out-thinking and out-foxing Russias enemies and competitors. With Donald Trump, admittedly, thats not hard to do. The two mens last meeting, at the Osaka G7 summit, saw the US president again slavishly courting a leader who opposes much that the US traditionally stands for, and who, Democrats say, helped to get Trump elected by nefarious means.
Yet Putins global opportunism is not the success he likes to pretend. In Syria, where Moscow intervened on the side of Bashar al-Assads regime in 2015, Russian forces are stuck in what increasingly resembles a quagmire in the countrys north-west. Putins troops are again facing accusations of atrocities, and of possible chemical weapons use, against the besieged civilian population of Idlib.
At the same time, his military and diplomatic alliance with Iran and Turkey is cracking at the seams. Like his unfinished war in Ukraine, his risky meddling in Venezuela, and his covert war on exiled opponents, as seen in last years Salisbury chemical attacks, Putins international adventurism is proving politically and financially expensive, domestically unpopular, diplomatically isolating, and in the case of Syria, potentially disastrous.
Last weekends sudden lashing out against his opponents in Moscow speaks of rising panic. Behind Putins smirking public face lies a well-founded sense of mortality.
Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator