The infinite Vladimir Putin
According to official figures, for what they are worth, the constitutional revision now enacted by Vladimir Putin would have received the approval of 78% of voters in July 2020. The opposition considered the referendum a sham full of pressure and manoeuvres, but the president will always stress that the revision deserved popular support. We all know how results like that are achieved in opaque and authoritarian regimes. In any case, it is estimated that nearly two thirds of Russians go along with the president, despite the economic doldrums, social dissatisfaction and obstacles to freedom. This level of acceptance - or resignation - is due to the regime's incessant propaganda of the leader, showing him to be a resolute and deeply nationalistic leader, the personifier and protector of Russian identity. The population still remembers the chaotic governance that preceded his coming to power in 1999. Putin means for many stability and public order.
Autocracy favours corrupt practices. That is one of the regime's weaknesses. The campaign against Putin's absolute power involves unmasking high-level corruption. Attacking him based on the aberrations inscribed in the new constitution will not have much impact. It is true that the new law allows him to remain president, if life gives him health, until the age of 84 in 2036. That is the most striking aspect of the new constitutional text. It is a cunning move that aims to allow him to leave the scene when he sees fit, without losing an inch of authority until the final moment. The other relevant changes are the lifetime impunity granted to him and his sidekick Dmitry Medvedev, and the ban on homosexual marriages.
Seeing the Russian people condemned to another number of years of oppression makes anyone who knows and cherishes the value of freedom angry. But the problem is fundamentally an internal issue, which will have to be resolved by the Russian political system and citizens' movements. Our space for action is limited to insistently condemning the lack of democracy and the attacks that the regime makes against the fundamental rights of every citizen, starting with Alexei Navalny. But it is essential not to be naïve about the danger Putin represents in terms of our stability and security. When we talk about dialogue and economic relations we do not do so out of fear or mere opportunism. We do it because that is the way to treat a neighbour, however difficult, in order to have peace in the neighbourhood.
One of the most immediate problems relates to Ukraine's aspiration to join NATO. This is an understandable ambition. It should be dealt with according to the membership criteria - democracy, the rule of law, peaceful conflict resolution and guarantees for the proper functioning of the national armed forces, including the protection of defence secrets. Kiev and Brussels do not need to ask Moscow for permission. Vladimir Putin and his people will not be at all happy when it comes to formal negotiations. However, they have no right to oppose a legitimate foreign policy decision by an independent state. However, it is important that everything is done without burning the midway points and with the appropriate diplomacy to prevent an acceptable process being exploited by the adversary as if it were a provocation.
Another area of immediate concern: the cohesion of the European Union. Putin has long been intent on shattering European unity. He sees the French presidential election of 2022 as a unique opportunity. Marine Le Pen has, for the first time, a high chance of winning. She is viscerally ultranationalist and against the European project. Her election would pose a very serious risk to the continuation of the EU. Putin knows this. He will do everything to intervene in the French electoral process and ruin anyone who might be an obstacle to the victory of the candidate who best serves his interests. It is essential to put a stop to this meddling and, at the same time, to bear in mind the lesson that the Russian leader reminds us daily: vital disputes between the major blocs are no longer fought only with a sword and rocket fire.
(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)