Russian President Vladimir Putin has disappeared. Well, not literally, but he hasn’t been seen in public for a full week and reports about his schedule on the presidential website seem suspect. The Kremlin denies that he is ill, and the Russian blogosphere is abuzz with speculation.
It’s still impossible for an outsider to tell where Putin is, or what he’s up to. But it isn’t too early to draw conclusions from this episode. It offers evidence enough that Russia has become an outright dictatorship. No other kind of state would be so opaque, nor its citizens so preoccupied with their ruler.
Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was prone to disappearances: He liked to drink and had a weak heart. Yeltsin’s health became a particularly serious issue during the run-up to the 1996 presidential election, in which he competed against a strong Communist candidate. Not long before the vote, he suffered a heart attack that his aides hid from voters. After he won, Kremlin spin doctors became increasingly creative in answering any questions about the president’s health. On August 19, 1996, presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky initiated a meme when he said in response to such a query that Yeltsin’s handshake was strong.
On Thursday, an Ekho Moskvy radio reporter evoked it in an interview with Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov, asking him about the president’s handshake. “It breaks hands,” Peskov replied sarcastically.
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Peskov has never previously had to account for unexpected absences by his boss. Quite the opposite. Putin has tended to be unnecessarily demonstrative about the strength of his handshakes, taking pains to appear fit and energetic always. He has not dropped out of sight for more than a day since the early years of his 15-year rule, when he briefly went off the radar after the submarine Kursk sank in 2000 and when terrorists seized hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002. The two incidents were major crises for Putin, but he has since weathered others of similar magnitude without dropping out of sight.
This month, however, he has again disappeared. The last time he was seen was a week ago, on March 5, when he met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Moscow. Since then, he has canceled talks with the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan, the signing of a treaty with South Ossetia and an appearance at a meeting of top brass at the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service.
The daily RBC undertook an investigation into Putin’s meeting schedule and claimed to have discovered discrepancies on the official site, Kremlin.ru. According to the paper, Putin’s meeting with the governor of the northwestern region of Karelia, reported on the site as having taken place on March 11, had actually occurred a week earlier. Indeed, a Karelian website wrote about it on March 4.
On Thursday, according to Kremlin.ru, Putin spoke on the phone to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. Sargsyan’s website echoed the information with an identical readout. The Kremlin says that’s the only March 12 event Putin participated in – an unusually light schedule for the energetic Russian leader. For example, on Monday, March 2, the official site reported two working meetings with Russian officials and a telephone conversation with the leaders of Germany, France and Ukraine.
Somewhat worryingly, and unlike Yeltsin’s spin doctors, who were willing to admitthat the president was unwell while downplaying the seriousness of his condition, Peskov has firmly denied that anything at all is wrong with Putin. That has set up a feast for conspiracy theorists. Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin aide, has suggested in a LiveJournal post that the president may have been overthrown by hardliners, including his chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, in a palace coup.
Konstantin Remchukov, a journalist and publisher with top- level access at the Kremlin, has tweeted the rumor that Putin’s friend Igor Sechin, who runs Russia’s biggest oil company, state-owned Rosneft, is about to lose his job, which would either mean that Putin is conducting a major shakeup of his inner circle, or that he’s on the way out himself. There have been hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts suggesting Putin might even be dead – and, this being Russia, numerous attempts at black humor.
The Russian stock market, the ruble and Russian bonds were all up Thursday, as if Putin’s absence from the radars were good news for the economy. In Ukraine, many are watching the news with bated breath, wishing the hated Russian leader would somehow disappear for good. “Apparently, someone else controls the situation in Russia now, if anyone controls it at all,” Ivan Yakovina wrote on the Ukrainian website Nv.ua.
In short, Putin has managed to induce Russians into a state of obsession simply by removing himself from their sight. Russians, including Putin opponents, are as worried about his week-long absence as kids would be if their father had wandered off somewhere and not come back for days. They watch the Kremlin website with a mixture of distrust, apprehension and hope, wondering how, or whether, the steep pyramid of power Putin has built over the years can function without him at the top.
If that is not a sign that Putin has become a fully-fledged dictator in the nation’s collective mind, what is? After all, a democratic nation’s leader couldn’t go missing in the first place: U.S. President Barack Obama’s schedule is always posted on his official site, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s website keeps up a steady stream of news about her public appearances. Their spokespeople don’t try to hide it when they suddenly feel ill or have a sore throat. Only a dictator is secretive about his bouts of flu – or about a full week’s worth of meetings, which Peskov suggests have been taking place all this time.
It’s time to do away with euphemisms like “authoritarian ruler” or “strongman.” Putin is a dictator who runs Russia through fear and stealth. Whatever the reasons for his absence, the country can’t function without him in the driver’s seat. Irrational fears surface instead. And so do irrational hopes.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.