Oh, that Vladimir Putin: Now you see him, now you don’t.
For 10 days, everyone even remotely interested in Russia was speculating about why, for 10 days, no one had seen Putin. Where had he gone? A bad Botox injection? The birth of a love-child? A coup? An untimely death? The flu? Even those who were convinced that nothing overly untoward had happened were frustrated: given all the public hysteria, shouldn’t the Kremlin have at least done a photo op?
That, my friends, was the point: What the Kremlin has just told us, loud and clear, was that Putin’s whereabouts are discussed on a need-to-know basis, and, at the end of the day, only Putin himself really needs to know. To put it more bluntly, Russia belongs to Putin, and Putin belongs to no one.
It was a masterful move, when you think about it. Ever since Nemtsov’s murder, the speculation has been that Putin was losing control. That Sechin and co had barged into his office, demanding the removal of the uppity Kadyrov. That the nationalists and bikers and other uber-patriots had backed him into a corner. That the mercenaries of Novorossiya had given him an ultimatum.
With one little parlor trick – where’d he go? there he is! – Putin has put himself back in the center of the story.
But he’s done more than that: He’s claimed ownership of the story of Russian politics itself. Once upon a time, Putin concentrated power in the presidency, eviscerating Russia’s constitution and emasculating its institutions of governance. By disappearing, Putin has now killed off the institution of the presidency, too.
The presidency, after all, is a public institution, one that owes at least a nominal debt of accountability to the people, and one which, at least in theory, anyone else could occupy. As such, it relies on visibility. But not Putin. He rules when you see him and when you don’t. Putin rules not because he is President, but because he is Putin.