‘Dethrone the tsar’: Putin floats retirement to seaside winery amid Navalny uproar
By Joel Gehrke
Jan 25. 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin has a retirement dream, and, like so many of those fantasies, it involves a winery near the sea.
“It is a good, noble occupation,” Putin told Russian students in an online discussion on Monday. “I would give it a try someday, not as a business but as an occupation.”
Putin brought that pastoral vision into the public eye at a fraught moment, as his team works furiously to contain the political uproar instigated by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned dissident whose allies released a video chronicling corruption allegations against the Kremlin chief. The nationwide protests stirred Putin to issue a direct denial of the corruption charges while gesturing toward a future for himself outside of governmental work.
“Out of everything there that I saw [in that film], the only thing that grabbed my attention was winemaking,” Putin said, acknowledging that one of his allies owns Abrau Durso, a prestigious winery near the Black Sea. “When I finish my work, maybe I’ll go work as an adviser to him. But not as a businessman but as a legal expert.”
The comment may not be the most credible clue about Putin’s future plans, given his allies in the Russian legislature maneuvered last year to enable him to remain president until 2036. On the other hand, he signed a law last month that gives former Russian presidents lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution; the only living person other than Putin to hold the presidency is Dmitry Medvedev, his diminished junior partner.
Even if his remarks are insincere, if he intends instead to live out his days at the top of the Russian political system, the comment points to the difficulty of his position, according to Western officials and analysts.
“Putin is trapped in the system that he had created himself,” a Baltic official told the Washington Examiner. “The system is not sustainable because its based on central control. … If he retires, the system breaks down, unless he finds someone whom he totally trusts and who would be accepted by the population and who would have [the] guts to make sure the system runs smoothly [in the] post-Putin era.”
A tall order under the best of circumstances, the Navalny phenomenon has complicated Putin’s options. His grip on the Kremlin’s greasy pole has derived strength from the Russian public’s sense that he provided stability following the chaos and corruption of the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Putin came to power as a ‘tough guy’ who could end the war in Chechenya [sic] and end oligarchy,” the Baltic official added in a written message. “That’s why corruption, as the central theme of Navalny’s strategy, is so dangerous for Putin.”
Navalny nearly joined the roster of murdered Putin opponents last year, when he survived an apparent Russian intelligence operation to poison him with a chemical weapons-grade nerve agent. Russian officials arrested him immediately upon his return from Germany. Navalny’s allies countered by releasing a lengthy video in which Navalny argued that Putin has plundered the country to gain outrageous luxuries such as a palace on the Black Sea.
“There are two different motives for the protesters, but they are converging,” political analyst Abbas Gallyamov toldU.S.-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Navalny is becoming synonymous with the fight against corruption.”
Putin, who has justified his long rule as a necessary shield against upheaval, is thus a focal point of domestic unrest, with no clear resolution. “If Putin kills Navalny or has Navalny killed, he runs the risk of turning Navalny into a martyr,” said Catholic University professor Michael Kimmage, a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund and expert on U.S.-Russia relations. “On the other hand, if he frees him, he runs the risk that a real political movement could crystallize around him.”
The third option, Kimmage suggested, would be to leave Navalny imprisoned without trial in the hopes the public forgets his plight. The anti-corruption activists around him have pledged to continue the protests until he is released. And the blow to Putin’s reputation only increases the 68-year-old man’s need for power.
“The more turmoil there is in Russian politics, the harder it is for Putin to leave because he could easily be strung up the lamppost by a mob or by a rival or just by accident,” Kimmage said. “It’s a huge risk for him to step down.”
The peculiar difficulty of Putin’s position is hinted at even in his comments about retirement. Abrau Durso, the winery he mentioned, is owned by Boris Titov, whom Navalny identified as a key figure in Putin’s self-dealing. The estate “was founded” by Tsar Alexander II — an emperor known as “Tsar-Liberator” for his emancipation of the Russian serfs, who nevertheless was assassinated in St. Petersburg by terrorist revolutionaries.
“For Putin, his biggest fear is uprising/ street protests,” the Baltic official concluded. “He can’t control street protests, and protests can dethrone the tsar.”