As the world is gearing up for the upcoming talks between Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko and Western officials in Minsk next week, all sides seem to pretend that time works for them and stakes are higher on the other side. The Ukrainian army, while suffering heavy losses, claims that it is close to the total annihilation of rebels. The EU, marred by internal debates on Russia’s present and possible future counter-sanctions, including a gas war, is trying to show unity and determination. Russia, despite an obvious panic among some of its largest businesses – such as Rosneft or VTB – acts as if it were winning the conflict in Ukraine. While such a chicken-game, many fear, might as well turn the conflict into a full-scale war, there is something that has to make Putin extremely cautious: he cannot know when he is about to reach his ‘Milosevic moment’.
Vladimir Putin hates spontaneity in politics more than anything else. When the GDR collapsed and angry protesters gathered in front of the KGB headquarters in Dresden, Putin, as a young officer was stupefied and disgusted. And somehow, later on, he had to face the same scene over and over again. Protesters did not come up to his office, perhaps, yet they went close enough for Putin to feel, in some way, threatened. In 2000, shortly after his ascension to the presidency, Milosevic’s regime collapsed in Yugoslavia, giving in to the Bulldozer Revolution, effectively dethroning an important Russian ally. Between 2003-05, the waves came closer to the gates of Moscow as Colour Revolutions rocked former Soviet states, notably Ukraine, whose swing away from Russia was perceived by hardliners in Moscow as a shock, similar to what 9/11 meant in America. In 2011-12, when protests erupted in Moscow, Putin must have experienced a blood-curdling déjà vu.
When the occupiers of the Crimean parliament called for a referendum on the peninsula’s accession to Russia, Vladimir Putin likened the situation to Kosovo’s independence. That was, of course, a flawed comparison. In those two cases both the humanitarian situation and the relevant international jurisdiction were different. Putin did not want to and did not have to convince anyone about the opposite. He had to show an example of what he called the double measures of the West. Kosovo was nothing but a symbol. Now he has to avoid this symbol being used in connection with Eastern Ukraine.
Before the bulldozers come
There are a range of similarities between the Yugoslavia of the late 90s and today’s Russia. Yugoslavia, just like Russia today, provided, despite its autocratic nature, a considerable degree of freedom to their citizens – freedom of travel, for instance – but severely limited other freedoms through a system of cronyism that essentially determined positions in politics and in business.
The Yugoslavian government, just like Russia today, exerted a great degree of influence on the media, especially on television: in Serbia’s case it was the infamous RTS, dubbed “TV Bastille” after the protests; in Russia it is all the TV stations controlled by the Kremlin’s cronies.
In Yugoslavia the opposition was allowed, after considerable protests, to occupy positions at local level. So it is in Russia today, albeit to a lesser extent and in more remote settlements like Yekaterinburg. In both cases outrage following a rigged election made the partial thaw possible.
Serbia, just like Russia today, was going through a sort of ‘post-empire trauma’, albeit on a very different scale. This affected both the elites and the population, making warmongering and nationalism an easy sell. However, by 2000, the Yugoslavian middle class has decided that it had had enough – mostly because it had seen much better days. The Kosovo war and Milosevic’s defeat did not directly trigger the protests that unseated the Yugoslavian president, maybe, but the sanctions, the international isolation and the subsequent drop in life standards did. Moreover, while initially the Kosovo conflict managed, through meticulously crafted and unscrupulously applied nationalistic propaganda, to rally public opinion around Milosevic, with the bitter disappointment after the defeat in Kosovo this atmosphere helped to foment the rise of the opposition through giving way to new leaders embracing nationalism but rejecting all other characteristics of Milosevic’s rule. It only took the emergence of such a credible alternative for the elite, tired of the war and threatened by further isolation, to give in and betray the president.
What is a ‘Milosevic moment’? When did the tide turn around exactly? Was it, as Brian Whitmore suggested in July, the pact between the secret services and the opposition? Or would it have been too late to open fire on protesters, anyway? Was it rather the falling life standards that fuelled a sentiment of disillusionment and the defeat in Kosovo the spark to make it explode, eventually?
It is more likely that the ‘Milosevic moment’ came with the 2000 presidential election: a desperate and foolishly bold attempt of the embattled leader to show strength. The election needed the participation of the Serbian electorate, which, by that time, have grown tired of Milosevic. Thus, it created an opportunity for the elite to force a change that could have been much more difficult otherwise. The revolution was not fully hijacked, but as evidenced by appointments under the new authorities and their reluctance to purge the secret services, it wasn’t left untouched by elite interference either. Milosevic, of course, should have known better: a little more than ten years before the elections in Serbia, a similar misguided show of force – a monstrous pro-government gathering organised by the authorities – turned into an uprising in Bucharest. The Romanian revolution was massively hijacked by the political elite, but the recipe was similar to what happened 11 years later in Serbia: elite groups used the pretext of a popular movement to achieve their goals and dethrone the incumbent leader.
From honeymoon to estrangement
I have repeatedly blogged about the ‘state of patience’ in Russia following the 2011 castling: the relatively high approval ratings of Vladimir Putin before the crisis in Ukraine and the relative calmness of the elite could be attributed to an expectation that in 2018, Putin will resign. When the present ‘honeymoon’ period between the president and a population fanaticised by targeted propaganda is over – and the only question is when it will be – the critical, displeased or frightened part of the elite will have the stage set for them. They will only need an election and, perhaps, a credible face. The next elections to the State Duma are due to be held in 2016 – not very close, but not too far, either. A credible face will be more difficult to find, but not impossible. Vojislav Kostunica was a somewhat dull nationalist with an anti-corruption agenda who possessed no particular political talent, and for the outside world, stood so far from the ruling elite that he had never even met Milosevic in person before the revolution. Surely, there is someone similar in Russia?
Russia is, of course, not Serbia, where countryside mayors and residents could join protests in the capital easily and in no time. And just as Alexei Navalny, who’s already been subject of character assassination, is not Vojislav Kostunica, Vladimir Putin is not Slobodan Milosevic. Or at least, so far, despite the similarities, he has shown himself to be a much more cautious player than his former Yugoslavian ally. Yet, as he is going down the same path, he has the same tough decisions to make. He will have to ask himself where Milosevic was wrong. Was it when he called elections despite an obvious loss of trust? Was it when he failed to crack down on the opposition in time? Or was it when he tilted the balance of the elite by starting an armed conflict and went with it?
Even more importantly: will Putin, however cautious, see these signals in a system providing less and less feedback? Isn’t such failures inherent in every authoritarian political system?
Studies show dictators are more likely to weather a military defeat than democratic leaders. However, just like Yugoslavia in the 90s, Russia is a mixture between a democracy and a dictatorship. Authoritarian elements may have dominated Russian politics in the past years, but there is a large enough proportion of the population prone to political activism for the elite to use them for their own political purposes, should the opportunity arise. Will that be a victory march? An election? A protest against falling life standards, food shortage or travel bans? Putin cannot know, but he knows that the threat is there. And as someone who has shown himself to be a master of manipulative warfare in Ukraine, he must know how back home he faces an even more difficult task when it comes to make-believe.
The Russian president may want to turn East Ukraine into a new Transnistria – frozen conflict with Russian ‘peacekeepers’ or ‘humanitarian aid workers’ – in order to avoid turning it into a new Kosovo. He may also want to incite unrest in other regions of Ukraine in order to pursue his previous strategy of ‘two steps forwards, one step back’. In any case, he will have to show a continuous winning streak from now on – whatever deal on Ukraine he may agree to.
The Minsk talks may open a window of opportunity. But only if Putin’s negotiating partners realise that they are dealing with a leader trying to avoid his ‘Milosevic moment’ in every conceivable way, of which an endgame in Ukraine is only one. And a temporary one at best.