The beginning of the end of Putin’s world

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Now it seems that the greatest trick Vladimir Putin ever pulled was convincing us Russia-watchers that confident Russian voters didn’t exist. Throughout the last eleven years Russian politics have become so centralised and bureaucratic, driven by a delicate equilibrium of the different siloviki and civiliki groups that most of those on the outside forgot to perceive it in any other way than what pure Kremlinology implied us to believe. But, as we have witnessed in the last couple of days, things are changing, even if it’s really difficult to predict where all this is going. Thus, I choose to be careful and not entirely share the optimistic enthusiasm that I see on Twitter and among opposition activists I’ve met in the last few days, but I do think that some self-examination would be necessary for those who want to get straight how Russia will look like in the next years.

Putin did not only fool outsiders. Apparently, he fooled himself as well. Mind you, he realised the changes earlier. This is why he, surprisingly to many of us, has decided to change places and return to the presidency. In Putin’s dictionary, control and balance are the two keywords to power. When he saw less and less balance in the system, it was obvious for him that more control should be implemented. As President, he could not be circumvented, because of the high extent of centralisation in the power vertical. In the meantime, though, he forgot about his own brand fading, as Vedomosti pointed out in an excellent article.
Now what did this brand consist of? Putin had no distinctive ideology. He was a trained spy, who has always been used to exploiting any tool for his own needs, regardless of anything else. When he deemed it necessary, he exploited the siloviki, and when the economic crisis came around, he exploited the civiliki. Without an ideology to justify his power, he relied on two things: the constantly rising life standards and his tough-guy image. The first one, as Maxim Trudolubov so eminently pointed out, was the social contract of the Putin era. The second one was the fear factor, something which had always been necessary for Russian leaders to have. When the social contract rotted away, Russians saw the system as it really is: corrupted, seemingly unmovable officials without the slightest chance to be held responsible by voters. They so “zastoi” or stagnation, the finest example of which was the announcement of Putin to return to the presidency.
Thus, Putin seems to have forgotten a variable from his equation of power: the possibilities emerging from a worsening public mood. Not that he wasn’t aware of the problems piling up. Let’s remember for example the leaked list of the unpopular governors that was compiled by the government for internal use. Putin knew exactly what people thought about him and the United Russia party, but he thought that he would be able to solve it with his own tools: by creating the All-Russian People’s Front, by increasing his authority through returning to the presidency and by distancing himself from the governing party. A new half-naked photo shoot, maybe. After this, I guess his being booed in the Luzhniki stadium was a big wake-up call. And this sealed the fate of the second pillar of his authority, the fear factor. By then, he had been the one who was feared, now, apparently, he had become the one who is afraid. No better proof for this than looking at Putin’s face on the election day.
The election was already plan B, I suppose. I think it was obvious to anyone that United Russia possessed the necessary administrative resources to rig the election as much as they wanted to. It’s apparent if you look at the interactive map of Ria Novosti (look at Chechnya, Mordovia or Tuva…), or if you look at the actual riggings as they were filmed and uploaded by activists. The only reason therefore why United Russia obtained 238 seats was that the authorities wanted it to obtain this much. Presumably, the real popularity of the party is even lower (several people told me about 30%, based on assumptions, while the representative of the Golos NGO promised an exact figure for a later time), but Putin seemingly thought that by letting the official popularity of the party drop by a significant figure, he will ease the tension in the society.
This didn’t happen, as Saturday’s rally showed us. Some might say that similar protests have happened in the last years in Kaliningrad or on the “Day of Wrath”, without any major consequences, but this is not entirely true. I have to stress that this time it was in Moscow where these 40 (or, according to some sources, 50) thousand people gathered. The capital, not some peripheral town. Not to mention the first, precipitant reactions from the part of the government. Old habits die hard: the state television ignored the protests and the FSB called on Vkontakte.ru to close down the profiles of several opposition figures, a request which met a surprising refusal. By doing this, the government inadvertently directed the flow to the Internet which has considerably increased its importance as a news source. Only today did the government think of opening the safety valve again and authorise the state television to show images of the protest. Plus, we had the usual embarrassing and ridiculous responses: the Facebook-post of Medvedev that has already gotten several thousand embarrassingly negative and scornful remarks, or the baffling remarks of the grey cardinal, Vladislav Surkov, who suggested a “liberal party” to tie down the energies of “annoyed Muscovites”. These steps again bear witness to the fear in the government’s ranks, and how the tables turned.
As does the arrest and imprisonment of Alexey Navalny, the man whom many supposed to become the face of the protest. This also highlights the main problem with the demonstration. It unites a whole lot of very different people, nationalists and liberals, the Moscow intelligentsia and a disgruntled countryside middle-class. What they have in common is that they have had enough of “the party of crooks and thieves” but they are apparently clueless about the next step. Navalny is surely a person whom many of them trusts and who to many symbolises a new generation of uncorrupted public figures, but it’s still doubtful how many of all those disappointed would actually rally behind him and his obscure views. Another solution, who has the material means to build up a campaign, would be Mikhail Prokhorov, but judging from his recent evaluation on his blog, he seems to be speculating on a scenario where United Russia is sacrificed for the political survival of Putin. Among the opposition parties, the Communists were the first to sign up for the new opposition by declaring the election illegitimate. Anyhow, I doubt that the party of Zyuganov, its own still statue since the early 90s could appear to be of any use to the people.
The first and most important task of the opposition will be to find a common candidate for the presidential election next year. This is even more important than maintaining the protest actions would be, because these demonstrations, however large number of people they attract, does not seem to attract the critical mass, and will at best be a prelude for the presidential election. In a country like Russia, a strong personality does make a huge difference. Thus, each day that the opposition spends divided and indecisive gives another breath of fresh air for Vladimir Putin.
For the time being, Putin does not seem to be able to use this opportunity. After losing the aforementioned two pillars of his power, he found himself in an uneasy situation. But he is quick to adapt to new circumstances. The main question of the next three months will be whether he can rebuild a part of his past fame, or at least show that there ain’t no other man but him on the stage.
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