We’re edging closer to the 4th of March, and accordingly, the picture has started to be clearer about the strategy of the ruling elite for the very day of the election. However, what will happen after remains a big question mark to many – not only us Russia-watchers, but, I dare to say, to many in the Kremlin as well. The events of the last few months seem to have excluded the possibility of an intentionally harsh crackdown but at the same time, a two-round scenario also seems to be less and less likely. While there is a certain logic behind Putin’s apparent intention to bury his head in the sand and to proceed as usual, this may after all send the wrong signal to the elite and certainly to the population. Putin surely thinks that he chose the safer strategy, but this might as well turn out to be the riskier one.
While it is more or less apparent that the scale of the opposition uproar after the Duma election took the Kremlin by surprise, Vladimir Putin did still have a considerable space for manoeuvring himself out of the situation, and, most of all, he had multiple choices. As I blogged earlier, despite the attempts of the opposition to show unity, it still each time comes down to those insurmountable differences between the mildly displeased, the hardcore democrats, the nationalist hardliners, the left-wing and green activists. Neither Aleksey Navalny, nor Boris Nemtsov – who both had the highest chances to become the common denominator – succeeded in building up a strong and unified base. Of course, the authorities had to do with this failure as well, but I doubt that opposition groups could have reconciled their differences anyway. So Putin could have leaned back to announce some kind of “superdemocracy”, just like Alexander Lukashenka in 2010, with the additional advantage of being sure that he can win a clean presidential election against a divided opposition, if not in the first round, then in the second, without using such repressive tactics as his Belarusian counterpart. This way, he could have come back with a strengthened popular legitimacy, the most important feat of arms.
Or, alternatively, he could have initiated a discussion with the opposition, possibly through Alexei Kudrin, carefully scheduling political reforms for after the presidential election, thus pressuring the opposition to accept the legitimacy of the government and the presidential election, while probably also trying to demonstrate how divided (and/or incompetent) the opposition camp is.
But Putin, overwhelmed by old reflexes, chose the third option: a premature re-Putinisation.
It started with the appointment of Vyacheslav Volodin to deputy chief of staff which also brought about the parallel revival of the siloviki power structures. Consequent signs were the slap dealt to the critical media previously tolerated by the Kremlin – the warnings given to Alexei Venediktov and TV Dozhd – which also saw the rebirth of the old mantra about the West standing closely behind any opposition activity; the dubious disqualification of Grigory Yavlinsky, the only, at least partly credible opposition candidate (even if he himself has long passed his sell-by date); the Duma watering down an already pretty much over-hyped reform of gubernatorial elections; or, most recently, the Moscow City Hall’s refusal to allow an opposition march this Sunday. This is, of course, coupled with a sudden upsurge of Putin in polls – Levada, this week, polled him at 66%, a seemingly inexplicably high rating, but VTsIOM has published several poll results in the last weeks, forecasting a clear first-round win for Putin as well.
Many, including myself, argued that Putin might want to have a second round for his own sake, thus mitigating suspicions of vote-rigging. Now all the aforementioned seems to point in the direction of a confident first-round win. Not that Putin is afraid of any of his four “opponents” gathering a majority in a hypothetical second round. The logic behind his chosen strategy lies deeper in the principles of the system he created, those mechanisms that by now have become reflexes.
It was I think Mark Galeotti whom I first saw pointing out how the Russian elite started to play a double game: seemingly playing along with the Kremlin’s rules but keeping an eye on different outcomes. Alexei Kudrin is a fine example, but the dissent is palpable in the lower ranks of the elite as well – take, for example, the Moscow City Hall’s reluctance towards yesterday’s pro-Putin demonstration. This situation is partly similar to the siloviki wars of 2007, inasmuch as it’s a partial inner destabilisation of the elite, but this time it’s not an infighting, as players feel themselves dependent on external factors. Yes, I think it is obvious that the officials of the Putin regime have started to develop lumps in their throats and that therefore, the joints of the machinery are cracking.
As I wrote above, if the ruling elite, and most importantly, Putin were thinking in a longer term, they would try to sit out the present situation and let Putin come back with his legitimacy strengthened. However, if a system is as highly centralised, as bureaucratic and as disconnected from the people as the one Putin has created, it is hard to give back the choice to people, even if for a small period of time, or to risk opening up the system for external feedbacks. Putin feels that the true basis of his regime is lying in the siloviki elite, whom he may lose, and not in the people, whom he feels can easily manipulate. Therefore, he feels that he has to make gestures towards the elite, and not the opposition or the population. And these gestures must show that he’s still the hardliner he used to be, because any sign of weakness will strengthen the fears of his core base, and lead to a centrifugal reaction.
Thus, I don’t think Putin would even like to hide or disguise the “soft crackdown” on the opposition, on free media or on his opponents and critics. On the contrary, to a certain extent, he wants to parade it. He may even want to showcase things like Chulpan Khamatova’s “twisted arm”. He wants a first-round victory because he thinks he can deal with the population easier than he could deal with an unsettled elite. He wants to show them that he still can and will protect them from any substantial change going against their interest.
Will Putin score a first-round victory? Probably yes. Will he engage in slow but substantial political reforms after the election? It seems less and less likely, but we cannot exclude the possibility. The tricky question is if Putin’s logic is right and it’s better for him to deal with the siloviki now and disgruntled voters later. If he’s wrong, though, he will fall victim to the reflexes inherent in a system he himself created. And then the awakening will be harsher and bloodier for everyone.