Vladimir Putin delivered his last big speech as PM in front of Duma deputies yesterday, and it did not go smoothly. Not only did A Just Russia perform a „non-planned” walkout, but towards the end Putin reportedly lost his infamous straight face and even made an intriguing remark stating that at the end of his third term, he will still be fit for two more presidential terms – something that forced his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov to make an awkward explanation. Of course, given how many people – including myself – were sure even in 2011 that Medvedev would stay on for another term, it would be foolish to exclude a possibility that at the moment does look highly improbable. As always, I have my reasons to underpin my arguments, but this time I can also think of some circumstances which – as last year – would be capable to blow my structure of thinking away like a house of cards.
Mikhail Dmitriev of the Centre of Strategic Research has recently raised eyebrows by stating that “Gorbachev’s fate is what awaits Putin”. Indeed, there is a certain logic in what Dmitriev says, and the always astute Mark Galeotti has also made some convincing remarks to support this parallelism, in connection with the new law on political parties. While I agree that the new party law may have unforeseen consequences (which I will come back to a bit later), I think there is another source of tension which should make Putin worry in the medium-term.
Curious as it might seem, I’m not too enthusiastic about the recent electoral successes of independent candidates in Yaroslavl, Togliatti, Chernogolovka or Moscow. It’s because these places make part of “Russia A” – a country of industrialised cities and regions with a fairly high life standard, societal and/or IT development. People here, even if local elections are coming down to “bread and butter issues” are willing to support alternative, independent candidates just for the sake of inciting political change, and it’s also easier for opposition parties to throw their support behind them. But if we go down a level, to smaller industrial towns, “monogorods” (company towns), or the rural population – “Russia B”, that is –, we’ll get a grimmer picture.
There is a huge geographical variation in Putin’s support. While city dwellers are less and less likely to support him – the majority of Moscow is already against him – smaller towns and villages are still very “conservative” and pro-Putin. Smaller industrial towns make up for approximately a quarter of Russia’s population while rural population makes up for about a third. A considerable amount of people indeed, albeit with huge arrays in human capital and resources. Russia’s new opposition is unlikely to score many points here. Nils van der Vegte gave me the perfect metaphor I’d been looking for: new oppositionists here are like Narodniks under Alexander II, who, having arrived to the spot with the aim to help the rural population, were stunned to be swiftly thrown out of villages either by the Okhrana or by the locals themselves. They just didn’t speak the same language, and this is almost exactly the case with an indecisive, fragmented and often mistrusted “new opposition”. Even if it’s not impossible (although very hard) to find local heroes in these regions at the first place, making them support liberal ideas would be mission impossible.
It is thus in Putin’s interest to keep playing Russia B against Russia A, and try to be the pivotal player in this game. At least in the short term. This is something he cannot keep up for a longer time, simply because he’s running out of administrative and financial resources. Urban population turns away from Putin because people there have achieved a certain level of societal and financial development, which “Russia B” hasn’t. On the other hand, this latter will only cling on to Putin while people living there are guaranteed fairly decent life standards (again, according to VTsIOM statistics, people considering themselves to have middle-sized incomes support the soon-to-be-President in much larger proportions than the self-estimated poor). They love the Putin of Pikalevo. But if another economic downturn comes – which Russia B will be first to be exposed to – he won’t be able pull a Pikalevo every week, and with United Russia considerably weakening in regional centres – that is, cities – coupled with the dwindling coherence of the elite it will be damn hard to keep order in the regions.
Putin’s big problem is that the obvious solution – restructuring the economy – while carrying potential benefits for both Russia A and Russia B is diametrically opposed to the interests of the elite rallying around him. However serious of a reshuffle will take place in the government, I have no doubt that Igor Sechin will find his way to manually controlling the energy sector and will torpedo any attempt of a serious privatisation or diversification. Building up another elite has serious obstacles. First, as I’ve blogged before, I believe that Putin still puts too much trust into the siloviki (or he cannot help but). Liberals have been having hard times recently, with several of their representatives demoted and it will be increasingly difficult for them to look for new supplies with the intelligentsia gradually turning away from the ruling elite. Last, but not least, this would take a much longer time than Putin has on his hands.
In other words, there’s just no place to externalise conflicts and tensions any more. This situation poses a serious risk inasmuch as it risks to create – or maybe it has already created – a political vacuum whereby Putin cannot be the pivotal player any more, but there is no other alternative for more than half of the population than “other Putins”. With the liberalisation of party legislation and especially with the reintroduction of the gubernatorial elections – with whatever restrictions – Putin may gain some time (by pretending democracy, filtering candidates, and atomising the opposition), but elected governors with the possibility of creating local parties will have considerable potential on their hands. And as things stand now, with a strikingly different Russia A and Russia B scattered throughout regions but taking part in the same political markets, it’s doubtful that governors will use this potential for the purposes of any “opposition coalition” that might or might not emerge. The situation might resemble to the 90s only in its being equally chaotic.
These circumstances will decide the fate of Putin. Unless some serious non-economic crisis emerges, as in 1999… But I’d better not speak of the devil.