Between a cucumber and a hard place

As the so-called „cucumber season”, or summer political recess is looming upon us, it is appropriate to do a quick recap on where exactly the political situation in Russia is standing for the moment. I quite agree with Brian Whitmore that this summer seems to be nothing but a bit of clear sky before a storm, but there is more than one way this storm might unfold. The response of the authorities is a mixture of consistent steps building on one another and wild improvisation that reflect the incertitude of the elite. The big challange for Vladimir Putin seems to be that he has to play diagonally different games to the elite and to an increasingly split Russian electorate. On the top of it, he seems to have chosen a bad strategy.

The elite’s structural response to a persisting opposition activism has been threefold. First, the amendment to the law on protests that increased fines and tightened rules on protests. Second, the amendment to the law on NGOs that obliged organisations receiving foreign funding to label themselves as foreign agents. Third, the law on the internet blacklist allowing the government to block practically any opposition website. This latter has encountered a great deal of controversy, even within the government. However, blocking unfriendly websites is an activity that has been tested on numerous occassions in Russia and certain groups in the elite clearly think it a perfectly plausible answer to opposition activities.

These are old-fashioned steps as they are. Under no circumstances do they represent anything new(with the notable exception of, perhaps, the internet bill). These are all things that the Russian government has done before – apparently though, someone felt a certain need within the elite to be reminded that they were still able to do all these. Nevertheless, they still reflect a certain way of thinking rather than just sheer panic. Mind you, there has been a great deal of hasty reactions as well – think about the saga surrounding the Investigative Committee, for example – which by no means indicate a scrupulously detailed strategy. Again, these are reactions reflecting that the elite has been put on loose leash – that is, that Putin and his close entourage deems their loyalty to be of utmost importance. So far, nothing new. This is a phenomenon that Kirill Rogov has also recently described in Vedomosti, claiming that Putin’s constantly trying to show force would at some point turn against him.

I quite agree with Rogov on the point that Putin’s situation has started to become similar to Gorbachev’s, but I would say that Putin has already made a lot of concessions – only not towards the opposition, but towards the elite, that is, a potential opposition that he thinks is much more dangerous than the actual one. This has some grounds. There seems to be a big difference between the elite and the electorate. The electorate has apparently developed a cognitive gap between Putin and the regime. A poll from VTsIOM in March, for example, showed that while people thought elections were illegitimate, they, for completely different reasons, deemed the rule of Putin legitimate. I am pretty sure that the same thing is happening with the aforementioned laws. Again, as Kirill Rogov states it in the Vedomosti piece, the majority of Russians who supported Putin did not sign up for a tightening of screws, but for preserving the status quo. If VTsIOM finds that the majority of the Russian population sides with the NGO law, it’s because Russians have been suspicious towards foreigners and because the question is asked in a way that many of them translates as a call for judgement on foreign infuence in internal matters.  Furthermore, forcing foreign influence out has been an achievement linked primarily to Putin. This is set against the backdrop of a stagnating (but not at all negative) approach towards the protest movement. Again, a cognitive gap.

As I have blogged before, one of the biggest mistakes of the so-called „new opposition” is its having positioned itself against one person, Putin. For them, dismissing Putin would be equal to a regime change. As VTsIOM’s data shows, though, there is a considerable number of Russians that don’t bind the two things together – furthermore, they are characteristically countryside voters, people who suffer from the defects of the regime but aren’t emancipated enough to link local problems to global ones. They feel the need of a substantial change but under the auspices of the only politician they trust – Putin. Understanding that this group of people holds the key to a majority in an increasingly divided electorate, the elite might just allow the emergence of a „competitive periphery” in the short run, while maintaining the dominant position in the centre. For the key to the majority would be held by people who think that dismissing Putin would be more than a regime change.

On the other hand, the elite’s understanding is quite the opposite. They are the ones that clearly see that dismissing Putin would be less than a regime change.  A regime change would rather mean a collapse of the bases of the regime, an upheaval which could cost them their positions. A lot of hasty personnel changes and obscure infightings – a part of which is described in this insightful analysis by CSR – point to the fact that the President’s strategy is not working: less and less people actually believe that Putin can guarantee the stability of the regime, and, as a consequence, more and more people within the elite would be ready to consider turning their back on him.

With the October elections approaching, the political discourse will be more and more focussed on United Russia, or, in other words, the system and how it works. The opposition, in order to achieve something even reminiscent of a breakthrough, should move away from Putin and concentrate on the everyday failures of the system. Meanwhile, paradoxically, Putin has to make these elections another referendum on himself in order to raise stakes and to show the elite that he in fact equals the system, while at the same time maintaining the aforementioned cognitive gap in the populace.

This strategy, I think, would work out better for the President, for the time being. Nevertheless, there are two enormous elements of uncertainty  ahead. First, we cannot know how established the dissenting part of the elite is. Second, we cannot know how the Russian population – or the elite – would react to the worsening of the economic and budgetary situation which seems to be a close probability today. It might turn people both towards and against the only strong leader in the country.

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