Pussy Riot as a symptom – Part 2

In the first part of this post I was trying to point out some of the more immediate political consequences of the Pussy Riot sentence. I joined the interesting discussion started on Mark Galeotti’s blog, In Moscow’s Shadows, an exchange of ideas, which I invite everyone to take a look at. In this second part I will take a more detailed look at the situation and try to put the Pussy Riot trial into context. I will weigh on my point made earlier that although such events help the opposition to some extent, the elite has a comparative advantage when it comes to pushing for changes. Here’s why.

One of the aspects of the sentence (again: together with all the events of the recent months), as this FT piece points out, is that they clearly showed Putin’s inability to be a reformer. Although I don’t necessarily think it is so – as I wrote before, Putin had little choice but to please whom he feels his most important base are, and would otherwise be able to take up a pragmatic approach – this is clearly the message these decisions convey to voters and investors alike. The problem is that Russia, facing downwards trends on the oil market in the medium term, needs some important and far-reaching reforms, mostly economic ones. An increasing number of officials are aware of this.

One of the problems with Putin’s system is that it lacks an ideology. More exactly, it lacks what I’d call a hard ideology. It wasn’t always so: when Putin came to power, his ideology was clearly the restoration of Russia’s glory, set against the chaotic 90s. However, once this has been done, and notably in the latter part of his second term, this ideology weakened and gave way to a so-called soft ideology, that is, the growing life standards of Russian citizens that gave Putin legitimacy even when some suggested that authoritarian reforms went too far and the government risked to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Also, this pragmatic approach came handy with the economy. The government didn’t have ideological objections against strengthening economic ties with the West.

The crisis, however, shattered this soft ideology and left a vacuum at its place. The only “legitimacy” of Putin’s power today is the assumption that he cannot be replaced without risking a serious and dangerous upheaval. That is, the legitimacy lies in the personality of Putin himself – as Joseph Conrad wrote, “the spirit of Russia is the spirit of cynicism”, and what we’re seeing now is exactly this pure cynicism, deprived of its garments. The problem is that the Russian society has moved on drastically from the point where it may have found such an explanation satisfactory. This is why – as Stratfor’s Robert Kaplan pointed out in an interesting paper (referring to the same quote from Conrad) – Putin is playing strongly on the geopolitical gut feelings of Russians in his foreign policy. This is, Kaplan nonetheless argues, falls very short of a solution, as Putin cannot offer a coherent perspective to Russians or to the majority of Russians any more (contrary to Kaplan, I wouldn’t like to use the word “moderniser” for obvious reasons).

He can offer nothing but himself, and he can offer it less and less: with the loss of the ability to control public debates, it will be increasingly impossible for Putin to transmit his own personality – his bonmots, his jokes, his half-naked pictures even, as Brian Whitmore pointed out in one of his earlier PV podcasts. Without these, however, Putin is no more than his system. And remember, that system enjoys far less popularity than Putin himself.

But let’s go back to economy, which is one of the showcases of this growing indecision. Some will remember than a couple of months ago the Ministry of Economic Development published a paper laying out two scenarios for Russia’s economic development: the oil-based and the reform-based. It must have been clear from the numbers which of the solutions the technocratic circles of the elite advocated. Yet, months after a lively and sometimes even brutal debate started on the matter, Russia hasn’t moved forward to either direction. The privatisation scheme is still in a shambles (both when it comes to appointments and policy decisions, it is a real battlefield), and on the sideline, we’ve seen some monstrous business scuffles clearly and strongly linked to politics (i.e. the dispute around TNK-BP or the recent cases of Alexander Lebedev).

We haven’t seen such things happening for at least a decade. Still, Putin does not act as a decider, even though, in my opinion, any of the two alternative economic paths could suit him and his political role – either oil tsar or arbitrator/decider. No, he resorts to the good old method of allowing the existence of conflicting factions, even though it is clearly not a sustainable solution in the present situation, given the state of the economy and the centrifugal movements of the elite. So he’s either trapped in a system that he created (cf. “no moderniser”), or he’s afraid or to weak to decide in such a momentous question.

A similar message is conveyed by the whole Pussy Riot case. Highly publicised.

Is this a positive message for the new opposition? Not necessarily. By now it has become quite clear that there’s only one “potential politician” among the leaders of this highly fragmented group. Alexei Navalny is dangerous to the elite exactly because he is a lot like Putin (although I’m sure he wouldn’t like this comparison). He knows how to speak the language of the average citizen, he knows exactly what the problems are with the present regime, he is able to coin new, catchy expressions and transfer them into everyday speech. And although at the moment he has little more to offer than himself (like Putin, that is), he has an increasingly strong case against the present system, just like Putin had twelve years ago. Mind you, as Brian Whitmore points out, that system seemed to be cemented quite strongly as well. No wonder the authorities try hard to take him out.

Still, I think the elite has a far bigger chance to initiate changes if it deems necessary (see Part 1). Not only because Navalny is still considerably less popular and less known than Putin. The fact is that Russia’s rulers in the past century have almost exclusively come from the inner circles of the actual elite, even in situations arguably more dramatic than the present one. The last real rupture occurred almost a hundred years ago. This is what we call a tradition.

The ability of people to come to power from outside the ruling elite can happen either through a revolution or peacefully. The first is the function of a highly tense social situation; the second is the function of the maturity of a society. And even though revolutions can sometimes be built on a silent majority (see Ukraine), today’s Russia is certainly not in either of the two situations I mentioned above.

So cast your eyes upon the elite!

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