On June 11th, 2012, a day before one of Russian opposition’s largest protest rallies, law enforcement officials conducted searches of ten opposition leaders’ apartments, including those of lawyer Alexey Navalny, Left Front leader Sergey Udaltsov, television personality Ksenia Sobchak, and Solidarnost’ Movement leaders Boris Nemtsov and Ilya Yashin. The opposition leaders were also summoned for interrogations, all of which were scheduled for June 12th at 11 AM, that is, an hour before the March of the Millions was set to start. The news of these raids spread through the Russian Internet like wildfire. On Twitter, #privet37 (“Hello,1937”, referencing the year when Stalin’s mass executions of “enemies of the people” reached their peak), appeared in the top five worldwide trending topics several times throughout the course of the day. Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the Center for Political Technologies analytics department, presents her take on the Kremlin’s rationale.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s apartment after the search.
Vladimir Putin is obviously no Stalin, which may be his biggest problem. During his first presidential term, Putin was dubbed “the president of half-hearted decisions.” He never had the boldness or political will to put the country on a hard-line authoritarian track; the guts to “tighten the screws” like the Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko; he never tailored the Constitution to suit his own needs; he chose not to run for a third consecutive term. Instead, Putin acted indirectly by methodically eliminating factors outside of his control on the political landscape until there were virtually none.
The vertical power structure Putin built rests on two main foundations. First, it is the government’s control over the flow of information, which it won through taking over the major mass media outlets. Secondly, the state systematically undermined all credible alternatives to Putin’s regime. During his first eight years in power (2000-2008), the Russian voter was repeatedly confronted with the question of whether they was any option beside Putin. The underlying assumption was that no one else was capable of taking on the challenge of raising the country from the ruins in a world that was filled with enemies both at home and abroad, all of them guided by short-term considerations, clueless about the responsibilities of a national elite. It is entirely possible that Putin sincerely believed this and still does to this day.
As soon as Putin returned to the presidency (which de facto took place in September 2011, when President Dmitry Medvedev was formally reduced to a political non-entity), the commentariat began reading the tea leaves to figure out whether Putin would rebrand himself. They wanted to see whether he would undergo a political transformation that would correspond to the needs of a country that had grown up quite a bit over the past four years and had begun to harbor hopes for political change. No deep political analysis is required to see that so far, Putin has only demonstrated that these past four years have not affected him at all, neither in terms of his behavior, nor his mentality.
Inertia is the most dangerous word for today’s establishment. Inertia is everywhere: in their mindset, in the development of the political regime, in how policy is created—it is everywhere, coupled with the fear of everything suddenly getting out of control and falling apart. This is where the authorities are in great error. The Kremlin is now hostage to its own tactical and strategic mistakes, five of which stand out as having the greatest potential for leading to the regime’s ultimate downfall.
The first mistake: Russian authorities tend to believe that today’s opposition leaders are ultimately irrelevant and have no real supporters
This may have been true until December 2011, when, in the wake of rigged parliamentary elections, Russia woke up a different country. For the first time in the twelve years of Putin’s de-facto rule, protesters, over one hundred thousand of them, took to the streets of Moscow, and more than just once. Putin’s own mistake is his unwillingness to see and take into account the obvious fact that the leaders of the opposition did not force the angry middle class into the streets, protesters came of their own accord.
The June 11th raids of opposition leaders’ apartments may have been an experiment of sorts. Perhaps, authorities wanted to see how absence of key organizers affected the rally. The outcome was not good news for the experimenters: tens of thousands of people showed up regardless. Not only were they gathered in support of their usual anti-government rhetoric, they also wanted to convey their resentment of the pressure and intimidation the government was putting on opposition leaders. For example, the majority of protesters are ambivalent about Ksenia Sobchak’s involvement in the movement, seeing her as an entertainment diva taking advantage of a newly-fashionable political trend in pursuit of publicity. However, these perceptions were put aside when Sobchak became the target of rights violations in her capacity as an activist.
In December 2011, political protest spread beyond the margins of society and acquired popular legitimacy through the participation of authoritative public figures, including well-known and respected writers, cultural leaders, and entertainers. It appears that Russian protesters do not need political leaders in the front row, they are simply looking for prominent figures who will voice their opinions. The protest was no longer the subject of Kremlin manipulations, becoming an active force in its own right, which compelled authorities to revise certain decisions and change their strategies. It was the protest movement that forced the Kremlin to reinstate gubernatorial elections in the provinces and simplify registration requirements for political parties. On top of this, the movement made authorities so afraid of the people that the law to the right of assembly was changed with all the concomitant embarrassment and unconvincing justifications to European governments. The authorities will continue to lose strategically until they stop seeing the protest as a temporary glitch in the system that’s come as the result of the “spoiled middle class” having “too much freedom.” They need to let go of the idea that the movement can be tempered and disarmed through a simple intervention on the part of the presidential administration and internal affairs agencies. Today, the Kremlin believes that the movement needs to be suppressed.
Mistake number two: the notion that the protest will peter out on its own, or with just a little bit of the outside help.
The current tactics for fighting the protest movement are readily apparent. These consist of attempts to discredit opposition leaders, new restrictions on holding demonstrations, and efforts to resurrect the “Putin majority” by rallying them to stand up to so-called domestic and foreign enemies. Unfortunately for Putin, the protest movement has taken deep root across social strata, going well beyond the liberal intelligentsia. The most menacing trend for authorities is the gradual fusion of political and socio-economic protest. What we have now is a fairly broad coalition of diverse political forces, including representatives from the left, the right, social democrats, as well as the non-ideological “middle class” that has yet to make its choice beyond realizing that “all of this just cannot be permitted to go on as before.” Hence,
Mistake number three: the Kremlin’s belief that the opposition represents a marginal minority in conflict with a pro-Putin majority.
Putin is completely confident that he has the support of the majority of Russian voters, which gives him the mandate and the right, in accordance with every democratic norm, to do whatever he finds necessary. This is the President’s most deep-seated misconception: his denial of the reality of the situation. The passive majority, with its conformist and paternalistic mindsetis going to vote how Putin wants them to only as long as the windfall of oil dollars keeps filling the Russian treasury coffers. This same majority will turn away cold-heartedly from their leader the moment pensions and salaries begin to drop or payments get delayed. They are as stagnant as the regime itself, the latter having no experience in working under competitive pressure, in the presence of viable alternatives.
The primary implication is that instead of an active minority opposed to the “pro-Putin majority,” as the situation is presented by pro-Kremlin analysts, there is an actively engaged pro-democratic minority facing an equally engaged conservative minority, the latter gravitating toward the authorities, feeding from their hand, and serving their interests. This active minority, let us call them “conservative,” has no ideology and is merely acting in accordance with its survival instincts. Conservatism has become the catchword of Putin’s defenders, and their chief strategy is survival through maintaining the present system of politics and economics. The passive pro-Putin majority does not participate in this struggle and in fact has limited understanding of it due to their lack of access to reliable information on current events. In light of this, Alexey Navalny has called for the establishment of a “propaganda machine for a good cause,” a system for disseminating accurate information about Putin’s cronies; the corruption of those with access to the government trough; and the endless lies on state-sponsored television.
Mistake number four: the authorities are fully convinced (and not because of some good faith error, but for the sake of convenience) that the protest movement is encouraged and supported by the West, particularly, the U.S. State Department, and other “enemies” who are out there waiting for the right moment to stage a color revolution in Russia and overthrow the democratically-elected Putin and his regime.
Suffice it to recall Russian officials’ hysteria when U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul arrived in Moscow, immediately upon which he was practically accused of underground revolutionary activity. This hysteria has not subsided. Every one of McFaul’s statements is still being dissected, his every careless comment becoming fuel for the negative campaign against him. Who can forget The Anatomy of Protest, the film that aired on NTV openly charging the opposition with being funded by foreign sponsors?
One could spend a great deal of time contemplating whether Russian authorities actually believe their own propaganda. To me, it seems that they do, at least to a certain extent. The Russian establishment, particularly officials in the agencies closest to the axis of power, have clear-cut notions of the supposedly hostile environment, of the United States’ eagerness to exploit every opportunity, technology, and resource in aims of destroying Russia. In this context, the Kremlin sees the opposition leaders not as independent players on the Russian political landscape, but rather as the blind instruments of other, more powerful players. This stubborn unwillingness to recognize their own citizens as representatives of the interests of diverse socio-economic strata is the most dangerous misconception, leading to a number of other miscalculations that have a snowball effect against them.
When the authorities order raids of opposition leaders’ apartments, they believe they are hurting the “overseas puppeteers” that are purportedly controlling the opposition. In reality, without realizing it, the government is fueling yet another wave of an authentic protest movement. Unlike the passive pro-Putin majority, this movement is capable of self-organization, self-consolidation, and real political action. By adopting the new law on rallies, which in fact nullifies the rule of law in this realm and authorizes the harshest official measures against unsanctioned opposition rallies, the government is stimulating activists’ ingenuity, pushing them toward developing more efficient ways of accumulating and distributing resources and means of rapid adaptation to new circumstances. As a result of the Kremlin’s response, the protest movement is set to become more confrontational and, at the same time, more flexible and less vulnerable. Finally,
The government’s fifth mistake: its persistent belief that the Kremlin controls the system, when in reality, the system has long been dictating the Kremlin’s policies.
The establishment has become hostage to Putin’s “manually-operated” rule, in which laws and institutions regulating the state and economy gradually cease to work on their own, while in turn, even the smallest decision can take on major political ramifications. Entire sectors of the economy are controlled by officials outside of the rule of law through the establishment of special regulations specific to these sectors. Such regulations provide for unique privileges and rights of access to resources granted to a handful of individuals close to the country’s supreme authority. Russia today finds itself in the situation dictated by the principle of “everything for our own people and the law for everyone else.”
In a recent report from the Center for Strategic Research, Mikhail Dmitriev notes, the authorities’ loss of control over the course of the events. «There is a decline in governability. We see the emergence of new officials in the provinces that are not entirely dependent on the capital. In a crisis situation, each of them is going to move in the direction most advantageous for them as politicians interacting directly with their respective constituencies.»
We may also see the development of an internal opposition among the ruling class. Dmitriev believes that this opposition will emerge as officials begin to lose their grip on political developments. The dismantling of the vertical power structure will likely be chaotic, occurring under crisis conditions when authorities will be forced to respond to unpredictable circumstances. According to the most recent data, the likelihood of yet another global crisis is over 50 percent. Center for Strategic Research analysts predict the further spread of political confrontation, the persistence of a repressive regime, and its resistance to much-needed reforms.
Thus, the Putin regime is on the defensive, striving to regain its invincibility, shield itself from the demands for change, and prevent competition. At the same time, the regime has neither a thought-out strategy for economic development nor a clear sense of the structure of its own priorities. It is plain to see that these priorities are contingent on the particular situation and special interests at play in any given decision. The notion of universal principles and norms is totally antithetical its underlying logic. Instead, the establishment hangs on to the logic of self-destruction, self-deception, delusion and deep-seated fear.
The forecast for this regime is unfavorable. Indeed, it is poised for internal decay and disintegration while popular protest speeds the process of its imminent collapse.