2012 was an extremely contradictory year. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin has returned to the presidency and has considerably tightened his grip on the regime. On the other hand, for the first time during his rule, a protest movement has begun to rise in Russia, and the country is now divided into a passive majority and an active opposition minority. Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies and an IMR advisor, considers the outcomes of the past year.
Is Vladimir Putin happy with the first year of his third (de facto fourth) presidential term? Formally speaking, he probably is. His victory in the presidential election was resounding, and the Kremlin is convinced that he retains the support of the majority of Russian voters. Even the independent poll-monitoring GOLOS Association recognized Putin’s first-round victory. The president controls the State Duma and the Federation Council, the national media, and the government.
But this is only the formal side. If one looks closer, Vladimir Putin has returned to the Kremlin facing an array of problems, each of which could prove disastrous to his regime.
As much as Putin would like to, he cannot be considered the “president of all Russians,” which is how he positioned himself during the first eight years of his rule. The status of “national leader” has noticeably deteriorated during the four-year presidency of Dmitri Medvedev, who, as we came to understand, sincerely tried to emulate a political “thaw,” hoping for a second term and, in the end, made the wrong bet. Vladimir Putin did not want to take chances by letting his locum tenens keep the highest office in the land for six more years; in itself a sign of weakening authority. Putin’s brazen return to the Kremlin, imposed on society, offended the active and educated part of the Russian elite, which split between those who associate their future with the present regime, and those who believe that conservative tendencies are inhibiting their own development.
As much as Putin would like to, he cannot be considered the “president of all Russians,” which is how he positioned himself during the first eight years of his rule.
The winter protests of 2011-2012 demonstrated that a reformist “core” is forming within society; a spontaneous self-organizing force that is unhappy with the decreasing possibilities for participating in government, and that refuses to live in a new era of stagnation. Notable intellectuals in the social media are pessimistically calculating how old they would be when Putin’s administration can hypothetically come to an end.
Vladimir Putin feels the changing attitudes in society, and fear of pressure “from below” manifests itself through the increasingly illogical and contradictory actions taken by the Kremlin. The “tightening of the screws” goes alongside political reforms that liberalize laws on parties and elections. The party structure is changing from a dominant party system to a managed multiparty system, in which an array of spoiler parties loyal to the Kremlin (and with the popularity within the margin of error) are emerging alongside the main – and weakening – ruling party. Moreover, the Kremlin plans to allow electoral blocs in future Duma elections: a sign of a hypothetical plan to write-off United Russia and to form a post-partisan structure, with the All-Russian People’s Front as its foundation. Today, the Front is a rather mythical organization consisting of careerists and Putinists who do not want to (or cannot) rise within the ranks of United Russia. This is a gradual erosion of the party infrastructure of the “power vertical,” which the regime de facto admitted by reforming the electoral laws. Instead of the proportional system that was extremely convenient to the Kremlin, with four main parties always ready to play by the regime’s rules, parliamentary elections will be held under the mixed system. Half of the Duma members will be elected from single-member districts (as they were until 2003), which will give the regime a chance to rid itself of the image of the “party of crooks and thieves” and emphasize personalities. Furthermore, because the ‘first-past-the-post’ system always benefits the largest party, the Kremlin already expects to have half of the next Duma in its pocket.
The so-called ‘liberalization’ is deceptive: the Kremlin retains all the administrative levers for barring the real opposition from the ballot, even if the regime’s opponents consolidate and put forward a unified slate in the next Duma election. Let us recall the 1999 election campaign, when Fatherland–All Russia (FAR) headed by Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov was initially leading in the polls. By using only the media, the Kremlin managed to weaken FAR – the main rival of Unity bloc, which was hastily put together by little-known politicians, and which was backed by Vladimir Putin, then the “rising star.” Putin remembers this experience well, and is probably prepared for such competition.
However, the president – purely by inertia – keeps on placing his bets on consolidating the whole society around his regime, while publicly ignoring or humiliating the minority that is demanding change. Putin’s new self-styled image is that of a “spiritual father of the nation.” This is yet another sign of the regime’s degradation – instead of a development strategy, it is offering populist ideological cliches that amount to an appeal to unite behind the political leader and against any alternative figures (be they leftists, liberals, or nationalists.)
Despite an ostensible “liberalization” of the laws on parties and elections, the Kremlin retains the tools for barring the genuine opposition from the ballot — as happened in 2011 with the People’s Freedom Party (left to right: party co-chairmen Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov.)
Hence the answer to one of the most topical questions of 2012: why did the Kremlin decide to pass an odious and discrediting law that bans adoptions of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens? This answer is only partially connected to America’s Magnitsky Act. The problem is much deeper: with the “anti-orphan law,” the Kremlin is trying to mobilize Russian society against the U.S., which it considers a threat to its regime. Putin’s main fear is well known: it is a “color revolution,” which can only take place with a considerable moral deterioration of the regime. The fear of revolution is an indirect acceptance by the authorities of the beginning of such moral deterioration.
The moral deterioration of Vladimir Putin’s regime is an obvious outcome of 2012. The situation is developing according to the “domino effect”: fear is causing the regime to make odious decisions, which further discredit it. By passing the “anti-orphan law,” the Kremlin has dealt a massive blow to the legitimacy of Parliament. Those deputies who voted “aye” have been literally damned by the part of Russian society that is opposed to Putin’s regime.
Scandals with fraudulent diplomas and plagiarized theses of prominent regime “talking-heads” only make matters worse. The media is irritated not so much by the plagiarism itself, but by the absence of consequences, especially in the context of high-profile resignations in several European countries. In March 2011, German Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg had to resign after it was discovered that he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. In April 2012, Hungarian President Pal Schmitt left office for the same reason. In Russia, the most resounding episode was the annulment by the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency of the Law diploma of Major-General Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the Investigative Committee. Legally, he should have been stripped of his rank – yet he retained both his rank and his job. Finally, in late 2012 it was discovered that the thesis of prominent United Russia member Vladimir Burmatov had been pasted together from the theses of two different people. Burmatov is an odious character, a favorite of opposition bloggers. In August 2010, he distinguished himself by “putting out” forest fires near Ryazan with the use of Photoshop. Burmatov is known in the blogosphere by the profane nickname BGFY (“Burmatov, Go F… Yourself.”) Also in 2010, he accused legendary musician Yuri Shevchuk, the leader of DDT rock band, of looting during a visit to Chechnya in the 1990s. Burmatov was heavily criticized by bloggers, while Novaya Gazeta reporter Arkady Babchenko challenged him to a “duel” that took place on the airwaves on the Russian News Service radio (Babchenko won by a landslide.) Having got into the State Duma in 2011, Vladimir Burmatov was almost appointed as chairman of its Education Committee, which shocked the political blogosphere. He never received the appointment, but did become the Committee’s deputy chairman (he has recently been removed from that position as well).
In case of Medvedev’s dismissal, an anti-Putin “circle” will form around him – which is much more dangerous for the regime than street protests.
The moral degeneration of the pro-Kremlin forces is only a part of the erosion of the “power vertical.” Another important outcome of 2012 is the formation of a semi-independent Medvedev government. Medvedev is a loyal member of Putin’s team and a reliable assistant. But this is only an appearance. In reality, it is as if Putin were back in his first presidential term, when he had to work with Mikhail Kasyanov’s cabinet – such was his obligation to the close circle of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. He could not dismiss Kasyanov before the end of his term, but could not work well with him either. Something similar is happening now in relations between the Kremlin and the Government House – another sign of the deterioration of the “power vertical.” The Kremlin is concentrating the main levers of power in the presidential administration and in extra-governmental structures (it is no accident that Vedomosti newspaper has referred to Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft state oil company, as a shadow energy minister).
However, if Kasyanov presented a threat as a member of a different political clan, Medvedev is dangerous because of his political weakness and his inability to be either a technocratic prime minister, such as Mikhail Fradkov or Viktor Zubkov (it was clear to everyone that Putin himself was behind them), or a strong political prime minister – the latter being out of the question under Putin’s regime. As a result, Medvedev is a weak political prime minister, who – by the mere fact of his existence – creates holes in the administrative system and reduces Putin’s direct influence. Putin cannot dismiss his prime minister because he has certain obligations to him. He is also afraid to dismiss him, as Medvedev is potentially conflict-prone and dangerous. In case of Medvedev’s dismissal, an anti-Putin “circle” will immediately form around him – which is much more dangerous for the regime than street protests.
Cracks are forming in Vladimir Putin’s regime, and an internal split in the system is currently the most dangerous tendency for Russia’s head of state. Meanwhile, the rise of protest sentiments among the active part of society will push the authorities toward new odious and suicidal decisions, which in the end may destroy both the “power vertical” and its “national leader.”