Vladimir Putin revealed last week his vision of the new Russia, one of enhanced authoritarianism by means of a new corporatism and in the context of continued "managed democracy." He and his supporters stress that he is trying to ensure stability in case of future threats to Russian unity. The opposition claims it is nothing more than an electoral strategy to shore up his and United Russia’s declining approval ratings. But the "All-Russia People’s Front" is really his bid to take Russia back to the future. With this project he reveals what many observers have worried about all along: that Putin unquestionably desires to make Russia into a neo-czarist state, albeit an electoral one and succeeding at modernization where the czars failed. If he gets his way, the democratization of Russia will perhaps have taken a permanent step backwards. And this will tell us as much about the Russian people as it will about Putin and the elites who have ensconced themselves in power.
The "unified civil front," as Prime Minister Putin describes it, is to be an alliance of parties, unions, non-aligned activists, women’s groups, veterans’ organizations and youth groups; importantly, to be included also is the Russian Orthodox Church. In short, everyone he can gather into the fold, the better to direct their civic and political energies in service of his strategy. Up to a sixth of the national Duma seats would be reserved in this scheme for representatives from these groups. There is a need in Russian politics, says Putin, for "new blood" and "fresh ideas" to face a potential national dilemma. He does not specify what the dilemma is and none seems on the horizon, what with oil prices at record levels and his foreign policies bearing fruit. So we can discount his official rationale. That leaves us with two more possibilities, one being that it is simply an electoral strategy for a nervous former president who’d like to return to office.
This makes more sense, mainly because President Dimitry Medvedev is refusing to be the lackey he was intended to be. Medvedev, to whatever degree he is serious about it — and that is a big question — talks too much for Putin’s comfort about the need to face West instead of East, and about the need for liberal reforms. While both men have seen their poll numbers fall, Putin’s are the higher and he remains easily the most popular politician in the country; it can pay off handsomely to methodically crush all serious opposition.
Nevertheless, United Russia has lost a few important local elections, and with Russians seemingly tired of years of the same old corrupt politicians running things, and now with the complaint of dipping economic fortunes, Putin might be trying to create a dynamic that ensures he wins the battle royal with Medvedev should the latter renege on the assumed pre-arranged return of Putin to the top of the presidential ticket for United Russia. Putin the politician knows that he is best placed to capitalize on a wave of nationalism spawned and encouraged at the level of civil society. Obviously true democratic reformers will not be welcomed in the new All-Russia front. The real "new blood" and "fresh ideas" that Putin should be looking for to revivify Russian politics is coursing through the veins and brains of those dissidents and opposition figures who keep winding up in jail or dead.
But there is that other reason Putin is calling for a popular front and a uniting of every civic and social force he can collect under his banner: it is the way to take Russia back to the age and politics he is most comfortable with, that of czarist Russia, albeit with a twist. Putin has demonstrated after ten years in power that what he is really comfortable with is a Russia that looks and acts a lot more like that of the czars who practiced political and philosophical absolutism. The czars established control over the domestic scene by subjecting all societal groupings and activities to the service of the divine right state. Putin is not a czar de jure but he can be one de facto. This is a minor detail for one so determined to rule as he sees fit. So by defining the nature of the electoral system in terms of who can run and who controls the economy, he’s got the electoral problem essentially solved. And this assured control at home means it is much easier to control the "near abroad" and exert influence over world affairs.
While the announcement of the All-Russia front confirms many of our concerns regarding Putin, unfortunately it probably tells us much about the Russian people that is painful to face.
In the early years of post-Soviet democratization, the late Irving Kristol wrote an insightful essay in the Wall Street Journal about the future of Russia. Though it was a short opinion piece, it was profound. He said that the Russians will not return to communism, nor would they likely opt for Western liberal democracy. But having enjoyed the exercise of their power at the ballot box, they would not give that up. They would likely simply desire the maintenance of a society based on law and order whose government continues to improve their standard of living.
From today’s vantage point, we can say Kristol had it about right. The vast majority of Russians for the more than twenty years since the fall of the Soviet regime have simply accepted first a chaotic democracy in tandem with a kleptocracy and now a "managed democracy" that continues the kleptocracy and adds bullying of neighbors and friendliness toward terror states. The liberal democratic opposition bravely condemns these things, but it is very small in number, and that is not so simply because it is repressed. It is so because Russians seem okay with what their leaders are doing as long as the standard of living-or the prospects for it–are better than before. The law and order part? They don’t seem so outraged at the extra-legal means by which the opposition is oppressed, so maybe the order part is what is most important.
Does it have to be this way? Will Putin’s plans succeed? Is Medvedev really a liberal reformer that we can get behind and see a turn for the better? We’ve been down this road before with Yeltsin, so let’s not put too many eggs in one basket. But the West must continue to hold Russia and its leaders to account for the universal principles of freedom and democracy. Democratization is obviously harder in Russia than many of us had hoped, but it is worth working for, even if there seems to be only a handful of people who love liberty. It seemed that way in Poland when all we had was a trade union activist to support.