Has the Russian protest movement fatally weakened Vladimir Putin? Don’t bet on it.
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
Vladimir Putin has returned to the Kremlin. A lot of commentators are writing about how his regime is doomed for failure. Russia, they say, has been transformed by the new culture of civic activism and public protest that has swept across Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past few months. A few months back, Tom Friedman even compared Russia’s demonstrators to the activists of the Arab Spring.
Let me be clear about one thing: The protests were amazing. I applaud the courage and initiative of those who took part, and I wish them the best of luck. Russia needs change. Change would be good.
But even though I sympathize with the protesters’ concerns, I don’t think we should allow our sentiments to cloud the quality of our analysis. Let’s be clear: Do the demonstrators pose any kind of serious threat to the next six years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency? Certainly not at the moment. Arab Spring in Russia? Not going to happen.
There are two numbers that you should keep in mind as Putin launches his next six-year term. The first comes from the Levada Center, a respected independent polling agency. The pollsters asked Russians whether they intend to participate in protests with political demands. 81 percent said no (in Russian).
No question about it, Russia is rife with problems. Corruption is all-encompassing. The economy is still heavily dependent on the sale of oil and gas. The political system is based on fraud and nationalist bombast. Surely, you would think, such a rickety construct must be unsustainable.
Actually, the old Soviet Union was arguably a lot more of a mess than the current version of Russia. Central planning was amazingly inefficient. The state spent vast amounts of cash policing its own citizens and keeping them locked inside its borders. Yet the USSR still survived for 69 years. As for Putin, he only became president (for the first time!) 12 years ago. (And while we’re at it: Hosni Mubarak remained in office for 30 years.)
Okay, it’s true that a rising Russian middle class is demanding accountability. But in stark contrast to the protesters who took to the streets in Cairo and Tunis, virtually none of the demonstrators in Moscow or St. Petersburg wants to dismantle the existing system. Indeed, during the biggest demo on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square last year, speakers who called for revolution were booed off the stage. It’s important to understand why. Over the past century, Russians have endured wave after wave of politically motivated violence. In the 1990s, they finally achieved a relatively liberal state — and along with it came hyperinflation, chaos, and an explosion of organized crime. So it’s understandable that no one really has an appetite for starting over.
So what do members of Russia’s opposition movement want? First and foremost, an end to corruption (a demand embodied by the anti-graft campaigner Alexei Navalny). They want their votes to count, meaning that they want more of a say in how things are run. And they want to be treated like adults. (Remember, the real starting point of the protest movement was Putin’s high-handed declaration in September of 2011 that he had decided to return to the presidency. A few weeks later he was jeered at by spectators at a sporting event.)
The leaders of the protests have said that they want to achieve their aims through non-violent activism. This presupposes, in turn, that the current system is reformable. It would be great if that assumption turned out to be true. But it sounds wildly optimistic.
The system that reigns in Russia today is a highly adaptable form of authoritarianism. The regime is a hybrid of the post-Soviet secret police and organized crime. The current powers-that-be don’t need Brezhnev-style 99-percent election results; a simple majority is enough to give them the sheen of legitimacy. They haven’t closed the borders, and they show little inclination to waste time legislating morality. (Just the opposite, in fact — witness the Putin camp’s gleeful use of sex in campaign advertising.) And, in stark contrast to the Chinese, they feel comfortable enough in the saddle that they don’t see a rationale for unleashing thought police against the internet. Keeping all the national TV stations in state hands works fine.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of sound empirical evidence to suggest that Putin remains popular among many Russians. (Indeed, it’s worth noting that Medvedev, long regarded as the regime’s stalking horse for "modernizing" reform, has a much lower approval rating.) In stark contrast to the Boris Yeltsin years, the governments of the Putin era have always taken care to keep up social spending, including paying out salaries and pensions on time — vital in a country where so many people are still dependent on the state.
It’s these people who make up a big part of that 81 percent. (See, for example, this piece by Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times, one of the few reporters to pay substantive attention to this slice of the electorate.) The members of this passive majority might not be happy about everything that’s going on in Russia, but their deep-seated doubts about the virtues of radical change mean that they can be counted on to keep giving their votes to the incumbent for many years to come. Perhaps the rise of middle-income entrepreneurs will ultimately stymie this bloc, but I wouldn’t bet on it any time soon.
All this gives the current regime plenty of safety valves. Until late last year, Russia’s rulers weren’t prepared to tolerate public demonstrations. The fact that they did for a time evinces a notable degree of tactical flexibility. Now that Putin is back in office, he and his cronies appear to be reverting to old form by cracking down. So far, at least, the protest movement isn’t really fighting back.
No one should confuse these shifts in government policy with vacillation or weakness. Over the past 12 years, the authorities and their proxies have frequently resorted to selective but brutal force to safeguard their interests. Quite a few journalists and activists have been killed for crossing those in power. Make no mistake: If anyone tries to challenge the current rulers’ control over Russia’s major economic assets in a comprehensive way, things will get nasty very fast.
Let’s not forget: Putin and his ilk are not German Social Democrats. They aren’t waiting philosophically for someone to come along and tell them to leave office. Given Russian history, they are perfectly justified in assuming that losing power will mean losing their ill-gotten gains, their personal freedom, and perhaps their lives as well. I doubt that they can be persuaded to leave through the power of moral suasion.
But you certainly can’t blame educated Russians for wanting to choose the latter path. For their sake, I hope it works. I’m just not optimistic.
I earlier mentioned two numbers worth keeping in mind as Putin’s second presidency takes shape. The second is the price of oil — which, I would argue, is a far more likely agent of change than public demonstrations. Even today, after years of putative reform, Russia’s economy remains lopsidedly dependent on petroleum. If the price of oil tanks, all of Putin’s economic promises to his people go out the window, and that vast silent majority cannot be counted on to remain quiescent.
So how do Putin’s prospects look on that front? Right now Brent crude is trading at around $112, near its lowest point for the year. But that’s still healthy enough to keep Russia’s economy cruising along for the foreseeable future, and there are plenty of analysts who believe that prices can only go up. And as my FP colleague Steve LeVine recently noted, Putin has just made a series of shrewd business deals designed to keep the black gold flowing. Whether you like him or not, Vladimir Vladimirovich is still a formidable player, and he hasn’t lost his mojo yet.