Twelve years after his first election, Vladimir Putin is becoming president of Russia again. The country is a lot harder to control now.
HE GAVE it all he had. He quoted from Martin Luther King—“I have a dream” —before moving on to Lermontov’s poem Borodino—“By Moscow then we die/As have our brethren died before!”—and then seamlessly into Vyacheslav Molotov—“The fight continues. The victory will be ours.” He worked the crowd hard: his voice roared, his face twitched. 100,000 people brought in from all over Russia cheered.
Public campaigning does not come naturally to Vladimir Putin, former KGB man, former Russian president and current Russian prime minister; preferring to wield power behind closed doors, a staged photo opportunity is more his mark. When, last September, he announced in the same Moscow arena that he would swap jobs with Dmitry Medvev, Russia’s president, and return to the Kremlin after the March 4th election, he was distinctly low key.
Since the outcome was predetermined, there was at first not much by way of a campaign. But after a wave of protests against his job swap, and the subsequent rigging of December’s parliamentary elections, Mr Putin has been forced into a much more combative mode; Russia is under threat, he says, calling on his supporters to mobilise for a final battle against enemies foreign and domestic.
The threat to Russia is imaginary; the threat to Mr Putin and his system is real. It can be seen in the way he has become the subject of jokes. Stunts such as diving for (planted) ancient amphoras have been met with ridicule. State television’s decision to report a foiled assassination plot against him in the week of the election provoked cynical laughter. The colourful, almost festive protest marches against him have attracted celebrities (openly) and the wives of government officials (secretly).
A few days after Mr Putin’s rally, “the enemy” encircled the Kremlin. On a snowy Sunday afternoon some 20,000 Muscovites held hands along the 16-kilometre ring road, sporting the white ribbons that have become the symbol of protest. Motorists honked support. Their good-natured resolve was an eloquent rejection of Mr Putin’s power. As Vyacheslav Pozgalev, a new member of parliament, puts it: “We are going through a velvet revolution in people’s minds.”
Bid time return
The protests will do nothing to change the result of the presidential election. Mr Putin’s poll ratings of over 40%, possibly abetted by a bit of rigging, will ensure a first-round victory. But it will be a far cry from the triumph of his first ascension to the presidency in 2000. Back then he was a symbol of hope and change, one that a country recovering from the tumult, insecurity and hardship of the 1990s happily turned to. “We are building a new Russia. It’s going to have better roads and fewer fools,” a cheerful 25-year-old called Lyudmila Guseva told your correspondent at the time.
She and the company she works for—Severstal, a steel producer in Cherepovets, in the north-west of Russia—have indeed done well under Mr Putin. The factory has installed new machinery and a new Western-style management system. “I have a ten-year old son, a good salary, a car and a house in the country. I am happy with what I have achieved. Why should I not vote for him?” asks Ms Guseva now.
She gives two reasons for supporting Mr Putin—one assiduously promulgated by the Kremlin, one engineered by it. The first is a fear of losing what has been achieved; the second the lack of a convincing alternative candidate.
State propaganda has demonised the 1990s—the period which laid a foundation for growth and for Mr Putin’s own career—as the darkest period in Russian history. In his endorsement of Mr Putin the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church likened the 1990s to the Napoleonic invasion (shades of Borodino again), Hitler’s aggression and civil war. Mr Putin’s campaign is based almost entirely on the idea that his departure would throw the country back into such chaos.
And the Kremlin debars any plausible opponents. Three of the men running against Mr Putin—Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the clown nationalist, and Sergei Mironov, the leader of Just Russia, a party initially created by the Kremlin as fake competition for Mr Putin’s United Russia—have for years been in the business of losing elections. The only fresh face is that of Mikhail Prokhorov, a liberal business tycoon. He actually has his own agenda, but was allowed to run despite this handicap because his support is seen as very narrow.
You can’t go home again
Fear and a lack of choice may carry the election for Mr Putin, but they cannot disguise the growing discontent across different classes, ages and regions. For those who have done less well than Ms Guseva over the past 12 years but still remember Soviet times, the 1990s are becoming less relevant. Polls show that the fastest decline in Mr Putin’s support is among poorer people over 55 years of age; they feel Mr Putin has not honoured his promises, and are tired of waiting. The conspicuous display of riches by corrupt bureaucrats heightens their sense of injustice. The number of people who no longer trust Mr Putin has risen to 40%, and people tell pollsters that the country is stagnating. “The regime is losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the population,” says Lev Gudkov of the Levada Centre, a social-research outfit. Mr Putin’s victory will only make things worse.
Mr Pozgalev, a former governor of Vologda, an ethnic Russian region that includes Cherepovets, identified the mood swing while campaigning for United Russia in last year’s elections. “I was meeting voters and I suddenly realised that it did not matter what I was saying—they were simply not listening. They did not object to what I said: they ignored it.” In the Vologda region—where, unlike in Moscow, the vote was rigged only a little—United Russia got about 30%.
Although Mr Putin has distanced himself from United Russia, his promises and speeches are now met with the same indifference. The problem is not what Mr Putin says, but that he is the person saying it. People are tired of him. More fundamentally, they are fed up with the personalised system that he presides over. It looks not just corrupt but increasingly anachronistic. Ever more Russians want legitimate institutions. They want to know power can change hands. And because this is exactly what Mr Putin cannot offer, the conflict between him and them is irreconcilable.
Mikhail Dmitriev of the Centre for Strategic Research (CSR), who predicted today’s stand-off, argues that it has come about because the middle class has emerged as a political force. Having first become consumers, they are now becoming citizens.
When Mr Putin first came to power, Russia’s electorate was relatively homogenous in its incomes and requirements. As defined by CSR, the middle class made up some 15% of the population. Having begun to develop in the 1970s and 1980s, it had been knocked back first by the collapse of the Soviet economy, then by the 1998 financial crisis. Mr Putin’s promise to build a strong, paternalistic state appealed to its members as much as to everyone else. They voted for him and hardly protested when he destroyed the few symbols of their liberal aspirations—such as NTV, a private television channel—or squeezed small political parties out of parliament.
High oil prices allowed the Kremlin to court the traditionalist, paternalistic part of Russia while keeping taxes low, to the benefit of the middle class. By the end of the 2000s Russia’s middle class had become richer and bigger, making up some 25% of the population and nearly 40% of the workforce—and those proportions were higher in big cities. As they shopped in IKEA, ate out in restaurants and holidayed in Europe (see chart) their habits and expectations began to change; but even as their size grew, their access to representation did not.
Accustomed to choice and respect as consumers, they have found their contacts with the state ever more irksome. Getting a driving licence or registering a car involves bribes and humiliation. Driving involves more bribes and the fresh humiliation of bureaucrats in black cars with blue flashing lights pushing everyone off the road. Corrupt officials deem properties “derelict” while secretly allocating them to friendly developers. The demands for an independent judiciary, the protection of property rights and an efficient bureaucracy spring not from political theory but from painful experience.
Although these problems are longstanding, double-digit income growth soothed the sting for quite a while. And after the economic crisis of 2009 removed that anaesthetic, the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev provided something of a placebo. With his tweets and iPad, he appealed to the most modern part of the middle class, promising liberalisation and institutional change, whereas Mr Putin continued to appeal to the traditionalists. What some Western observers mistook for true conflict between them was for the most part a carefully contrived balancing act.
By the summer of 2011, the emptiness of Mr Medvedev’s promises had become apparent. When Mr Putin announced the latest job swap a quarter of the Russian population felt insulted, according to the Levada Centre. Many began to realise quite how old they would be in 2024, when the last term for which Mr Putin might run would finally draw to a close.
In the December elections the disgruntled followed the advice of Alexei Navalny, an influential blogger and anti-corruption crusader, and voted for any party other than “the party of crooks and thieves”, as he labelled United Russia. When the Kremlin rigged the Moscow results people came out onto the street not in defence of the parties they had voted for, but in defence of the votes themselves. They were demanding respect. When Mr Putin ignored their demand for “fair elections” their slogan became “Russia without Putin”.
Watch it for the rubble
A poll by the Levada Centre found a wide range of ages, incomes and political preferences among the protesters; they are not just the young, well-off middle class. What they have in common is their level of education: 70% were graduates.
Andrei Zorin, a cultural historian at Oxford, sees a pattern repeating itself, one that played a role in both the rise of communism and its fall. First the state helps to create and sustain an educated class with European values. Then that class gets emancipated and starts to destabilise the system which created it. Eventually the system collapses—with the educated class largely buried in the rubble.
That is what happened to the Soviet intelligentsia, nurtured in state research institutes. Today’s equivalent (often the children of yesterday’s intelligentsia) has also grown up in the folds of an authoritarian state, but this time in fancy bars, art galleries and a glossy media milieu. For much of the 2000s this creative class eschewed politics for the make-believe world of fashion and entertainment magazines such as Afisha (“The Playbill”). But now politics have come into fashion.
These young creatives have only vague ideas about the tastes and preferences of much of the rest of the Russian population. But they have acted as a catalyst for broader-based discontent. Although metropolitan protest, with its carnival of witty slogans and hipsters, may seem foreign, and its individualistic values suspect, the root of the grievance is felt across Russia: the injustice and dishonesty of the system and the widening gap between the interests of the rulers and the ruled.
Thus in Vologda the new governor, Oleg Kuvshinnikov, who comes from Cherepovets, is trying frantically to demonstrate a change of style. He charges around the region meeting people, delegating responsibilities and resources to the municipal level and making symbolic gestures—such as opening a lavish mansion used for state visits to newly weds. All this is designed to create an impression of openness and change. But the only way to avoid a full-blown political crisis, says Mr Kuvshinnikov, is through a thoroughgoing devolution of power.
On March 5th, the day after the election, another protest is planned. There are signs of radicalisation among the protesters, and a greater appetite for repression in the Kremlin. Mr Putin has pre-emptively blamed the protesters for any trouble, saying they are spoiling for a fight. Violence would allow him to call a moratorium on further protests and crack down on the movement’s leaders.
Dealing with the discontent of the broader part of the country will be a lot harder. Although Mr Putin can squeeze the media, he cannot ban the internet, which has a national penetration rate of almost 50%, and nearly 70% in Moscow. “It has become an essential part of people’s pastimes. Taking it away would be like confiscating a television set,” Mr Dmitriev says. Nor can he spend his way out of trouble. Financing Mr Putin’s generous pre-election spending promises will be hard. The country already needs an oil price of $130 a barrel to keep its budget in balance. A growth rate of only 3.5% and a continuing flight of capital won’t help.
Unable either to reform or preserve his system, Mr Putin will probably try to do both. He may attempt some economic liberalisation, bring back elections for regional governors and allow political parties to register. But the reforms are likely to be half-hearted and repression ineffective.
Some power to some of the people
The protest movement’s next steps are little clearer. If the past two months have generated a sense of euphoria, they have also revealed the movement’s limitations. The protesters mistrust all political parties and organisations, says Mr Dmitriev, making it hard for them to channel their protest into formal politics. They are happy to organise themselves into civil-society groups, observe elections for fairness and participate in politics on a municipal level, even possibly a regional one. They are not prepared to delegate their power to representatives—at least not yet. Kirill Rogov, a columnist who is one of the protesters’ ideological voices, says this may be one of the movement’s strengths: the need for institutions such as honest elections is greater than the demand for political parties.
Mr Rogov thinks that if Mr Putin were to call an early parliamentary election (which he may feel he has to) it would further polarise the elite and bring out new figures and parties. Unless the liberal-minded middle class can consolidate—something that it has been unable to do for the past decade—the likely winner would be some left-leaning populist, a Russian Hugo Chávez with a penchant for nationalism. A plausible candidate for the role might be Dmitry Rogozin, a recently appointed deputy prime minister. Unlike the urban middle class, his electorate would be more than happy to hand him what power it has; and he could count on support from the communists, nationalists and the military-industrial complex.
Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister who has sided with the call for early elections, says a lurch to the left could be a necessary evil on the path to democracy. He himself wants the votes of the liberal middle class, and might make common cause with Mr Prokhorov, who has already launched a party. Mr Rogov argues that the agenda will be set by citizens, both in Moscow and in the regions. In an honest election many might prefer someone like Mr Navalny to any former Kremlin official. Although best known for his anti-corruption campaigning and his nationalism, Mr Navalny’s central idea is the devolution of power to the regions and municipalities. This is almost certain to be a growing trend in Russian politics, since it appeals both to Moscow and the provinces.
Whether or not decentralisation is the way of the future, there remain risks aplenty in the present. Beyond the volatile politics there is a still fragile economy. A flare up of violence in the north Caucasus could lead to a surge of nationalism and rioting in the cities. Mr Putin can no more maintain an even status quo than he can turn back the clock to 2000. However many of Sunday’s votes for Mr Putin may be cast out of fear of change, change is the one thing that is now inevitable.
The Economist(Reino Unido)
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