Archive for March, 2012

Power and weakness in Putin’s Russia

The result of the Russian presidential election brought two months of euphoria to a shuddering halt. The expectation that Putin would return with a weaker mandate was crushed by his unexpectedly high 63% of support. And even allowing for massive fraud – a lot of it well documented – Putin emerged from this election stronger than many predicted. Most of even his staunchest critics concede that he probably obtained more than 50% of the vote even without the rigging. But while Putin is jubilant, the Russian opposition is more demoralised and disorientated than at any time since December. Between euphoria and depression, it is important to understand where Russia – its government and society – stands after this election.

The weakness of the strong 

Putin is both weaker and stronger. He is stronger because he ran a successful election campaign, managing to mobilise his voters through a combination of bribing specific social groups and playing on their fears of instability and animosity towards better off Muscovites. He also (out)played the opposition at its own game by organising even bigger rallies and speechifying at meetings.

The institutions built up by Putin over the last 12 years may not be strong enough to fight corruption, improve the business climate, modernise Russia or fight forest fires, but they have proved capable of delivering vote rigging on an industrial scale, getting people into the street, and disorientating  and discouraging his opponents. This machine has also learned to adopt the opposition’s weapons, such as mass rallies, and reproduce them on a similar or grander scale. Read the rest of this entry »

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Putin is weaker, but not weak

All authoritarian regimes are based on a mix of coercion and inspiration, fear and promise, trickstery and grand narrative. But to be successful, authoritarian leaders need to stand for something. The more convincing their ideational offer, the less coercion they have to use and the cheaper and more lasting the system is likely to be. Thus, the autocrats of this world routinely use various ideologies – from Islamism to communism and from monarchism to anti-colonialism – as their ideological foundations. But the moment they exhaust their ideational drive, their countdown starts. This is the situation Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, finds himself in.

What Putin stood for?

Over the years Putin became associated with a set of ideas he stood for and campaigned on. These ideas were convincing and appealing to most of the Russian public. When he came to power in 1999-2000 Putin’s key selling point was the promise of wiping out terrorism and fending off threats to Russian territorial integrity. With a new war in Chechnya raging and bombings of apartments blocks in several Russian cities including Moscow this was both urgent and salient.

In the 2003-2004 election cycle Putin launched and then rode a wave of anti-oligarchic sentiment with promises to fight corruption, clean up the economic system and squeeze the super-rich. As part of that campaign Khodorkosvky was put in prison. The 2007-2008 campaign season was all centred on Russia’s newly found geopolitical greatness and ‘standing up from its knees’, as the phenomenon was advertised by pro-Kremlin loyalists. It was all expressed through intense anti-Western hysteria invoking the dangers of US-sponsored a colour revolution and geopolitical encirclement. This is how over the years Putin chipped into the ideological profile of what could conventionally be termed as Putinism.

Reality Checks

But Putin has nearly run out of ideational appeal. He has preciously few new ideas to oil his frailing political system. Read the rest of this entry »

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