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. Certainly, some public and private institutions forced or bribed many people to attend pro-Putin rallies. This might not have made them Putin fans, but it does not mean many of them did not genuinely fear post-Putin instability or the dangers of an Orange Revolution.

But Putin is also weaker. His victory was built on the short-term mobilisation of an otherwise barely functioning system. His triumph was that of a sportsman past his peak who still performs well thanks to steroids. And the effects might not last long. His campaign promises to various social groups are too expensive to be delivered. But equally problematic is his ideological emptiness. Unlike in previous elections, where he focused on single campaign issues – anti-terror in 2000, anti-oligarch in 2004 and anti-Westernism in 2007 – he has not had a grand narrative for several years now. Most of the old promises he made were frustrated by Russia’s reality – corruption, dissatisfaction over subsidies to the Caucasus and the proliferation of oligarchs. Moscow tops global lists of billionaires’ homes, with 79 of them, compared to 59 for New York and 19 for Beijing. And even though the Russian economy is only a quarter of the size of that of China, the country has 101 billionaires, compared to China’s 115. For some in Russia this is something of a badge of honour, but for most it is just another sign of how skewed, corrupt and unfair the Russian economic system is.

The power of the weak

But so far Putin’s biggest strength is the weakness of the opposition. It is not simply that it is somewhat disunited, Moscow-centric and under-institutionalised. This is the case for most opposition movements in most developing countries with authoritarian regimes. What is more serious is that it shrinks from addressing these problems. Many of its leaders prefer to travel to London on holiday rather than to Chelyabinsk to campaign.

In some ways, however, the opposition is relatively united. Its leftist, nationalist and liberal factions have organised coordinated protests and other actions, with support from non-partisan journalists, bloggers, facebookers, writers, celebrity TV presenters and rock-stars. But a relatively united crowd is not a united force. A number of opposition sub-groups are visibly uncomfortable standing shoulder to shoulder with far-right groups, who in their turn dissent from what they call the ‘Bolotnaya’ (bog) oligarchy’, i.e. the group of mainly liberal organisers of the massive rallies for free and fair elections of the last months. The registered political parties, such as the Communists and Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats, do not even qualify as a proper opposition. While formally standing against Putin in recent elections, they behaved like friendly pets, not opponents. In all, the opposition’s biggest weakness is its lack of a clear mid-term agenda, an articulation of achievable goals and a lack of institutional organisation – be it political parties or country-wide associations of citizens that are politically active without being formal parties.

Yet the opposition is changing fast. The last couple of years have seen a dramatic infusion of new blood into the left, right, centrist and nationalist wings of front-line opposition politics. The opposition is on the verge of a generational change. It needs a few more years for the current leaders to mature and build structures around themselves, for new ones to emerge and for old ones to be marginalised further.

Many opposition activists are proud that they do not have hierarchic structures and that they can organise protests on Facebook and spread the word of election fraud on blogs. The advantage of such a ‘power horizontal’ is that it is diffuse, cheap and, by virtue of its amorphousness, largely immune to attempts by the authorities to shut it down or co-opt it. But while such a system might be able to get a few thousand people out onto the streets of Moscow on a weekend, it will not be enough to face down Putin’s machine. Witness Egypt or Tunisia. Protesting youngsters may have forced Mubarak and Ben Ali out of power, but the reason why Muslim Brotherhood outfits, and not liberals, ended up in power is because they were the only ones who had an organisation. So far, Putin’s biggest advantage is that he faces a crowd, but not an organised challenge to his power. And the challenge before the crowd is to organise and articulate itself.

Putin the unifier

For all the divisions in the opposition, Putin’s government writ large is almost as divided. The real challenge for him in the mid-term is not that the opposition will take over, but rather that parts of the government will ally with parts of the opposition to kindly, or not-so-kindly, ask him to go.

In fact one cannot talk of a clear standoff between the opposition and the government. The government is itself a collection of economic liberals, nationalists, conservatives and left-wingers. The opposition is in some ways its mirror image: it also consists of liberal, nationalist and left wing elements (though the relative weight of the elements is different). Putin is in the middle, keeping both camps relatively united. The government is relatively united by the benefits of Putin’s patronage, which outweighs their mutual animosity, and the opposition is also relatively united in its animosity to Putin. However, in this system the networks of support and solidarity between opposition liberals and government liberals, or opposition nationalists and government nationalists, are often stronger than within the individual camps.

The implication of such a system is that the opposition as such does not need to be stronger than Putin in order to oust Putin. Once Putin is weaker or stops being useful to a critical mass of his own elite supporters, they themselves might try to ally with parts of the current opposition.

The opposition’s unity will not therefore be the main yardstick with which to measure Putin’s weakness. In fact, opposition groups will be constantly jockeying for the power to control the street, which could then be used to leverage them into building an anti-Putin pact with parts of the Putinist elite.

In such a context, there is not much the EU and US can do. They would do best to stay away from the protesters, since too many Russian still believe in a Western plot to stage a colour revolution in Russia. Public signs of support, let alone funding for opposition activists, will not help and might do damage. But this does not absolve the EU and US from developing a strategy that would aim to weaken Putin and strengthen Russian society. It is in EU’s interest to  move towards a visa-free regime with Russia. This will strengthen societal links with the EU and should chip away at anti-Westernism in Russia. The EU and US should also do everything possible to help enlarge the space in which the opposition operates, through robust defence of the media or individuals within the opposition from any potential harassment. The West is not a player in Russian politics and should not become so. But what it does will help define the power and weakness of both Putin and his opponents.

Open Democracy, 14 March 2012