The massive street protests, which started in December 2011, have proved a very considerable stress-test for Russia’s autocratic political system, built and steered by Putin for over a decade. Russia-watchers in Europe and the US debated how the Kremlin would respond. A few months ago the usual cohort of useful wishful thinkers argued that Putin, swayed by the rising middle classes, would accelerate Russia’s modernisation. In a sense they were right. Putin is modernising, but his efforts are directed at the repressive apparatus of laws and, possibly, institutions, rather than at the economy or the political system.
Tightening the screws
During 2005 and 2006 Russia adopted swaths of legislation designed to prevent events like the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine or the 2003 Rose revolution in Georgia. Electoral laws were toughened in ways that strengthened the pro-Kremlin ‘United Russia’ and weakened potential alternatives; thuggish pro-Kremlin youth groups such as Nashi (‘Ours’) were established; new restrictions were introduced, seriously complicating NGO activities and election monitoring; and vaguely defined legislative provisions against ‘extremism’ that could then be used against opposition activists were adopted.
Under Medvedev’s presidency the bulldozer of state repression was used with less enthusiasm. Sometimes it actually receded. Earlier this year it even seemed that the authorities might actually embark on liberalising the political system in response to the street protests. Instead, the protests seemed to have sparked a new round of attempts to tighten the screws and refurbish the repressive apparatus.
It started with the legislative software. Read the rest of this entry »
Journal of Democracy has just published a special issue on ‘Putinism under Siege‘ with contributions from Lilia Shevtsova, Ivan Krastev & Stephen Holmes, Denis Volkov, Sharon Wolchik and I. My piece is on The Strange Alliance of Democrats and Nationalists .
The article looks at three broad themes:
1) How Russian nationalism is evolving from an expansionist, Eurasian, and imperial version into something that is primarily anti-immigrant, defensive and sometimes non-expansionist.
2) How nationalists started to adopt some pro-democracy rhetoric in the belief that a more democratic system based on majority-rule would make state policies closer to their policy prescriptions.
3) How some Russian democrats sometimes entered into ad hoc alliances with nationalist groups on an anti-Putinist platform, but also how a much deeper fusion of democratic and nationalist views starts to be espoused by various political players. This phenomenon is still in its early stages, but could be a sign of things to come. Read the rest of this entry »
The last few months saw speculation of two possible behavioural models for Putin. The usual wishful thinkers were hoping for a Putin 2.0 (or maybe 3.0 or even 4.0) who was supposed to have got the message of the street protests and was supposed to engage in (swiping) reforms to modernise Russia and gradually and slowly liberalize the political system to let some steam off. The alternative camp of usual alarmists were saying that Putin will return with even stronger determination to tighten the screws and things will be much worse in terms of repression before they get better. And both camps waited for the new government to get a sense of what will come next. With the government announced here are a few things to note:
1. On the surface three fourths of the government were changed, but the changes were rather (and unsurprisingly) conservative. The composition of the new government suggest neither a strong reformist push, nor a centralising backlash, but rather more of the same. Especially given that several key former ministers just joined Putin in the Presidential Administration as his advisors, but are likely to exercise more influence over specific policies than many of the new ministers.
2. Overall the government looks unexpectedly ‘Medvedievist’ – in the sense of having a good presence of soit-disant ‘liberals’. Read the rest of this entry »
Project Syndicate, 7 May 2012: Vladimir Putin has just been inaugurated for a third term as President of the Russian Federation. But the event’s pageantry could not mask that his return to the presidency, after a four-year stint as Prime Minister, is far from triumphant. On the contrary, Putin, who has been in power since 2000, represents the specter of stagnation that haunts Russia – a specter that wants at least another two six-year terms as President.
The contrast between the transition at the Kremlin and China’s upcoming – and strictly choreographed – power transfer could hardly be starker. This autumn, all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including the country’s president, Hu Jintao, and premier, Wen Jiabao, will step down, and at least 14 members of the 24-member Politburo will retire, making way for a new generation of leaders.
So, although China has the more authoritarian system, it is moving forward. The same cannot be said for Putin’s Russia.
Unlike China, a one-party state, where real power is insulated from direct voting by layers of Communist Party structures, Russia has a multi-party political system, with regular elections at most levels of government. To be sure, not all parties or candidates are allowed to run, and elections can be manipulated. Still, there is more room in Russia than in China for opposition voices to express themselves.
Indeed, Russian civil society and protest movements are more assertive and politicized, while protests in China are crushed without remorse. The Russian media, particularly newspapers and radio, have more freedom as well, and openly disparage Putin, whereas Chinese journalists can take on issues like corruption, but may not criticize the Party. Likewise, the Internet is not censored in Russia as it is in China.
Given that China is significantly more authoritarian than Russia, it seems counter-intuitive that China’s political system manages to produce some rotation of leaders, however imperfect and even tense, whereas Russia does not. In this way, China takes advantage of one of democracy’s key benefits – leadership turnover – without the risk of popular accountability.
Ukraine’s favourite foreign policy game is called ‘multi-vectorness’ – a constant process of ‘eschewing choice’ as this recent study explained. For years Ukraine sought to extract concessions and be treated nicely by both Russia and the EU or US not because it was sticking to its promises, but because it played sometimes skilfully and sometimes brazenly on contradictions between external actors. A simplified version of the rule of rules of the game, in its Ukrainian version, looks the following way:
- Promise both Russia and the EU everything they might want to hear (usually integration into some Russian- or EU-led initiative);
- Ask for something in exchange (market access, lower gas prices, financial assistance, opportunities for lucrative but opaque deals etc).
- Get what you asked and drag your feet on delivering on your promises.
- If either the EU or Russia is upset for not getting what they were promised – threaten that you will intensify cooperation with the other external partner.
The truth is that this has mostly worked. (Not just for Ukraine, but also for Moldova under Voronin and at times Belarus’ Lukashenko or a whole series of Central Asian states, not to mention a plethora of historical case from Italian city-states in the Middle Ages, to Nasser’s Egypt and Tito’s Yugoslavia.) Read the rest of this entry »
On a recent trip to Ukraine for the Kiev Security Forum I asked some of the Ukrainian analysts whether Yanukovich will manage to become like Putin - a successful authoritarian leader able to retain firm political control for a long time. There is little doubt that Yanukovich would like to be like Putin and is trying to build a more or less similar system. But there are a number of differences. First, is that Ukraine does not have energy resources and Yanukovich therefore lacks the money to co-opt the elites and the public as widely as Putin could do.
But another important factor is how Putin and Yanukovich play their systems. Putin’s role in the Russian system is that of the ultimate arbiter between various elite groups. He is a moderator, not a player in the elite squabbles. He is not neutral, nor fair. During his presidency, his closest friends acquired vast assets, and there has been quite some redistribution of property. But Putin mainly tries to stay above the fray realising that this is an important power resource for him. This is how he makes himself indispensable to the multiple interests groups within the Russian elites. That is also why elites value him – he has the power and the skill to maintain some degree of balance between competing factions.
It is standard practice to bash Catherine Ashton and how the External Action Service turned out. The story is of an inward looking institution, without having a grand narrative or strategic vision, and little credibility in either EU member states or EU’s external partners. It is hard to argue that EU foreign policy is doing well. But that is first and foremost because of structural factors – the economic crisis that drastically reduces EU’s foreign policy appetite and resources, as well as soft power appeal (see EU Foreign Policy scorecard 2012 for a similar assessment).
It is perhaps time to reconsider at least some of the standard, off the cuff, assessments of the EEAS (and Catherine Ashton). If one looks at some specific foreign policy dossiers, the reality is that of EEAS gradually emerging as a political animal that can show its teeth if and when necessary (were the Soviet Union alive, its propaganda department would have have used the consecrated term of ’zverinnyi oskal imperializma’ – the evil grin of imperialism), rather than a fat cat throwing money around as its recently dominant image used to be. Read the rest of this entry »
A year or so ago, while doing research for the post-BRIC Russia report, I spoke to a US diplomat dealing with Russia about the ‘reset’. He sounded (naturally) very positive about its effectiveness. Among its two key achievements he mentioned cooperation on transit to Afghanistan and halt of anti-US propaganda on the Kremlin-controlled media and a subsequent decrease in anti-Americanism in Russia society.
With Putin’s return, protests in Russia and the US elections all talk is now about the end of the reset. In the last few months anti-American propaganda made forceful comeback in the Russian media. Many thought it was just electioneering in the run-up to the March presidential elections. But that was too optimistic, it seems. In the last few weeks things became even more heated. NTV, a Russian TV channel owned by Gazprom Media, has been following US ambassador Michael McFaul pretty much everywhere, which lead to an outburst of indignation from McFaul, as well as accusations that his phone (and therefore calendar) is hacked, and a formal US State Department protest over the harassment of the US ambassador. McFaul also claimed that upon arrival to Moscow last January he felt like he was back in the Cold War and that ’it has been surprising that there was so much anti-Americanism, because we thought we were building a different kind of relationship, and it makes some people nervous that it could so quickly and reflexively go back to – in terms of rhetoric – an era that we thought was behind us’. Then, on a different occasion, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called McFaul ‘arrogant’. In other words, the dismantlement of what was considered a key achivement of the reset is well advanced. Read the rest of this entry »
Brussels might have started to get used to the sharp-tongued former Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin, but Moldova is only in the early stages of doing so. After a stint in Brussels, Rogozin moved back to Moscow last December to be appointed deputy prime-minister in charge of the military-industrial complex. Rogozin is a Russian populist nationalist politician with huge
(rumour has it that presidential) ambitions. A couple of weeks ago he was also appointed special representative of the Russian president on Transnistria (rather than on conflict settlement in Transnistria) and co-chair of the Russian-Moldovan intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. The move was badly staged. The Moldovans learned about it from the media. The appointment came in the same package as the nomination of two Russian regional governors (of Krasnodar Krai and North Ossetia) as ‘special representatives’, read overseers, for the adjacent Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Rogozin on the third day of his new appointment called Moldova a ‘hencoop’ on his twitter account.
The Moldovans are worried, the EU unimpressed and both irritated. Clearly the appointment of Rogozin shows a much higher Russian political interest in Transnistria. The trouble is that when Russia would rather put up a show instead of cooperating – Rogozin is the right person to (mis)handle dossiers. Given that in the last couple of months there have been some hopes regarding conflict settlement in Transnistria after the long-serving Transnistrian leader Igor Smirnov lost power to the younger Evgeny Shevchuk and Moldova finally elected a president, the appointment of Rogozin is an ever bigger nuisance. Rogozin is likely to be more concerned with self-promotion than pursuing conflict-settlement. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »