A comment piece of mine of has on ‘Putin and the Challenge of the “Vanguard of the Bourgeoisie”‘ has just gone up on the splendid e-International Relations website. I conclude cravenly, by raising questions rather than answering them:
Can Putin reinvent himself? He has overseen a genuine economic and social liberalisation of much of the economy and life for most Russians is better than ever. In the process, though, he has also created the very forces now challenging him, an educated and politically-active middle class demanding a greater stake in their country. Past Russian rulers, from tsars to Boris Yeltsin, have begun reforms, only to reverse or suspend them when the threat of internal unrest arose, leaving them dangerously incomplete. Whether they would want to think of themselves as Putin’s children, and how comfortable he will be acknowledging them as his progeny, this ‘vanguard of the bourgeoisie’ represent his fundamental dilemma. Will he grudgingly embrace liberalisation and in the process begin to surrender the political privilege he and his closest allies have enjoyed for over a decade? Or will he fall back on his instincts of populist authoritarianism and strengthen his political position in the short term, but in doing so set himself against the liberalising processes which otherwise promise to break an historical vicious circle which has long held this country and its people back?
So let me come off the fence, a little. Sure, Putin’s returning to the presidency, and probably in the first round. But he and his system have, I think, taken a mortal hit. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is his last term in office, and think his victory in March will be the catalyst for the creation of proper political machines able to begin to mobilize against United Russia (or even some future incarnation of the Party of Power) on a national level. Just as, when it came down to it, the GKChP, the leaders of the 1991 August Coup against Gorbachev, lacked the will to use widespread force to prevent change, so too I don’t see Putin will or able to institute the kind of massive crack-down that would be needed to hold the line. He needs the technocrats, the Kudrins, the new middle class, the international investors. And in any case, my sense is that many of the people who would have to do the leg-breaking, the water-cannoning, the blackmail and the intimidation are now thinking the unthinkable, of a post-Putin end-game which might include lustration sessions, human rights tribunals and audits. Such prospects encourage a more equivocal stance on the part of would-be stormtroopers of Putinism (I suggested this in my Power Vertical podcast and the gossip I’ve heard since then has only strengthened my conviction on this), and tend to create a self-sustaining cycle of hesitation and restraint. To reprise a quote of mine from a nice piece in today’s Washington Post, “I think Putin’s going to win the election, but lose the war.”