Second Thoughts on the Russian Election and its Aftermath

As sleep eludes me on the long flight back from Moscow to JFK, instead I type up some more undigested and ill-thought-through observations (to follow on from my first responses).

There may not have been much choice at this election, but there was popcorn or pirogis for sale!

What do Russians want? That there was fraud in the presidential election is clear; but it is equally clear that even without it, Putin would still have won a convincing first-round victory. The question for me is really what this means. It does not mean, pace what some commentators suggest, that almost half Russians are “against” Putin, but I am more interested in the variety of reasons for being “for” him. What became clear to me was that there were all kinds of reasons for voting for Putin, over and above because your boss/commanding officer told you to: a belief in his leadership, a fear of losing the gains in stability and prosperity made over the past twelve years, a glumly pragmatic way to ensure that the comfortable opportunities for corruption and embezzlement are not lost or indeed turn into legal liabilities, or simply a — frankly, entirely understandable — lack of enthusiasm for any of the alternatives. Can Prokhorov’s apparent Damascene conversion to politics be taken seriously? Long-time professional spoilers and pratfalling straight men Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky? Or the cringing apology that is Mironov?

To an extent, every democratic process sees negative voting, the decision to opt for the least worst option, but I wonder how far Putin’s strong raw result masks such a hidden osteoporosis, a transition from positive to negative support. The significance of this is that if any real alternatives appear, then Putin’s position could surprisingly quickly deteriorate. Already, I got the sense from discussions with people whose practical self-interest dictates supporting Putin but who have lost any great emotional attachment to him, that they are considering the possibilities in life after P.

What does Putin plan? One of the striking features of the past three months has been that Putin has been forced to campaign, to be a politician, rather than simply rely on his ineffable divine right, as seemed to be the assumption back at the time of the ‘castling’ when Medvedev announced his candidacy. Frankly, he’s not been especially impressive at it, and has fallen back on the timeless staple of promising everyone a drink from the well. After all, initially he painted a somber picture of tough times ahead and the need for difficult decisions and fiscal responsibility. However, once the activists began their protests, suddenly the promises started coming thick and fast. Massive spending on social programs, especially education. Implicitly, support for economic diversification, including much-needed infrastructural developments. Explicitly, continued rearmament and better salaries and living conditions for soldiers and police alike. Barring soaring oil and gas prices, there is no way Putin can afford to meet all these pledges, so the question is who does he disappoint. His traditional silovik support base? Unlikely. Kudrin and the other economic modernizers? That would be foolish? So it may well be, just as during Brezhnev’s later years, society as a whole.

Of course, life for most Russians today is a world apart from then. Indeed, that is in many ways Putin’s problem. Economic and social development have created a new, albeit still small and metropolitan middle class that aspires to a stake in a political system very much dominated by the elite. More broadly, expectations and aspirations are rising within society as a whole and just as Russians have rewarded Putin (rightly or wrongly) for bringing them new-found prosperity, so too may they punish him if their standards of living fall or — and this is hardly fair either, but such is life — simply fail to grow at the pace they expect.

What’s not yet clear is quite what Putin wants. Sure, a powerful Russia, a strong Russia, a respected Russia, yadda-yadda. But despite, or maybe because of, the lengthy position papers he published in the Russian media every Monday leading up to the election, really as a surrogate for engaging in debate, we have little real programmatic sense of what to expect. And that implies that his focus has been on winning power, not on what to do with it. Maybe that’s the answer, that given his dominance of the political system beforehand, we should not expect anything fundamentally different, just business as usual.

'Stop' says the sign. 'Stop' say all the burly men with truncheons. I wonder which has more authority.

What will Putin do with the opposition? Despite the heavy-handed conclusion to the Pushkin Square protest, I don’t think it’s likely that there will be any massive crackdown, but nor is the any sense that Putin will simply let bygones be bygones. His victory speech on Sunday night presented it as a triumph against “provocations” aimed at “destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power;” this hardly sounded like an invitation to let the healing begin. Someone I met but won’t name as they work for a Western embassy, made an interesting and I think instructive parallel between Putin and Nixon: undoubted talent, but vitiated by a destructively vindictive and paranoid streak. Simply by refusing to comply with the ‘castling’ diktat and forcing Putin to campaign like a mere politicians, puncturing his aura of effortless and unchallengeable authority, the activists have hurt him and he is unlikely to forgive and forget. I’d anticipate more pressure on media outlets deemed to have been disloyal, maybe some petty vengeances on individuals.

However, Putin has built much of his legitimacy on a clever strategy of setting up a pseudo-opposition which is at once unattractive and yet occupying a certain political space and thus acting as a spoiler to other, potentially genuine alternatives. I don’t think he will abandon that but rather seek to adapt it to the new circumstances. United Russia’s future already looked questionable and I’d see it as even more dubious now. In this context, in many ways Navalny is a great asset to the Kremlin, a man who has not yet demonstrated the ability to create a broad-based movement and whose ego probably precludes him working with, let alone for anyone else, but with the charisma and profile to make it difficult for anyone else to assume his mantle. Were I feeling truly cynical, I’d even suggest that his few hours in prison last night could hardly be better calculated to burnish his radical credentials without unduly inconveniencing him.

Medvedev is clearly moving quickly to assume the good cop role, ordering investigations of the Khodorkovsky verdict and the banning of PARNAS and talking of a constitutional convention. Meanwhile stern tsar Vladimir, like Ivan the Terrible, has the option of retreating from his unruly subjects who have so disappointed him, until they humbly petition him to return.

What will the opposition do with themselves? I have been impressed and uplifted by the spectacle of the activists’ ability to mobilize a broad-based coalition, to do so often with great good humor (there is little that is more corrosive to authoritarianism than satire and mockery) and imagination (the Great White Ring, for example). They were never going to defeat Putin this Sunday, but they brought both public scrutiny of the corrupted electoral process and a new pressure on P actually to give Russians reasons to support him. Now what, though? The mood at last night’s Pushkin Square protest was rather more somber, which is understandable, though still in the main quite positive. But how far does chanting ‘Russia Without Putin’ help reach out to the majority who voted for him? And, for that matter, how far do many of the activists want to reach out beyond this ‘vanguard of the bourgeoisie’ to the elite at the top (in other words, giving them reasons not to fight tooth and nail to keep Putin at the helm as their krysha, their protection) and the masses below?

In this context, I was obscurely saddened and disappointed by the decision by Navalny, Udaltsev and co to flout the terms of the protest and precipitate a response from the not-so-small army of riot police and Interior Troops waiting in the wings (I’ll write more about the security forces’ role later). They must have known that they were not going to be able to resist, and they must have known that this was going to be presented as an irresponsible and willful refusal to abide by the law. What did they think they were going to achieve beyond the momentary martyr’s fix of standing up to The Man?

If the activists are going to move beyond hosting occasional feel-good events in Moscow (and even then, the Pushkinskaya event, with just 15,000-20,000 participants was quite small, considering), then they will need to get used to the boring, mechanical elements of politics: building political machines, establishing consensus(es), but probably in the process having to disaggregate themselves, accepting and embracing the fault lines within the Россия вез Путин camp, even if in the short term that will make the components smaller and more vulnerable.

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