The end of the year is a traditional time for Janus-faced retrospectives and looks to the future. Trying to encapsulate Russia’s 2012 offers up an interesting contrast between what seemed at times to be a year full of drama and event, from the Presidential inauguration to Pussy Riot, and the sense that nothing much has changed. Have we just seen the emergence of the ‘New Normal‘ — a status quo that enthuses none but is tolerable to all — or did the new opposition politics start with a bang only to end with, if not a whimper, at least a yawn and some bickering?
I think that in historical perspective, 2012 will be regarded as a pivotal time, or at least the ‘long 2012’ that started with the ‘castling’ in September 2011 and dragged through to Putin’s lackluster State of the Union Address and press conference in December 2012. Why?
1. The Putin regime finally exhausted its creative potential. Tempting as it is in some quarters to paint Putinism as some terrible blight, there is no denying that not only did it do much that was worthwhile (just contrast it to the miserable 1990s) but also the regime was often shrewd, nimble, in touch with the national zeitgeist. Like it or not, Putin proved himself to be a state-builder. However, that energy and creativity seem gone now. The dearth of new and big ideas this year, the clumsy handling of challenges and opportunities alike, the renewed dependence on often-spiteful acts of repression and the apparent loss of nerve which I feel were behind both the ‘castling’ and the decision not to seek some rebranding of the regime in December all attest to this. When regimes stop evolving, they start dying…
2. The ‘Putin Vertical’ replaced the ‘Power Vertical.’ Putin’s personality (cult) has always been a crucial ingredient in his style of rule, but the essence of the ‘Power Vertical’ was that the state machine should be greater than the man behind the big desk in the Kremlin. This was given further expression by the willingness to place Medvedev in the presidency. What mattered was not just one man, it was the ‘deep state’ of an elite-wthin-an-elite that he figureheaded, united and cohered. However, that ‘deep state’ seems in disarray, and the personalization of governance is, if anything, being increased by the present anti-corruption campaign, where today’s able administrator becomes tomorrow’s interrogation subject. The ‘Putin Vertical’ is by definition much more brittle, dependent on the skills, judgement and stamina of one man, a man with many considerable abilities but also, it seems, a weakening grasp of the realities of his own country.
3. Politics are beginning to return to Russia. It’s easy to despair of the inability — indeed, sometimes I would suggest willful refusal — of the opposition movement to reach out beyond their narrow constituencies to the country as a whole. Indeed, they seem to be shrinking in stature and appeal alike, getting mired into disputes of platform, precedence and procedure. However, this is hardly surprising. The failure of the Soviet experiment tarnished much of the rhetoric and process of politics, and the Yeltsin years arguably did even more to depoliticize the country. It is, after all, an interesting question which was the greatest windfall Putin received: this or hydrocarbon revenues. It will take time for Russians to regain faith in politics, let alone a language, structures, ideologies. That will probably emerge, in part, from what will look like pointless and self-destructive rifts within the protest movement. But it will come.
So will 2013 prove to be a momentous year? Probably not; I don’t expect any dramatic collapse of the regime or, for that matter, a revitalization of Putin and his regime. Its symbol is, after all, the double-headed eagle rather than the Phoenix or Firebird. But will it be part of a momentous transition, as Russia moves inexorably, even if haltingly, towards greater democracy? That, I certainly believe.