Putin’s Russia and its faltering regime. By Anna Schmitt
When thousands of protesters turned to the streets of Russian cities for mass anti-Putin demonstrations after the rigged Duma election in December 2011 and during the presidential elections on 4 March 2012, euphoria for political change spread amongst not just the Russian population, but also put a smile on Western observers. Comparisons to the Arab Spring were immediately drawn with the protesters hoping to see Putin and his regime fall like in Egypt or Libya. However the reality seems to be rather disheartening. Putin is back in the saddle for a fourth term as president. The protest movement is waning, either demoralised and silenced, or radicalised and diminishing. It feels as though the opposition has missed the opportunity to turn the anti-Putin atmosphere into a political moment for change.
The lack of political culture and the extinguishing by the Putin regime of any burgeoning political movement from the past twelve years, has often been cited as a main reason why the Russian opposition has so far failed to capitalise on the mass protest. The constraint of political competition by anti-democratic and anti-competitive legislation and the state monopoly of the mass media, has allowed Vladimir Putin and the political elite to firstly secure its dominance through pro-government propaganda on the major television channels, and secondly hindered the proliferation of opposition parties entering the Duma.
Additionally to this external obstacles to opposition building, internal quarrels among opposition parties need to be overcome in order to constitute serious political competition. Many oppositional groups can be characterised as weak and divided and have so far failed to offer a credible leader as an alternative to Putin. Taking the liberal camp as an example, it is mostly marked by personality-driven leaders such as Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Milov, who are unwilling to make compromises with other parties. Consequently, this has hindered the cooperation of liberal groups. But it is this cooperation of opposition groups that is required to build an electoral bloc and form a solid opposition to the United Russia Party, which would increase the possibility of party politics being used against the Kremlin.
Conventional party opposition aside, what are the prospects of the unofficial opposition of Russian people who turned to the streets in anti-Putin protests? It seems that one of the motivations of the protest has its roots in the daily indignity of living in Russia, of which the rigging of the election has been the catalyst. The middle class, which has previously traded political involvement for the promise of improving living standards, has become disillusioned with the high-level of corruption, nepotism and flouting the rule of law. However, as the author and Kremlin observer Masha Gessen describes the situation: “The Russian population engaged in some sort of magical thinking, it seemed to them, if there are so many of them out on the street they can end the ‘Putin regime’.” However, and this is the main sticking point, it is difficult to envisage a coherent and strong government if regime change is achieved, when over the past twelve years the healthy mechanisms of a democratic society have been demolished, just as the electoral institutions, public space, and the media have been silenced.
Even though the future of Russian politics appears to be gloomy currently, the protest movements can be seen as just the surface of a deeper structural change within the Russian society. Political analyst Nicolai Zlobin points out that Russian society is starting to transform more and more into a postmodernist society, and there is a rapidly increasing contrast between the social maturity of society and the current political system. If Putin were to introduce political openness and democratic reform, the whole basis of the system that kept him in power would expose him to challenges from political alternatives and his durability would seem questionable.
Despite the decrease in people on the street, Putin’s legitimacy has been fundamentally eroded. If the opposition is able to make use of this popular ambivalence of the rising middle class, it might be able to further its reach and increase the instability of the regime. An example of this may be how new opposition groups have become very skilled at contesting local and municipal elections. The established regime thus far has not been able to counter this developing grassroots insurgency. If the recent uprises are consequences of structural changes within society, another of Putin’s infamous anti-protests bill might delay, but not stop these developments. The grassroots levels are beginning to crumble, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the top echelons of the regime begin to collapse.