The end of the Putin era?

Despite the government’s best efforts to write off protesters, the public discontent is likely to keep growing.

russia protests
Judging by historical examples, Putin’s administration may still be in power for some time [GALLO/GETTY]

Providence, Rhode Island – Substantial time has now passed since Russia’s State Duma elections – not so much as to forget, but enough to think things over more objectively. The perfectly predictable drop in popularity of the “party of power” – United Russia – was as completely unexpected for the Kremlin as December snow always seems to be for Moscow street sweepers.

The authorities were baffled, something evidenced not only by Vladimir Putin’s arbitrary accusation that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator John McCain were involved in the organisation of protests and demonstrations in Moscow, but also his awkward jokes in addressing those same protesters, when he compared the white ribbons they had pinned onto their lapels to condoms.

No one laughed in reply, not even “Nashi” – the ever-faithful youth group. But it was not so long ago that one of his best known proclamations, calling to “waste the terrorists in the outhouse”, prompted waves of emotions across Russia, both positive (from the majority) and negative.   

Of course, that time is now gone forever, and what this new period will mean remains to be seen.

The protest against the authorities’ manipulation of the ballot boxes is the first sign of a real change, a signal from society to its leaders. In reality, ballot stuffing, vote rigging and the other usual machinations were not any more prevalent in this election than in past ones. Only then, everyone – both the voters and those elected – were complacent. But now the mood of the voters has changed. After more than ten years in power, as is always the case with any government, the regime has squandered its potential, and voters are beginning to look around and search for alternatives.

In “normal democracies” this brings an opposition group to power and everything peacefully comes full circle. In the Russian, so-called “Surkov democracy” (after Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov), the rise of the opposition to power has been forbidden once and for all, or at least while this type of “democracy” endures. In other words, the immediate future of the country depends on how the current authorities interpret the signals they are receiving from society and how they react to it.

Up against a wall

The first reaction does not inspire great optimism: future president Putin gave the order to make the coming elections completely transparent, to install cameras at all polling places “so that (as Emperor Peter I once told his own political manipulators) the stupidity of the elections commissions would be visible to all”. Put more directly: the election commissioners are to work now so that no-one, not even an international observer, will suspect a thing come election day. The commissioners, I believe, being bright and experienced people, will not fail in their task.

Listening Post: A Russian winter: Putin, protests, propaganda

As for the rest of its strategy, the regime is set to run up against a wall. “Presidential candidate” Vladimir Putin has called on business leaders to invest 43 trillion rubles, approximately US $1.4tn over the next three years, in order to transform the Russian economy from being wholly dependent on natural resources to a normal manufacturing economy.

Businessmen answered with smiles and polite applause. But where will these trillions come from and who will provide them? This is an economy based on favouritism and kickbacks. Businesses, with the help of their insiders in the government, try to procure more funds from the budget than are necessary for their work and take the money beyond Russian borders to settle accounts with their “benefactors”. 

What happens with the leftover money depends entirely on the honesty or dishonesty of the recipients, the so-called investments and their whims. You need to give Putin his due. He understands that you cannot pump out such enormous sums from the budget; they simply do not exist. And therefore he has proposed to business leaders to turn away from this corruption and instead, invest their “hard-earned” money into business.

But this is happening when, according to the ratings, Russia fell almost ten places in the past year on the list of most attractive countries to invest in, and is now ranked between 150 and 160 in the world. Capital is not flowing into Russia, it’s fleeing it. Its outflow in 2011 was, by one report, $70bn, and by another, nearly $90bn.

And this makes sense, given Russia’s ever-growing corruption, the decay of its infrastructure, its neglect of science and the drain of the country’s creative minds. In these conditions, you can only propose the idea of investing in Russia to a person with a weak understanding of the realities of life.

‘How will he be judged?’

And herein lies one more problem. After more than ten years in power in the absence of any real (as opposed to Kremlin-backed) opposition, a similar fate inevitably awaits any leader, be it a pre-revolutionary emperor or a Soviet or post-Soviet head of state. It’s quite easy to understand: the sycophants, who are dependent on a leader, never tire of harping on the far-sightedness and wisdom of each of his undertakings, without exception. These people cannot do otherwise, or they will be forced out, as “those who lost his confidence”.

And the leader, even if he is humble, cannot contradict them either. He can’t say: “Stop! This is all idiocy and I myself am a fool’s fool.” Regardless of his own competency, he will try to do the best he can. But it will naturally be the next era that evaluates his work. How will he be judged? It’s not hard to guess. Remember how the Soviet regime judged the pre-Soviet, and how the post-Soviet regime now judges the Soviet and so on.

Illustrating one such disconnect from objective reality, Dmitry Medvedev, during his presidency, advocated the “democratisation” of electoral procedures on the federal (both to the Duma and to the Federation Council) and regional levels. I recall, he thought it possible to switch from voting by party lists (generated by some unknown source using undisclosed methods) to individual selection by name, as it is done in the civilised world.

It sounded compelling; it would seem that such an innovation would be able to move the “Kremlin democracy” away from the dead centre of the picture. But this method resulted in hand-picked candidates all over again, who, by the “right of the first night”, are officially approved in Surkov’s office and then once again approved somewhere higher-up. Through this process, only the “worthy” make it to the elections.

If you look at history – [the current administration] has at least ten to 15 years left.

Essentially, this is a move from the Soviet era, when the government didn’t trust the voters, thinking they would – by fault of their inexperience or some other factor – vote for the wrong person. For the people’s own good, at times, the regime carefully removed candidates and put only one person – the most deserving person – on the ballots. And now, in order to prevent Mafiosi or even worse, political dissenters, from coming to power, Putin is proposing to place a Kremlin filter in their path to the ballot, letting only those who can pass through it make it to the election.

In contrast with the Soviet regime, Putin can present to the voters not just one, but two or three candidates, but they will all be essentially the same. He believes that such a procedure will be beneficial, but beneficial to whom, exactly?

History repeats itself

The above-enumerated examples show that the current Russian regime has not adequately interpreted the signal sent by society, which, I repeat, in the absence of objective information, is not surprising and not new. Take a look at history. On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Emperor Nicholas II sincerely believed, until the very last moment, that “his” people loved him. By then it was already too late.

But now the current administration is still fairly far from its last moments. If you look at history – it has at least ten to 15 years left.

Therefore, President Vladimir Putin is ensured a new term. This is not only thanks to the professionalism of the electoral commissions, but simply because, although enough candidates will make it on the ballot, there won’t be any legitimate alternatives. And here you can see the expert hand of the Kremlin political-selectors, weeding out all those who could be potentially dangerous competitors.

One simply cannot take seriously the long-ago exhausted unelectable troika: Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky and Mironov. The same can be said of the independent billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov. The first three have already come to terms with their roles as figureheads, and what Prokhorov is hoping for is unclear, given that the priorities he defined during his time as head of the aborted party of liberal-conservatives were the abolition of the eight-hour workday, the removal of Saturday as a day off, and the lifting of age-limitations on child workers.

That is, he planned a return to the 19th century, to the times described by Charles Dickens, when hands were valued above minds, when manual labour was the source of prosperity for those in power. While this speaks to Mikhail Prokhorov’s unelectability, it more importantly speaks to his professional unsuitability to be even a normal, non-corrupt businessman, not to mention the president.

As for the protests, so far they do not present a real threat to the regime. And the regime, in its view, has learned how to deal with them. But this is only the case so far. More likely than not, the public’s discontent will keep growing. If the regime continues to write it all off as foreign intrigue, then the natural police-centred logic will be to increase the pressure on the protesters and tighten the repression. To what point? This, no one can say.

My advice is to take a look at the past; there you can find an abundance of examples: from Ivan the Terrible to … you name it.

Sergei Khrushchev is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the son of Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin.

Translated from Russian by Eli Keene.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.