Saturday, March 10, 2012

Some thoughts on Russia and its not so new President

[Warning: this is quite a long piece of general musing. Maybe too long for this blog. It was intended for another outlet but that did not work out. So I am putting it up here in the hopes that some people might read it.]

The dust has more or less settled in the matter of the Russian presidential election and we are between two protests – one last Monday at the end of which the police finally turned relatively violent for the first time since December 5 and a forthcoming one on Saturday, March 10. The time has probably come to discuss, as a number of people have been doing, as to what might come next for Russia, her new (or should that be renewed) President and the ruling elite who has a symbiotic relationship with him.

The immediate reaction divided into two: there was the “Putin is virtually finished despite the victory after that fraudulent campaign and election” camp and the “Putin will now live up to the threatening rhetoric of the election campaign and turn very nasty” camp. Both opinions are about the future as Putin will not be officially inaugurated for another three months. One good thing: there will be no need for any kind of a hand-over.

Many of those who have proclaimed Putin’s soon-to-come political end are now saying sorrowfully that the opposition seems to be running out of steam; the turn-out on Monday was not as large as that of previous demonstrations and the mood was rather despondent. It is not clear what the demonstrators were really expecting but short of a miracle Putin was going to win that election and modern Russian history has been short of miracles. It is true that nearly 40 per cent did not bother to vote and of those who did turn out nearly 40 per cent voted against him. It is also true that the only candidate who can be called at all oppositionist, the vaguely liberally minded billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who is, nevertheless, supposed to have good links with the Kremlin, came third with 20 per cent of the vote.

Undoubtedly the electoral fraud reported across the country was real and the whole electoral campaign had been fixed in the usual way with no registration of real candidates, suppression of meetings, no access to the media and in those circumstances it is hard to assess whether Putin would have won in a free and fair election or not. Probably yes but he clearly did not think so. That is obvious not just from the extended fraud, which might be put down to the usual Russian fear of democracy, but from the ridiculous and hysterical speeches he made on the “campaign trail”. The suddenly discovered terrorist plot that was supposed to target the newly elected President was laughed out of court in Russia as well as in the West. One wonders what happened the badly damaged alleged terrorist who gave the information on TV and whether he will be dragged out again at a later date if Putin does decide to turn on his enemies.

Then there was the strange comment that an opposition leader might be murdered in order to blame the regime, which would, presumably, necessitate the regime to hunt down the supposed murderers and anyone else who might be in the conspiracy. That must have reminded a few people of the events of December 1, 1934 when the First Secretary of the Leningrad Party, Sergey Kirov, who had quite a following in the whole party and was supposed to have clashed with Stalin, was assassinated in very mysterious circumstances. Stalin became Chief Mourner and used Kirov’s death to launch the great purge. While Putin is no Stalin, his vocabulary, his threats, his ready and hysterical identification of opposition to him with enemies of Russia bring back uneasy memories. The fact that he used similar vocabulary for his victory speech, which he made long before he ought to have done when only a small minority of the results had been declared, was what made people think that in his third term Vladimir Putin will turn on his opponents with an even greater ferocity than before. He and his various colleagues and minions have done so before but for the first time in his career, the man is facing an opposition that seems to have some popular roots and he appears to be afraid of it, despite its limited size. But then, he seems to be afraid of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of Yukos, destroyed by Putin with, sad to say, the help of Western firms and politicians though the man is in a prison camp near the Finnish border, serving his second sentence on trumped up charges. For all of that, he also seems to be producing some interesting ideas and strategic instructions to the opposition, so, maybe, President-Elect Putin is right to be frightened of him.

The fact is that the situation has changed because of those large spontaneous demonstrations even if the movement may peter out now. After all, it is a little depressing to keep going to rallies and demonstrations that get you nowhere. The anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny is apparently working on ways of continuing the pressure and building it up slowly and peacefully. One has to admit that the first attempt to do so, a proposed erection of tents on the Western “occupy” model failed. The police moved in and dispersed the remaining demonstrators, arresting around 250. (Another 50 were arrested in St Petersburg.) They were all released within a few hours and have had to appear in civil courts. Other demonstrations have been cancelled; we shall have to see what happens on Saturday. But the rallies and demonstrations did happen and may revive if things do not improve as they are unlikely to do. Putin’s image has been tarnished: he is no longer the all-conquering hero, supported by the Russian population.

The economic situation is against him. On the one hand, the stability and high oil and gas prices meant a better living standard for most Russians than anything they can remember. But this merely encourages the growing middle class to look for political rights as well. Many of them travel to the West and they know that those living standards are still not quite good enough, given all the facts. They are becoming aware of the backwardness of the country, the low standards of the infrastructure (you don’t have to travel to the West to know that but if you do you are less likely to accept it as unavoidable). So the higher living standards are no longer Putin’s friends.

Then again, those standards are falling and are likely to fall even more. Economic growth that Russian officials boast of so proudly is likely to fall to 3.5 per cent, which is higher than that of the West but the starting point is much lower. There are reports of high unemployment in some parts, of demonstrations and riots for economic rather than political reasons and of hasty attempts to pacify the population.

Corruption is unlikely to go away. Mr Putin has said that fighting corruption and raising living standards will be the primary aim of his coming term. What, many people will ask, has he been doing all these years of being in power either openly or covertly.

Assuming that Mr Putin will not be able to solve the economic problems (he has not produced any ideas as to how he might do that) and will not touch the closely related problem of corruption, what will he do if the opposition, which he considers to be enemies of Russia, rears its head again? He can start negotiating, which he has refused to do so far but may not be able to avoid much longer. Most likely he will use the present President and Prime Minister to come Medvedev to make pacific gestures and promises such as the latest one to review 32 dubious cases, including that of Khodorkovsky and his second in command, Platon Lebedev.

He can decide to resign at some point or do what Yeltsin did and promote a useful tool to the position on condition that he and his family are left in peace to enjoy whatever loot they possess. Such deals seem to be the norm in modern Russia but it might provoke a truly violent reaction.

He can live up to his rhetoric and within months of re-inauguration start cracking down on the opposition perhaps reviving the concept of show trials and other suchlike instruments of government. At the same time he might decide to purge some of the siloviki, who are his supporters as they, too, might be eyeing him and his position with speculation. 

Or he can wait and see, the most attractive and see - the most dangerous option as it leaves the initiative to the people or disgruntled supporters.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your commentary on recent Russian politics. Thanks for sharing.