Russian premier Vladimir Putin today disparaged his critics as pawns of the United States in his first public reaction to the growing protest movement, but the resignation of two leading Kremlin officials suggests that the regime has been rattled by the recent upsurge in protests.
Putin hinted at token reforms to address corruption – even hinting that he may release former Yukos executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky – but took a largely uncompromising and notably nationalist tone during a marathon phone-in TV program.
He repeatedly insisted that the protesters against electoral fraud and “managed democracy” are agents of a foreign conspiracy cooked up by Washington and London-based exiled oligarchs.
“Regarding ‘color revolutions’, everything is clear – this is a developed scheme to destabilize society that did not rise up on its own,” he said.
“I know that young people were paid for coming” to a Saturday rally in Moscow, Putin said. “Let them earn a little bit.”
Such claims of foreign threats to Russian sovereignty are cynically designed for domestic consumption. writes Andrei Piontkovsky, a leader of the Solidarnost movement and author of Another Look Into Putin’s Soul:
But there is one threat that the Putin kleptocracy takes very seriously—the threat to its multibillion-dollar bank accounts, assets and real-estate holdings in the West. People in the Kremlin took seriously the list compiled earlier this year by the U.S. State Department barring entry visas for Russian officials allegedly involved in the 2009 death under detention of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
In the aftermath of United Russia’s losses in last week’s State Duma elections, some leading officials are apparently being asked to fall on their swords. Following yesterday’s resignation of Boris Gryzlov, “an emblematic figure” in Putin’s managed democracy, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin and Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov today resigned to take up seats in the State Duma, The Moscow Times reports:
Kremlin first deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, the powerful gray cardinal credited with creating Russia’s “sovereign democracy,” will take the reins from Naryshkin for now, but an analyst predicted that he might not stay long as acting chief of staff.
In his four-and-a-half hour telethon Q&A, Putin repeatedly suggested that the “reset” in US-Soviet relations was in jeopardy.
“We would like to be allies with the United States. It seems to me that America doesn’t need allies, but vassal states,” he said. “People are tired of the dictates of one country.”
Putin consistently mocked the protesters in vulgar terms, comparing their white ribbon symbol to condoms.
“Frankly, when I looked at the television screen and saw something hanging from someone’s chest, honestly, it’s indecent, but I decided that it was propaganda to fight Aids – that they were wearing, pardon me, a condom,” he said.
Putin suggested that he might pardon former Yukos Oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky if he returns to the Kremlin. His likely presidential rival Mikhail Prokhorov this week promised to free the former oligarch-turned-dissident.
“I’ll consider a petition if he writes this request, but first it’s necessary to become president,” Putin said. “The law is such that a person serving a prison sentence and convicted by a court verdict must write a petition for pardon and effectively admit his guilt, something Khodorkovsky hasn’t yet done.”
Reports from Russian pro-democracy and civil society activists suggest that the protest movement’s leaders consider Putin’s likely presidential rivals, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin and Prokhorov, to be distractions and likely allied with the Kremlin.
Analysts question whether the disparate protest movement, which has featured liberals, nationalists and communists demonstrating against Putinism, can develop a coherent political platform and press for democratic reform.
A meeting of protest organizers produced an agreed set of demands – the release of political prisoners released, re-running of the Duma elections, and negotiations with the government. It was also agreed that the opposition should remain apolitical—party leaders should be involved, but not lobby for party interests; the opposition should organize a “league of Moscow voters,” both as a vehicle for keeping participants involved, and to prepare for the presidential elections; and to call the next major protest for 24 December.
The Moscow City School District has moved a state-mandated math exam for students from December 17to December 24 to coincide with the planned opposition protests.
Prominent liberal democrats, including former premier Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov, briefly deputy premier during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, are too tainted by their past to be considered credible agents for reform, some suggest.
Nemtsov and Kasyanov are “figures from the ’90s, and the narrative of chaos of that period is still strong,” said Alex Nice, a Russia specialist at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “What is needed is new faces who can give new ideas.”
Most observers are dismissive of the notion of a Russian Spring sweeping Putin from power and initiating a genuine democratic transition. Opinion polls indicate that citizens remain wary of democracy and most want reform, not revolution.
“I would not wish a harsh political confrontation on my country, and even less a virtual civil war. The time has come for dialogue,” writes Victor Erofeyev, a Russian writer and TV host. “On the side of the opposition, what we witnessed on Bolotnaya Square was not radical Bolsheviks, but a reasonable program for a review of our system of governance.”
The regime retains considerable political initiative and an array of “political technologies” with which it can divide, marginalize or repress any serious opposition.
“The Kremlin has different techniques to respond to the opposition,” said Stefan Meister, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “They just integrate dangerous people … or they react very harshly and make it impossible to create a new organization.”
Given that the opposition is “a somewhat volatile political cocktail”, the “most likely option” is that the regime will “exploit the differences, co-opt opposition agendas and invite an array of new candidates in to crowd the field, leaving Putin as the main man standing,” says the Brookings Institution’s Fiona Hill, a former Russia/Eurasia expert at the National Intelligence Council.
Civil society groups are also fearful that NGOs will be caught in a post-protest backlash.
Pressure on NGOs in Chechnya, where United Russia received 99.47% of the vote, increased significantly before the Duma election, including attacks on the spouses of two activists, presumably by kadyrovtsi (Kadyrov’s personal militia), and harassment by members of the Chechen FSB.
Last week’s flawed Duma elections and the subsequent protests may be the first of a series of crises which analysts view as an inevitable consequence of Putinism’s lack of legitimacy and failure to address let alone resolve Russia’s systemic flaws, writes Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Russia in 2020, a new book from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, outlines several scenarios, including: “Stalin-lite” – an authoritarian shift, albeit moderated by resource constraints, limited political will and the absence of any role models or ideology with which to mobilize civil society; an “Early Putin” partial, tightly-controlled modernization – at best a stop-gap measure until the next crisis; and a “Perestroika II” in which the regime loses control of a more genuine reform process, as during Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempted restructuring of communism from 1986-1990.
But, Weitz notes, “Putin and his advisers are well aware of this potential scenario, and they therefore hesitate to launch even modest reforms, dooming the system to recurring crises and eventual collapse.”
Nevertheless, he adds, the current protest movement gives Russian democracy a second chance to complete the 1990s’ liberal-democratic transition that “was unfortunately aborted due to unfavorable circumstances, mistaken policies and personality flaws.”
Anders Aslund agrees, charging that Putin has encountered his Ceausescu moment.
“Since 2005, I have been waiting for the collapse of the Putin regime, he writes:
I have argued that on the one hand, Russia is too open, well educated, and wealthy to accept such an authoritarian and corrupt leadership. On the other, since 2003 it has been evident that President and then Prime Minister Putin’s primary goal was the enrichment of himself and his friends. In order to safeguard their wealth, he needed to stay in power and impose a certain amount of repression, but he has hardly ever used more force than was necessary. His regime has excelled in good intelligence rather than crude repression, even if some repression has also been present.
“Democracy in Russia appears within reach: an intense political process has begun,” he believes:
The demonstrations around Russia this past weekend were the ultimate breakthrough: large and peaceful with no violent intervention by authorities. The Kremlin will try to promote Putin through disinformation and manipulation, but Putin seems unable to compromise, and his spell is broken. He cannot become president again.
Not so, according to Kathryn Stoner-Weiss ,a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Putin will “undoubtedly” contest and win the presidential elections next March, because: Putin is more popular than his party and “Russia’s most popular politician by far”; the state controlled news media will support his campaign; Golos, Russia’s only independent election monitor, “is likely to be further eviscerated” prior to the poll; and finally, there is no coherent opposition:
The other “unofficial” opposition parties, like those leading the protests this weekend in Russia, have been shut out of the electoral process for a decade and have no national presence capable of organizing and sustaining a national movement … They also have yet to come together and decide to run a single candidate who could challenge Mr. Putin.
The middle-class composition of the protest movement does, however, give cause for medium- to long-term optimism, says Stoner-Weiss, the author of Resisting the State: Reform and Retrenchment in Post-Soviet Russia:
Modernization theory would say it’s this educated, urban elite, this middle class that will gradually begin demanding accountability from an autocratic leadership. So if that’s what we are actually seeing, that could be in the longer run, quite encouraging for liberalization and perhaps eventually democratization.