‘Gaping paradox’ at heart of Putin’s authoritarian rule


The director of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation (FBK), Roman Rubanov, was briefly detained and told to return to a law enforcement agency for questioning on October 13, RFERL reports.

A new pro-FSB spy thriller which focuses on an investigation into an activated foreign sleeper cell, depicts a fictional Navalny as an ink-filled octopus, The Moscow Times adds.

Last month, Russian Orthodox extremists attempted two acts of terror motivated by opposition to Matilda (above), an upcoming movie tells the story of Czar Nicholas II’s premarital love affair with ballerina Matilda Kschessinska, notes Alexander Baunov, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center and Editor in Chief of Carnegie.ru.

Russian nationalists

President Vladimir Putin could have easily cracked down on this campaign and reprimanded Natalya Poklonskaya, the parliamentarian from Crimea who instigated it. The fact that he hasn’t done so exposes a gaping paradox at the heart of his authoritarian rule, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

In recent years, Putin has been happy to inculcate a conservative, nationalist ideology in Russia, which much of the Russian Orthodox Church has supported. And he has encouraged protestors, worshippers, and ordinary Russians to propagate this creed to demonstrate that this is a grassroots movement, not something imposed from the top down by the Kremlin.

By doing so, however, Putin has undermined his own authority. In threatening the makers of an innocuous movie with violence and intimidating members of Russia’s cultural elite, the conservative nationalist movement has demonstrated its ugly side, and Putin seems unable to stop it. Doing so would enrage the so-called patriotic part of the political establishment he has emboldened over the last few years.

The Kremlin is reportedly in talks with Ksenia Sobchak (right) about a possible presidential election candidacy, notes Elizaveta Osetinskaya, formerly with Vedomosti and the founder of The Bell.

“A talented show woman with modestly liberal political views, Sobchak would be the ideal candidate to run against Putin, targeting liberal Westernized Russians upset with the Kremlin’s new Cold War with the United States and the modern-day Iron Curtain between Russia and the West,” she writes for The Moscow Times.

It is now a commonplace that Putin’s fate will be decided not at the polls next month but by 15 to 20 of the most powerful figures around him, says analyst Andrey Piontkovsky [left, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group] and the evidence is mounting that these people are increasingly divided about Putin and his policies (HT: Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia):

That is why the demonstrations Aleksey Navalny has organized are so important, the Russian commentator continues, because their massive quality shows that there are other groups within the population on whom Putin’s opponents could rely if they removed him from power in order to save themselves and Russia ….And their action today is especially symbolic not only because it is Putin’s birthday but because it is the ninth anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.

“There are clear signs that Navalny’s anti-Putin campaign is supported by definite circles among the powers that be, Piontkovsky adds, including the siloviki” and that “the Putin ‘bunker’ is extremely concerned by all this” because that raises questions about just how loyal the Kremlin leader’s inner circle now is.

Navalny’s strategy is a slow-burning one, adds Carnegie analyst Andrei Kolesnikov. His campaign is becoming something of an ongoing revolution as it reaches an increasing number of people who are getting, at the very least, the chance to form a firsthand opinion of the protest leader.

There are seven factors which indicate that the current wave of protests will be even more powerful than previous ones, says Roman Dobrokhotov (right), a Moscow-based civil activist and editor-in-chief of The Insider:

  • Internal unity. Earlier, dozens of different small movements and parties were organising protest activities, and it was difficult for them to coordinate – they had different ideological views and were always bickering about political and organisational questions. This is now in the past. Who is “leftist”, “nationalist”, or “liberal” has been set aside because the main fight is against corruption, dictatorship and the absence of open political competition.
  • A new generation. This year’s protesters – compared with those of 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 – are remarkably younger. The majority of them are university and high school students. They actively use the internet and don’t watch TV, so they are immune to state propaganda.
  • The year 2017. One of the chants at Saturday’s protests was “Down with the tsar!” This year’s 100th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution has a peculiar psychological effect. All the historical discussions and projects dedicated to the revolution have made parallels between Putin’s regime and Nicholas’ II monarchy inevitable.
  • Active regions. The opposition in the past was never able to develop wide networks outside of Moscow and St Petersburg. Some parties did have regional representation, but it was mostly superficial and ineffective. Today, a strong opposition network exists in the regions – Navalny’s campaign offices. Judging by the fact that thousands show up to his rallies in cities across Russia, this network is in fact quite active and effective.
  • Putin has gotten old. When Putin came to power, his supporters were praising him as a young and energetic leader, while state propaganda was pushing pop hits by young girls singing about wanting a man “like Putin“. Today, Putin is 65 and at the end of the next presidential term (if he has one), he will be 71. The propaganda machine continues to organise topless photo sessions and hockey games, where he scores goals against professional hockey players. But today, all of this is just an infinite source of jokes and internet memes. And we all know that that which you laugh at, you cannot fear.
  • Available political alternatives. In the past, the Kremlin actively supported the slogan “If not Putin, then who?” suggesting that whatever other alternative candidates there were for the president, they were all worse. It worked because the opposition was divided and there was no leader who enjoyed overwhelming popularity – the Kremlin was organising effective discrediting campaigns against opposition politicians. Today, any attempt at discrediting Navalny actually works in his favour and boosts his popularity.
  • Network structure of protest. Paradoxically, the rise of a popular leader did not lead to a “personality cult” within the opposition. To the contrary – it led to the creation of networks which are able to act independently of leaders. …..

Not long ago, I spoke to Gleb Pavlovsky (left), a member of underground literary circles in the nineteen-eighties, who, in the two-thousands, became one of the chief architects of Putin’s political messaging—the dark art of packaging and spin known in Russia as “political technology,” Joshua Yaffa writes for The New Yorker:

What attracted him to Putin, he told me, was that he represented neither “revolution nor counterrevolution—all of that was left in the past.” Instead, with Pavlovsky’s guidance, Putin cultivated the image of a nonideological father figure, stern and decisive, but pragmatic and without sweeping philosophical passions….Eventually, Pavlovsky soured on the political machine he had helped construct. 

The presidential election is almost unimportant compared to the regional elections scheduled for September 2018. The opposition picked up majorities in several key municipal districts in recent elections, notes STRATFOR:

Many regional Russian leaders have dissented from Kremlin orders and messaging as well, going so far as to condone opposition protests. Nine regional leaders have been replaced in the last month, conveying the Kremlin’s attempts to prevent opposition supporters from coalescing into a united force against Putin’s government. There’s only so much the Russian government can do, however, before their actions risk uniting the protest movements.

The 2018 presidential election will be the beginning of Putin’s presumed final act, but as Putin loses interest in some of the more down-to-earth details of government, the Kremlin is testing new models of technocratic rule in order to sustain the regime, argues analyst Tatyana Stanovaya:

The 2018 election will legitimize Putin in a new way. He will become a historical figure rather than a popular leader. It will also test new concepts of technocratic models of government. The regime will attempt to make government autonomous of Putin’s day-to-day participation. The institutional transformation of the regime ushered in by the campaign will continue long after the election is over.

The Kremlin’s line is that rejuvenation of the governor corps demonstrates Putin’s commitment to improving and modernizing governance, notes Nabi Abdullaev, an Associate Director at Control Risks. What is left unsaid is that the new regional managers do not have any plans for economic reforms, any mandate or any support from the federal government to conduct those reforms, he writes for The Moscow Times:

The position of governor in Russia over the past several years has stopped being a coveted prize. The top administrators are regularly targeted by law enforcement in sting operations and end up in prison — perhaps even more frequently than leaders of the political opposition.

Regional administrations were long ago stripped of economic clout even though the Kremlin demands that social and economic standards are maintained. They are also expected to ensure political stability and public support for United Russia and its candidates at elections.

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