Russia’s ‘managed thaw’: events suggest Putin not all-powerful


This week, two political prosecutions in Russia were quashed — to much applause, notes Pavel Chikov (left), a leading human rights lawyer. But it’s too early to talk about positive trends — the authorities are merely changing their tactics, he writes for Open Democracy.

The Russian state’s function of spreading fear and targeted repressions has gradually been handed over to pro-government, “patriotic” civic organisations. Today, it’s not Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, who’s gunning for Alexey Navalny, but organisations like the National Liberation Movement or AntiMaidan, says Chikov, currently head of the International Human Rights Group Agora:

Now it’s not a case of frightening Russian citizens and repressing them, but to collect information and conduct “preventative action” against protest activity. And this is the job of very different state agencies. Indeed, it’s the FSB that has taken control of Russia’s domestic politics. Employees of Russia’s state security service arrest governors, generals and influential businessmen, devalue the reputations of companies and agencies, and, of course, defend the Russian internet from the harmful influence of the west.

Russians today understand that a change of regime is inevitable, and that postponement, especially through Mr. Putin’s methods, only worsens the eventual outcome. He enjoys support not because the people love him or are satisfied with his policies, but because they can’t imagine an alternative, Open Russia’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky writes for The Wall Street Journal:

The regime maintains fear about what comes next by eliminating opponents. Most are simply destroyed politically, but some are physically liquidated. Electoral fraud, repressive laws and constant, paralyzing propaganda reinforce the expectation that the current regime will survive.

But Putin does have the appeal of dictatorship, says analyst Paul Berman. It is the appeal of patriarchy restored, he writes for Tablet:

It is the appeal of a retreat from liberal democracy—a retreat from the social and cultural advances of the last 50 years, from the culture of innovation and openness, from feminism, from gay rights, from tolerance in general. It is a retreat even from military progress—a retreat from the fussy little moral and political considerations that have slowed down the American-led campaigns. Crudity, vulgarity, simplicity, the iron heel—this is the appeal.

Two scenarios

The coming presidential elections, the election campaigns that have begun, the good news from the courts as spring begins cannot fail to stir up Russia’s dormant civic protesters, AGORA’s Chikov adds:

Gradual civic mobilisation will continue right up until the culmination of this campaign, in March 2018. Indeed, by summer 2018, the data on Russian citizens will have been collected, analysed and transferred to the agencies who make the decisions — and by autumn 2018, legal experts will have plenty of work to do. This scenario has to be taken into account. 

There is, of course, another scenario. The intended recipient of the Kremlin’s “liberal signals” might not be inside the country, but outside. Russia’s foreign policy, which remains at the centre of the president’s attention, is going through turbulent times.

“The most interesting aspect” of Moscow’s retreat from its efforts to promote a civic Russian nation is that it represents “a personal defeat for Vladimir Putin,” according to analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov. The main conclusion, he adds, “is that … Putin is hardly all-powerful” and can’t get his way if elements of the elite and the population oppose him. HT: Paul Goble.

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