Putin Without Putinism

Everyone assumes that Vladimir Putin will win Russia's presidential election next month. But can his iron fist survive his victory?

The mood in Moscow has changed profoundly in the last two months as a critical mass of Russians has come to believe that Vladimir Putin's regime is approaching its end. People are not tense and angry, but humorous and excited.

Paradoxically, the opposition thinks it has won and lives in a free country, while the government believes its rule persists. These two contradictory perceptions of reality are soon bound to clash, however, and Russia's system of government will be changed beyond recognition in the process.

The general assumption remains that Putin will win the presidential election on March 4. But Russians' expectations about the aftermath vary greatly. Five alternative scenarios are floating around Moscow these days.

The dominant liberal view is that Russia's economy and society have outgrown the country's obsolete political system and will experience a peaceful and gradual democratic breakthrough -- evolution rather than revolution. Although Prime Minister Putin will return as president, his power will dwindle away, and a full democratic transition will occur within two to three years. As the modernization theory laid out by the late political scientists Seymour Martin Lipset and Samuel Huntington holds, Russia is simply too wealthy, too well educated, and too open to be so authoritarian and corrupt.

An alternative liberal view, expressed by political scientist Lilia Shevtsova, argues that Putin will tighten the screws after the election and that his new presidency will be more repressive than his current rule. "The Putin era is ending, but the authorities are doing everything possible to make it a dramatic finale," she writes.

A third view, mostly limited to pro-Putin Western businessmen, is that Putin has understood his precarious position and will now return to the reform program he adopted in 2000, which emphasized market deregulation and judicial reform. As the skillful politician he is, this line of thinking goes, Putin will take the air out of the protests by carrying out the necessary liberal economic and legal reforms while maintaining authoritarian power.

Some liberals also fear that an alliance between the far-left and far-right opposition in the Duma will come to the fore if the officially market-friendly regime falters. This red-brown alliance would be made up of Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, and Sergey Mironov's A Just Russia. It would favor mass confiscation of private enterprises, much higher public expenditures, higher taxes, and price controls. Putin's regime has often stoked fears of this scenario to advance an "après nous le déluge" argument -- which has yet to prove true.

The fifth view, which is the dominant view among regime loyalists, is that nothing has really happened -- the pampered elites have just let off some steam. After all, Russia's economy grew 7 percent a year from 1999 to 2008. As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said in 1957: "Let us be frank about it: Most of our people have never had it so good." These officials and businessmen claim that political stability is paramount, and they call for 12 more years of Putin without much change to the status quo.

Although it is hard to predict how change will come to Russia, the accelerating pace of events has made a political transformation in Moscow all but inevitable. Now-despised President Dmitry Medvedev preached a sensible program for Russia's modernization for the last four years, and though he never did much to implement it, his program has achieved a broad public consensus. The middle class may have abandoned Medvedev after he nominated Putin as a presidential candidate on Sept. 24, but it is still searching for other means to implement his agenda.

At the same time, the blend of authority and coercion that Putin has successfully wielded for 12 years has seemingly lost its magic. The watershed moment came on Nov. 20, when the audience at a wrestling event booed him on state television. A dictator has to be feared -- otherwise, he just becomes ridiculous.

Putin's position declined further when his United Russia party stole the State Duma elections on Dec. 4. The fabrication of the vote was so crude that the independent election monitoring organization Golos assessed that 15 to 20 percent of the United Russia votes were stolen. Even so, United Russia could only claim 49.5 percent of the votes, a decline of 15 percentage points from 2007. Putin's dictatorship has never looked so weak.

The opposition may be multifaceted and poorly organized, but it has proved its ability to bring people to the streets and has united around a surprisingly cohesive agenda. The three mass demonstrations held on Dec. 10, Dec. 24, and Feb. 4 were the largest Russia has seen since 1991, and they broke the barrier of fear. The demonstrations were orderly, offering no excuse for violence by the police, who no longer seem capable of suppressing the opposition. As liberal opposition activist Andrei Piontkovsky writes, "Any resort to brute force to suppress demonstrations would finalize the regime's loss of legitimacy." In line with Russia's post-Soviet history, the police would likely refuse to shoot unarmed demonstrators. So even if Putin aspires to be a stricter dictator, that option is probably closed.

The opposition also has a common agenda. Its formal demands center on honest elections but focus more broadly on two issues -- democracy and the rule of law. The left demands justice, while the right calls for efficient judicial services. Both aspirations are directed against corruption and Putin, who is seen as Russia's chief enabler of corruption. Putin's United Russia, which anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny has dubbed "the Party of Crooks and Thieves," is a flashpoint for popular resentment.

The government's response appears confused and often contradictory. Strangely, one of the Kremlin's first steps in December was Medvedev's call for the reintroduction of elected governors, which Putin abolished in 2004. Putin has not gone quite that far, but the governors have quickly turned against the federal government, realizing they are likely to have to garner local support to stay in power. At the Gaidar Forum in late January, for example, four governors publicly criticized the minister of regional development for creating a system of evaluating federal expenditures that disbursed funds arbitrarily.

The governors have also come under pressure from the Kremlin, which has simultaneously asked them to bear the blame for falsifying the Duma elections while being asked to deliver an overwhelming presidential vote for Putin. Clearly, they see the writing on the wall and are not going to do more than necessary for the federal authorities, potentially endangering Putin's majority in the upcoming vote.

In another early step, Putin replaced his longtime Machiavellian chief political advisor Vladislav Surkov with the cruder Vyacheslav Volodin. The crucial difference between the two men is that Surkov argued for Putin to win the presidential election in the second round, as Jacques Chirac did against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 French presidential election -- thus gaining more legitimacy. Volodin and Putin, however, do not want to take such risks and prefer a first-round victory.

Even beyond his reelection team, Putin's political appointments show that he has no intention of reaching out to the broader public. In December, he appointed two of his closest and oldest friends -- contemporaries from the KGB in St. Petersburg -- to two top positions. Sergei Ivanov became his chief of staff, and Sergei Naryshkin speaker of the Duma.

As he surrounds himself with loyalists, Putin has also increasingly relied on anti-Americanism to bolster his regime. He recently appointed two of Russia's most vocally anti-U.S. politicians to top foreign-policy positions: Dmitry Rogozin became deputy prime minister for the defense industry, and Alexei Pushkov was named chairman of the foreign-policy committee of the Duma. Simultaneously, Putin launched an anti-American campaign that blamed the protests on the U.S. State Department -- a hackneyed charge that seems old-fashioned and irrelevant.

The entire federal administration, meanwhile, is in turmoil. After 12 years of minimal changes in the cabinet, it is clear that only a few ministers will remain in place. Respected finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, departed in September and has joined the liberal opposition. First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov has publicly welcomed Russia's democratization. Many officials are running for the exits, and some may be prosecuted for their gross corruption.

Putin's election bid also appears to be little more than an afterthought. Officially, the 75-year-old film director Stanislav Govorukhin leads his campaign, but this is little more than a facade. Volodin leads the real campaign from the president's office, with United Russia offices set up in the gubernatorial administrations. Absurdly, United Russia has been left on the outside looking in, as Putin does not want to be associated with its "crooks and thieves" reputation. As a consequence, many ambitious United Russia officials in the provinces are now running as independents in local elections against the government.

Putin kept an uncharacteristically low public profile until mid-January, but then became all the more active. So far, his campaign has followed two tracks. The first is a series of newspaper articles and daily public appearances enunciating his positions on the rule of law and economics. For good reason, Putin boasts about Russia's strong economic record, and he has promised liberal market reforms and tough action against corruption. These statements represent a welcome liberal turn. The problem, however, is that Putin sounds as he did in the early 2000s, when many of these very same promises proved hollow. This raises the obvious question: Why should voters believe he will carry out these reforms now, if he did not do so then?

The other campaign track consists of propaganda films on five television channels. These films are typically one hour long and as crude as they get. One praises Putin for saving Russia from the global financial crisis -- never mind that Russia's GDP fell more than any other G-20 country in 2009. Another spins an absurd tale of how Putin saved Russia from civil war. They are targeting a less-educated audience, Putin's core electorate, but this aspect of the campaign undermines the credibility of the more intellectual pose that Putin takes in his newspaper articles.

Impressively, Putin's public style has changed. I saw him speak at the conference of Troika Dialog, a Moscow investment bank, on Feb. 2. To my great surprise, Putin engaged in a public debate with economics professors Paul Krugman and Raghuram Rajan. He attacked Krugman for his advocacy of loose fiscal policy, arguing that it would lead to overproduction, and he criticized both Krugman and Rajan for their preference for democracy, which he said would make it impossible to cut Russia's social expenditures. Although restless, Putin spent two hours with us.

These appearances reflect Putin's complex personality. He is late to decide but then stubborn. He hates to act under pressure and never negotiates, compromises, or changes a decision. At the same time, he has proved to be a daring improviser. It is difficult, however, to see how his old tricks could succeed in restoring the authority he has lost in the last several months.

For Putin to regain his credibility, he would need to take aggressive action before the March 4 presidential election. He would have to sack and prosecute some of the most corrupt among his top aides and take steps to clean up the state-owned energy company Gazprom, which has long been considered the worst hole of corruption in Russia.

The liberals within the regime warn that Putin must start fighting corruption to avoid revolution. Such steps, however, would be just as likely to undermine Putin's power base as revitalize his rule, as they would threaten the interests of his closest aides. Putin appears to have moved from a win-win position to a lose-lose position, and because the opposition's demands center on law and justice, no oil price can save him this time around. Opinion polls suggest that Putin may win the presidential election with an absolute majority so that no runoff is required.

But though he will likely succeed in returning to the presidency, he will have lost his legitimacy in the process. The electoral system is simply not democratic: Putin himself has selected the four "alternative" candidates, and he has also maintained full administrative control over the Central Election Commission in defiance of protesters' demands. And media outlets, of course, continue to tout his candidacy day and night.

But the beginning of the end has come for Vladimir Putin -- the only question is how his rule comes to a close. Today, it is fashionable to oppose him. At the Troika Dialog conference, Vladimir Mau, president of the Academy of the National Economy, concluded: "The most stupid thing now is to waste the crisis." Russia's opposition, for so long left out in the cold, has no intention of missing this long-awaited opportunity.



Putin Is Already Dead

The sweeping protests that have riled Moscow signal the end of Russia's strongman, but the real gains will require millions to adopt the project of democracy and dignity.

                                         Click here for interviews with the new wave of Putin's opposition.

As the Russian protest movement expands and radicalizes in the lead-up to the March 4 presidential election, the key question is not whether Vladimir Putin -- and Putinism -- will survive. They will not. Apart from its so obviously dysfunctional political system, Russia is facing growing problems of enormous complexity -- economic, social, demographic, ethnic -- that are impossible to solve within the rigid confines of neo-authoritarian "sovereign democracy" (which, as my Russian friends like to point out, is as to "democracy" as "electric chair" is to "chair"). Inextricably tied to Putinism, corruption, which is likely the worst in Russia's long history, is reaching the level of paralyzing key economic and social institutions.

There is also a kind of historical inevitability here. Indeed, the dynamics of Russia's latest breakthrough to post-authoritarian democratization appear to be very similar to the ones that drove Southern Europe (Greece, Portugal, and Spain) in the 1970s and the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan) in the 1980s. And after a period of record economic performance, a hugely expanded global middle class is no longer content to enjoy unprecedented personal freedom and prosperity -- its members want political liberty and a say in governing their countries. This is where Russia finds itself today.

To better understand this new, rising social movement, I traversed Russia from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad -- some 4,600 miles and nine time zones, stopping in Irkutsk, Moscow, and St. Petersburg in between -- and interviewed leaders of civil society movements and organizations. The conversations were exceptional, revealing a deep and real dissatisfaction with political and social life in Russia today. 

Yet quite apart from all the obvious and increasingly deadening flaws that have emerged under Putin, his regime's fatal deficiency is moral, even existential. For the Russian Internet generation that has lead the protests, guided by Facebook and inspired by LiveJournal blogs, a generation whose members were young children or in their early teens when the Soviet Union collapsed, it is an inconceivable existential monstrosity, an utterly bizarre anachronism, for a great and proud European nation to have someone -- anyone -- in power for 24 years (which is what many think Putin aspires to if "reelected" for two six-year terms). This is six years longer than Brezhnev and only a few years short of Stalin. "You've got to be kidding!" and "This sucks!" may not be among the categories of political science, but they are fair representations of the growing sentiment on Russian blogs and Facebook pages.

Sovereign democracy is a daily offense to the dignity of these young men and women for whom the proverbial "chaos of the 1990s" is at best a distant rumor. They compare themselves not to their (mostly) post-Soviet parents -- and even less so to their (mostly) Soviet grandparents -- but to their contemporaries in prosperous, democratic countries in Europe and the United States. The key legitimizing factor of Putinism -- "We're better off than in the 1990s" -- is eroding almost daily.

The public opinion polls are unambiguous: Putin has lost Moscow, and he has lost the intelligentsia. This means he has also lost the country: No Russian regime in history has survived these losses, though some managed to linger, agonizing, for several years. Although the end may come as early as this spring and summer, following inevitable national protests once Putin is elected in March, we can almost certainly bet that Putin will not serve out his first six-year term (which would end in 2018) and that absolutely without doubt he won't see out a second.

Thus the truly important question is what happens after Putinism is overthrown. It has been clear for a while that the elites are at a loss. This past July, Igor Yurgens, an advisor to President Dmitry Medvedev and the head of a think tank of which Medvedev is chairman of the board, told the leading political and economic Profil magazine that the elite -- both the government and opposition -- are at their wits' end. "They've lost control of the situation," Yurgens put it. Last July, this may have been discounted as an alarmist exaggeration by a liberal politician desperately wishing for Medvedev to become an independent political figure. Today it seems quite realistic -- after the moral revulsion over the results of the Dec. 4 election that followed the insult of Putin's September announcement that the "switch" with Medvedev had been preplanned four years ago (implying that the Medvedev rhetoric of "modernization" was purely for show).

A similar case was made by perhaps Russia's finest political philosopher and political sociologist, Igor Klyamkin, in an interview to Ogoniok magazine this past July. "Rossiya v tupike," he declared -- Russia is at a dead end. From top to bottom, Russian society suspects that the current economic and political model is unsustainable, said Klyamkin, yet no alternative is possible within the current political framework.

If Klyamkin is to be believed (and he is usually right), Russia may be approaching a watershed in its 1,000-year history. Rule by force -- whether this force was "legitimized" by religion, as before 1917, or by ideology, as during the Soviet period -- has been the essence of Russian political regimes. Ideologies have changed like draperies on the windows, but the fundamental nature has remained the same, according to Klyamkin: "The law guarded the force, not the rights of citizens." Today, Klyamkin continued, "arbitrary, lawless force has lost its effectiveness: Neither the elites nor the population are ready to accept it any longer."

Force cannot get rid of corruption; it is even less capable of the modernization that the Kremlin has repeatedly declared its goal. Putin is neither Stalin nor Peter the Great. Yet how to modernize by other means the regime "does not know -- the system cannot accommodate alternative ways of development." That is why, Klyamkin declared, the present stage is "unprecedented" in Russia's history; it "looks like a historical dead end." To find the way out, the Russian state "not only must change but become such that it has never been before." He was talking about nothing less than a new political culture.

Where will such a culture come from? It looks increasingly like a lasting progressive change will have to come from below and from outside the political class. It will have to be generated by a mature, self-aware civil society capable and willing to control the executive -- a civil society that is not only equal to but above it. In all revolutions, an activist minority is enough to finish off the old regime and install a new political or economic order (and, in the Russian case some 20 years ago, both). But maintaining these institutions in accordance with new political, economic, and social moralities requires a diffusion of these values to many more -- perhaps orders of magnitude more -- people. It will take "masses" willing and able to supervise these state institutions to make sure that they faithfully reflect these new values.

The few are the vanguard, but without the many we end up with Putin's sovereign democracy, the post-Orange Revolution authoritarian retrenchment in Ukraine, and restoration of the military dictatorship in today's Egypt. But are there bright enough lights in Russia today to inspire the masses to safeguard the changes that will surely come?

To answer this and many other questions, I hit the road, talking to the leaders of this new political vanguard. Among the many often startling themes that emerged, perhaps the most fascinating was that a lasting, progressive change would not be a political revolution in the conventional sense. Nor would it be brought "from above" by a good tsar or a better hero than Putin. Instead, Russia's hope must be predicated on a deeply moral transformation "from within."

Amid a sea of cynicism, callousness, mistrust, thievery, and incompetence, these civil society leaders are forging islands -- perhaps soon archipelagos -- of self-reliance, camaraderie, selflessness, self-governance, and personal responsibility for themselves, their fellow citizens, and their country. Day after day, calmly but with unbending determination, they are writing what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called the "software of democracy." And they are not going away. If there is a leitmotif in their remarkably thoughtful and self-aware answers to my questions, it is the moral imperative of their cause: a quest for dignity in liberty and citizenship that gives meaning to their lives.

This is a break with the national political tradition in at least three key regards. First, these men and women may be the first generation of civil leaders in Russian history who do not define themselves by their position vis-à-vis the state. Instead, they view the state as an equal partner -- without awe, fear, unconditional devotion, or hatred. Second, as virtually all of them told me, it is not the regime that is the main problem, but a civil society unable or unwilling to control the executive branch. It is the shortage of mature, self-aware, and confident citizenry that is responsible for where Russia is today. As such, it is the creation of such a citizenry, not yet another regime change, that is the overarching goal.

With the exception of Yevgenia Chirikova, who has become prominent as an emerging leader of the Russian protest movement, the men and women I talked to have not been heard about in the West. Most live outside Moscow and St. Petersburg and don't often engage in hand-to-hand clashes with the regime as do, for instance, such elite groups as "Strategy-31." Yet, it is they and thousands like them who are making Russian history by laying a foundation for a new, post-authoritarian country.

They could be described as the "opposition"; a more precise and inclusive term might be the "civil rights" movement. They have different short-term causes -- from environmentalism to historical preservation to honest elections to lessening corruption -- but the overarching goal is equality before the law and control over the government. "Make the authorities listen to us!" one of them said to me.

No historic parallel is perfect, but it is hard not to hear echoes of the civil rights movement in the United States. Of course, the differences are enormous. One of the most obvious among them is the deeply religious, mostly Southern Baptist, elements that provided the moral foundation of the U.S. movement. By contrast, after nearly five generations of state atheism and with the Russian Orthodox Church deeply compromised by its cooperation with the totalitarian regime, faith can hardly be expected to provide inspiration for the remaking of Russia.

Yet the similarities are just as stark. Just as with its U.S. counterpart more than half a century ago, the Russian movement's ultimate goal is equality before the law and the end of disenfranchisement. (Yes, unlike the Jim Crow blacks, the Russian middle class may vote, but their votes don't count. This is the realization that, after the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, triggered the wave of protests.) And just like the leaders of the civil rights movement, Russia's new activists seek to effect vast political and social change through a personal and deeply moral effort. Both reject violence in principle. Both establish no time limits to the achievement of their goals, displaying quiet but unyielding determination and patience to persevere as long as necessary. Most of all, like the civil rights movement (also led by the middle-class intelligentsia), its Russian counterpart seeks the dignity of democratic citizenship.

But though they may be prepared to work their entire lives to remake their country, Russians may not be able to wait that long. Twenty years after the Soviet Union's demise, the moral and political outrage is back on the streets. And the moral has become political, just as it did at the end of the Soviet period -- and as it always is at the outset of great modern revolutions.

Answering my questions without a shade of fear or reticence and with remarkable thoughtfulness and self-awareness, this brave and deeply moral vanguard revealed, time and again, a deeply personal, passionate commitment to dignity in liberty. In the selections from the interviews that follow, I have tried to convey the honesty, the courage, the passion, and the depth of their beliefs. I hope I have succeeded, for these were among the finest men and women I've met in my life.

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