(from The Times, December 8, 2011)
In the face of protest, the Russian leader will have to use dirty
tricks and repression to preserve the system that spawned him
After ten years of baffling opacity, Russian politics has sprung to life.
The circles of power that mattered were impenetrable, while the visible
political process was a pretence. That was exemplified by the phoney
presidential election in 2008 in which Dmitri Medvedev took over Vladimir
Putin's presidential office in the Kremlin for four years, pending the
boss's return in 2012.
This weekend's election was meant to be another sham, in which United
Russia, the "party of power", would gain a thumping majority in the Duma
alongside some tame opposition parties, setting the stage for Mr Putin's
triumphant presidential campaign in March. What happened instead was the
rebirth of real politics in Russia. Shameless election rigging,
grotesquely slanted news coverage by state-controlled television, clumsy
attempts to muzzle the independent media and a crackdown against
protesters have all backfired badly.
It is too early to speak of a "Slavic Spring" or the birth of a real
opposition in Russia — the protesters are an inchoate mixture. Some are
hardened oppositionists, veterans of the tiny and unsuccessful
demonstrations of previous years. Their views (on a British spectrum)
would stretch from the Greens to UKIP. But others have never been in
politics before; like the vast majority of Russians, they saw any
involvement in public life as pointless.
So far, the protests' geographical reach is puny; thousands turned out in
Moscow, hundreds in St Petersburg, a few score in other cities. But this
week may signal the regime's death knell.
The whole political basis of the past ten years, in which a clique of
ex-KGB men and their business cronies ran the world's largest country, has
changed. The implicit bargain was that the regime provided stability and
rising living standards, while the public accepted limits on its freedom.
Moreover, Mr Putin's personal qualities — steely, diligent, articulate —
were just what many Russians wanted to see after the humiliating chaos of
Boris Yeltsin's rule. If that was democracy, many concluded, Russia was
better off without it.
Now Mr Putin's glory days are over. Memories of the 1990s have faded.
Prosperity (largely due, it must be said, to high oil and gas prices) no
longer sates discontent. Instead, political and economic stagnation are
chafing, especially for Russia's new middle class. They are used to choice
and excellence in their private life; now they want them in public affairs
United Russia is now widely (and accurately) known as the "party of
thieves and swindlers". The opposition blogger who coined that phrase,
Alexei Navalny, is now locked up. But the authorities cannot jail his
jokes; another was to call Mr Putin "Botox man", a jibe at the Russian
leader's cosmetically enhanced he-man image.
Mr Putin is still powerful, but he has lost his aura of invincibility.
Instead, he attracts mockery. Millions in Russia have watched Mr Putin on
YouTube being booed at a martial arts contest, just as they follow Mr
Navalny's tweets and reports of election-rigging.
None of this dooms outright Mr Putin's presidential chances next year.
Most Russians remain apathetic; he remains by far the country's most
popular politician. But it endangers his political future — and the
regime's. The constitution now permits him two six-year terms as
president. Even one may be a stretch. His backers and cronies used to
shelter behind his popularity. Now they wonder if his failure may endanger
Amid the protests, many in Russia are looking again at the regime's
record, which looks increasingly flimsy. Ten years of unlimited power and
money have failed to produce the yearned-for modernisation. Russia is far
more corrupt than it was when the ex-KGB men took power. Its
infrastructure is disgracefully shoddy. It has failed to diversify away
from the natural resources that still make up most of its exports and GDP.
Abroad, the story is similarly gloomy. Russia has lost allies and
influence everywhere (not least to China, which has made inroads even in
the traditional Russian stamping ground of Central Asia). The EU,
belatedly but effectively, has unwound Gazprom's grip on the continent's
energy supply; Russia is now seen as a supplier of expensive and
unreliable gas, to which alternatives abound.
In theory, Mr Putin could now change course. He could fight the next
election on a platform of real reforms and pluralism. But that would
involve huge risks. Unleashed, the Russian media would start asking
questions about the business arrangements that have so hugely benefited Mr
Putin's friends. It would look at the overlap between crime, business and
spookery. It would investigate the murders of Mr Putin's opponents. It
would highlight abuses of power in Russia's provinces.
The paradox is this: the corruption and repression at the heart of Mr
Putin's rule are indeed destroying Russia. But tackling them would spell
his regime's own downfall. He may try cosmetic changes, such as winding up
United Russia, but he cannot change the system that spawned it.
It seems more likely therefore that Mr Putin will respond to the alarming
events of this week by turning the screw. That is a gamble too: if unrest
spreads widely across Russia, the regime lacks the muscle to put it down.
Other options may include mischief-making by the authorities to panic the
population; fear of disorder runs deep in Russia. Mysterious bombings in
1999 — never properly investigated or explained — stoked a public panic
that sped Mr Putin into power. Another trick in the Kremlin playbook is
extremism, skinhead groups that the regime partly sponsors, partly
tolerates. Stoking that threat would then give the regime a chance to play
the law-and-order card. Bashing the West or Russia's neighbours with bogus
charges of encirclement or interference is a third option.
We could do our bit to rattle the regime and give heart to the protesters,
many of whom believe that the West is in cahoots with the Kremlin. We
could impose a visa ban on those responsible for the election rigging, the
crackdown and other outrages; many top Russians invest, shop and holiday
in Britain. The Government has been shamefully slow to use this lever. We
could also stem the flow of Russian dirty money into our financial system.
When the Putin regime finally falls, those who replace it will have some
hard questions for us.
[i]Edward Lucas is the author of The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces
Both Russia and the West>
Edward Lucas on Russia's elections