Vladimir Putin has been president of Russia for 13 years and if his grip over the establishment remains as tight as it is now, many fear he could reign for the rest of his life, writes Ben Judah. Since December 2011, when more than 100,000 protesters gathered in Moscow demanding free elections, Putin and his colleagues have regained control of events. But the disintegration of the protest movement is not the same as the return to stability, he writes in the latest of the Legatum Institute’s Transition Series.
The KGB always thought Putin was ?awed and his professional instructors evaluated the future leader as suffering from a “lowered sense of danger”. Currently, this is truer than ever. Though it may not appear so on the surface, the era of ‘managed democracy’ and ‘Putinism by consent’ is coming to an end.
This report identi?es ?ve ‘traps’ or risks to Putin’s grip on power and to Russia’s stability in general.
The Affluence Trap
Putin’s popularity was once easy to explain: the richer Russia became, the stronger his regime. At the end of the 1990s, the old Soviet middle class—intelligentsia and managers employed by the state—had been destroyed, but a new middle class was yet to be born. Putin’s political rhetoric was designed to appeal to losers of market reform—déclassé former soviet bureaucrats and others who had lost their positions since 1991. The leading Kremlin spin-doctor, Gleb Pavlovsky, described the regime’s political vision as:
“What made it possible for us to create such a long-fixed Putin majority? The victorious majority of the 2000s was built on vengeful losers—state employees, pensioners, workers, and the unanimously cursed and universally despised bureaucratic power structures.”
In per capita terms, Russia is now the richest major country in the world that is not a democracy. The only wealthier authoritarian countries are small petro-states or city-states, such as Singapore. Russia is also, in per capita terms, by far the richest of the BRIC economies: incomes are over twice those of China and the middle class is proportionally double in size. This new Russian middle class has swelled—now making up over a third of the population. Some 15 percent of Russians earn over $50,000 a year. Russians are also connected to the rest of the world: every year more than 10 million Russians travel abroad and as many as 1 million are living or studying in the European Union.
But as living standards rose over the past decade, the bureaucracy did not improve and the state did not modernize at the same rate. On the contrary, when the country experienced a sudden wave of prosperity in the 2000s, Putin massively expanded the bureaucracy. The number of government officials grew by two-thirds. Most of these new officials, who owed their jobs to the Kremlin, were encouraged to join Putin’s United Russia party. At the same time, the authorities gutted the institutions that could provide bureaucratic accountability, such as independent courts, parliament, and regional assemblies…..
The opposition meanwhile failed to campaign beyond Moscow and failed to link up with the civil society initiatives that had been created in other regions, nor did they develop a language that could appeal to the provincial or the poor. Self-consciously elitist, it was easy to caricature. Despite successful online elections, the Opposition Coordination Council, created to manage the movement, was widely mocked as a pointless talking shop.
Yet the opposition’s failure does not necessarily spell Putin’s triumph.
In late 2012 the Centre for Strategic Research, a think tank originally created to advise Putin, warned that “data from the Moscow middle class focus groups suggest that attitudes towards Vladimir Putin among the members of that strata have changed from negative to hostile and alienated”.
The Technology Trap
The Russian blogosphere has developed into a large and powerful alternative mass media. Research points to a clear liberal and nationalist cluster among online sites, but not to a ‘Putin’ cluster.
The authorities are trying to build a new repressive toolkit—the FSB has expanded its teams working on the Internet and a list of banned websites is being drawn up and expanding rapidly—but for the moment, it does not seem to have technical capacity to copy Beijing and impose full Internet search censorship. As Internet use continues to increase and as TV news audiences continue to drop, the Kremlin’s monopoly on information, so important to maintaining Putin’s power in the 2000s, will also decline further. A real clampdown on the Internet would also be such an assault on how Russian life has evolved since Putin assumed power that it would likely reignite social protest.
The Culture Trap
By 2010 Russia had the largest Internet market in Europe, the greatest rate of online penetration among the BRIC developing countries, and one of the most engaged social networks on earth.
The culture trap is coming together in Moscow. Whereas Russia may be an ageing society the capital is remarkably youthful due to an exodus from industrial and rural regions—over a third of its population is aged under 35. This leaves the city vulnerable to sudden youth-led protests. The crackdown cowed the opposition but humiliated its supporters among the city’s middle classes.
A new generation of oligarchs is now also snapping at the heels of its predecessors. They cannot be relied on to cling to Putin forever.
The Financial Trap
Economic policy, once a source of stability and consensus, has increasingly divided the Russian political and business elite. Not since the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 have there been such vocal disagreements. Alexey Kudrin, the former ?nance minister, has publicly warned that unless the Kremlin reigns in spending it will be exposed to dangerous economic shocks. Igor Sechin, chief executive of the state energy giant Rosneft, has also gone out of his way to obstruct Medvedev’s ambitious privatization agenda.
Other leading officials have been openly at odds with one another as well. These bitter disputes are corroding Putin’s once unchallenged role as arbiter in chief. Not only is the Russian economy vulnerable to an economic crisis thanks to state spending, in other words, but the Russian president is vulnerable too.
The Anti-Corruption Trap
Corruption poses an almost intractable dilemma for Putin. In order to regain popular trust he needs to root out corruption. But if he does so, he will undermine the very foundations of his regime, which has used corruption to secure the loyalty of the elite.
At the moment, the opposition is not strong enough to oust Putin, but Putin is not strong enough to destroy the opposition either. No longer able to control the country through careful manipulation, Putin is now deploying classic police state methods against his opponents. There is no guarantee he will succeed: never before has the country had such a large, politically astute middle class. The more coercion is used against its members, the more they may ?ght back. But one thing is certain—Putin’s current tactics trade long-term stability for short-term security.
Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin published by Yale University Press and a visiting fellow at the European Stability Initiative, in Istanbul.