In response to growing popular discontent since late 2011, the Russian government has put forward timid reforms and a partial reshuffle. However, these tentative concessions are actually part of a broader strategy by the Kremlin to ensure Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s re-election as President on March 4. The future of the country largely depends on the unsettled balance between the incumbent regime and emerging social forces, and particularly on the government’s ability to accommodate those forces’ requests. In any case, the current system, also known as “Putinism”, has almost certainly reached a point of no return, as the gap between the ruling elite and the active and “creative” sectors of the country is widening.
The ongoing anti-Putin rallies are being attended by growing numbers of people who no longer see his rule as legitimate: from 5,000 demonstrators on December 5 at Chistiye Prudy, numbers jumped to approximately 100,000 just 20 days later at Sakharov Prospekt. During this latest rally, a group of sociologists from the Levada Center ran the first survey to describe the social texture of the demonstrations. Those who attended were mostly men (60%) and most had higher education (62%). The average age of demonstrators was calculated between 25 and 54 years old. Notably, there is a shared awareness of growing alienation among young professionals and intellectuals who cannot find access to better career opportunities or active political involvement. The “anti-Putin brigade” is now no longer the domain of ageing dissidents; nevertheless, the opposition has so far failed to unite behind a single leader, nor has it delineated a clear set of demands.
As the government was not expecting such a scale and scope of protests, it was at first taken aback, but it soon developed its own strategic response. The New Yorker’s editor in chief, David Remnick, defined Putin’s regime as a blend of quasi-authoritarianism with both democratic and brutal features. This mix is also reflected in Putin’s enigmatic response to the street rallies. On one hand, he reiterated that the government has no plans to bow to the protesters’ demands, comparing them to monkeys from Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli. On the other, even before the second demonstration took place, the authorities began to make some concessions. President Dmitry Medvedev declared that the government would draft bills including direct gubernatorial elections and a revised system of parliamentary representation by mid-February. He also ordered that the number of signatures required to register for elections be lowered drastically (from 45,000 to just 500 for political parties and from 2 million to 300,000 for presidential candidates).
But there is a catch: these changes are only to come into effect after the presidential elections in March, which Putin is poised to win. Indeed, many interpret these proposals as a trick to ease tensions, thus ensuring Putin’s re-elections on March 4. In other words, the Kremlin appears to be restructuring the façade while actually maintaining the status quo.
There are two elements to this strategy. First, the government is now focusing on how to re-gain legitimacy through a power reshuffle. For instance, Vladislav Surkov’s departure as deputy Kremlin chief of staff, to become deputy prime minister, is intended to mark the end of an era, but it is just a symbolic move. Credited with crafting the concept of “sovereign democracy”, the “gray cardinal” Surkov has provided the ideological arsenal of the presidential administration since 1999. His position has become somewhat uncertain since his comments on the protesters, whom he called “the best people in the country.” In any case, the reshuffle seems designed to ensure continuity, as departing officials are being replaced by Putin loyalists and friends. Parliamentary Speaker Boris Gryzlov, for instance, stepped down and was replaced by former Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Naryshkin. Naryshkin, in turn, was replaced with another staunch ally of Putin’s, former Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.
As a second element to the new strategy, the Kremlin intends to engage with those parties that mostly promote systemic or quasi-systemic changes (such as Liberal-Democrats, Liberals, and even Parnas). Giving up a few seats in the Duma to other parties would not affect the decision-making of United Russia, as it needs only a simple majority to pass laws. But, at the same time, this could boost the perceived legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the Russian public and of the rest of the world. Likewise, the Kremlin aims to create a split within the opposition – more specifically, between those in favor of dialogue with the government and those against it. Presidential candidate Mikhail Prokharov and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin are arguably part of this plan. During the December 24 rally, Kudrin declared that he “was worried about what is happening in the country” and tried to take a balanced stance, making the case for evolutionary, rather than revolutionary change.
With a new rally scheduled on February 4 and the looming presidential election, the Kremlin faces an unprecedented challenge. Its response thus far has been to seek a form of evolution within the system. This echoes Mikhail Gorbachev’s choice during the first phase of perestroika, and, indeed, implies the same risks: cosmetic reforms will not be enough to fulfill the demands of the protesters, but real concessions might lead to further requests which, in turn, may ultimately undermine the power of the ruling elite. Regardless, the upcoming presidential elections will represent a critical test of the Kremlin’s efficiency as well as of the ability of the opposition to build a viable grassroots organization with a meaningful political agenda.