international analysis and commentary

How Putin’s iron fist aims to control an awakening Russia

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Vladimir Putin secured his return to power on March 4. Although the election is over, it has triggered possibly irreversible trends – such as the emergence of an active civil society demanding political reforms and freedoms. Yet, it also seems that the state is unwilling to engage in a dialogue with the opposition, as shown by violent crackdowns on protests. While before March 4 this was not the case, activists today are victims of harassment, unlawful detentions, and beatings by the police. Crushing peaceful demonstrations might indeed be a feature of Putin’s third presidency: defensive aggression in response to the deep crisis of legitimacy for a government system that has exhausted itself.

On March 4, falsifications were somewhat expected, but those very cameras that were set up to guarantee transparency ended up uncovering an even grimmer reality. Frauds (especially stuffing ballots) were recorded among the indifference of common citizens who were queuing up to vote. In other words: violations are also symptoms of a wider lack of civic consciousness. Such a lack is likely a result of many years of state-controlled media and of a chronic shortage in political alternatives. Nonetheless, signs of a radical break with the past are already there for all to see: Russia’s “civil archipelago” has mobilized. The efforts of 28,000 volunteer election monitors – who spent hours counting votes on March 4 and 5 – indeed constitute a surprising element in a general climate of dissent. It seems that the elections marked the end of a political era, rather than the beginning of a new one.

There seem to be three main challenges on the horizon. First, the future of the protest movement will largely depend on its leaders’ ability to spread the message beyond major urban agglomerates (and beyond the internet domain). At the latest rally at Novaya Arbat on March 10, the number of participants was sharply diminished (from 100,000 to 25,000 people). However, the movement is far from losing its momentum. On the contrary, a long, and irreversible, process has begun. As Yulia Latynina wrote in Novaya Gazeta, “the well-educated urban middle class will now ‘sow the asphalt’”. In other words, activists will continue their struggle by setting up grassroots organizations in support of the victims of the system. One example is Alexei Navalny’s “RosPil” project against corruption, also known as the “Blue Buckets”. A network of many “Navalnys” in the region would constitute a powerful tool to mobilize the local population against “feudal” politicians. Overall, the aim is to re-educate and inform those who have limited access to internet and independent media, thus further cementing the bond between the “creative” active minority and the rest of the country.

Second, the civil movement must be translated into politics. For instance, Alexei Navalny (35) and the leader of the Communist youth movement Left Front, Sergey Udalzov (35), are not yet ripened politicians; most importantly, they belong to non-systemic movements. Regardless of how inspiring their ideals may be, they still need to find a way to break into the realm of politics, coming up with constructive reform agendas for a new political structure. A window of opportunity might open up thanks to the Kremlin’s recent bill on party registration (from 45,000 to 500 signatures required) and to the retirement of political veterans. The presidential election, in fact, showed that most Russians are tired of the same old candidates. Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the party for nearly 20 years, may still try to hang on for a few more, but more likely he will be replaced by a younger politician before the next election cycle. Likewise, the political career of businessman Mikhail Prokharov remains an enigma, and will soon be called on to prove whether it indeed represents an oppositional force, or whether it is merely another Kremlin-backed party.

Third, the movement is striving to counter the Kremlin’s harsh response in the aftermath of the election. The confrontational rhetoric of Putin’s speeches during his presidential campaign turned into an iron-fisted crackdown on peaceful protests after March 4. There were dozens of arbitrary detentions, an excessive use of force by police, and ill-treatment – including beatings – at police stations. The biggest fear for the authorities is that of a mass demonstration similar to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. To render such an event less likely, protesters were arrested and beaten during both sanctioned and unsanctioned protests on March 5 and 10 in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod. Some girls even reported that they were arrested merely for wearing white ribbons (a symbol of the pro-democracy movement) in downtown Moscow. A lawyer from the Public Verdict Foundation – a Russian legal assistance organization that has been providing urgent legal aid to protesters since December 2011 – reported that on the night of March 5, the group received over 100 phone calls from protesters requesting legal assistance. On March 18, furthermore, a pro-Kremlin documentary on state-run NTV television that accused protesters of being sponsored by the “West” ended up inspiring a spontaneous protest in Moscow.

In short, the first weeks after Putin’s victory only confirmed the leader’s emphasis on the preservation of the status quo and lack of change. However, by confirming the highly centralized nature of his power, Putin has painted himself into a corner. Although he no longer enjoys the economic growth and prosperity of the 2000s, Putin continues to foster his populist discourse based on large budgetary reserves accumulated in previous years. But this strategy is proving unsustainable since such funds will eventually drain out. At the same time, it is very unlikely that a softer and gentler Putin 2.0 will emerge over the next six years. Having labeled many members of the opposition as Western-funded secret agents, Putin cannot now sit at the negotiating table with them. Even worse, he cannot let them enter the political structure of the country. Regardless of the civil movement, Vladimir Putin is now the one who will be held responsible for everything that happens to the country.