Strongman Putin faces new internal threat: savvy, middle-class New Russians
Only time will tell if this once popular and increasingly heavy-handed leader will be able to cling onto power
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quest for absolute and permanent power may yet prove to be his undoing. Like most dictators, Putin is unwilling to cede or share power. Dictators either die on the job or succumb to some catastrophe.
Putin’s constitutional term ends in 2024, but signals from the Kremlin are that he might again seek extension. His sleight-of-hand constitutional manipulation to install Dmitry Medvedev to keep the presidential chair warm as his stand-in between 2008 and 2012 might be repeated.
Should Putin opt to run for a fourth term in the 2020 presidential elections and serve until it ends, he would be in power for nearly 25 years, the second-longest after Stalin’s 29 years. Yet, like most Kremlin watchers, I would agree that had Putin left power in 2008 he would have gone down in history as one of Russia’s most successful leaders. After the decade of messy transformation under the faltering presidency of Boris Yeltsin following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin brought remarkable progress to Russia.
“Managed democracy”, as his mode of governance was called, incrementally reintroduced the tenets and style of authoritarian rule Russians got used to under the Tsars and Bolshevik rulers.
Of course, Yeltsin was no hard act to follow, and Putin was the type of leader the Russians yearned for at the time, leading with a “strong hand” and a sure-footed strategist and leader — quite the opposite of his faltering predecessor. His popular public appeal was also enhanced by his modernity and youthfulness, being a modern and effective bureaucrat, market-orientated and pragmatic, without ideological hang-ups. Hence his popularity ratings in the 2000s.
During his first term, Russia’s relations with the West were strained, but not confrontational. Early in his term he indicated that Russia might even join Nato. After the turn of the century the Russian economy grew by a high average of 7%, coupled with even more impressive growth in per-capita income, thanks largely to the steep rise in the oil price. In the field of foreign policy, Putin was remarkably successful, leaving Western diplomacy wanting and reclaiming Russia’s status as a world power.
However, the second half of Putin’s 20 years in power (2009-2019) was significantly different to the first. The phenomenon of Putinism as a personality cult set in with great impact, morphing into the equivalent of a latter-day Tsar or communist boss. His policies changed decisively, reverting to a quasi-Soviet style of authoritarianism, sustained by his popular personality, the supremacy of security forces and powerful oligarchs. At the same time, however, his authoritarianism was being challenged by the upcoming middle class in Russia, concerned about future directions of change under his prolonged rule.
Paradoxically, in spite of his high popular ratings, Putin’s sense of insecurity became more pronounced the longer he stayed in power. Regime security became the sine qua non of his politics. Insecurity, of course, is a typical Russian trait from the time of the Tsars to the Soviet Union.
As American diplomat George Kennan wrote in 1946: “At the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity … This thesis provides justification for the relentless increase in the military and political power of the Russian state. Conceptions of offence and defence are inextricably confused.’’ Putin’s policies or Putinism are no different.
Of course, considering Russia’s predicament when Putin took over in 2000, his response was legitimate and justifiable, and the West must share the blame. At a Munich security conference in 2007 Putin warned that America’s “unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have made the world a more chaotic place, created new centres of tension and caused new human tragedies’’. In the same year, he warned about the West’s “ideology of confrontation and extremism’’.
Particularly provocative was the expansion of Nato and the EU to the East, closer to Russia’s borders, threatening it with encirclement and ignoring its legitimate national and regional security interests. The West’s response was diplomacy at its worst: deliberately keeping a struggling Russia during the Yeltsin years at arm’s length, bent on keeping it dependent, weak, isolated and pliable.
Helped by Western diplomatic incompetence, Putin reacted masterfully and with great success, confronting these security crises head on and emerging in the eyes of patriotic Russians as the “saviour of the motherland” against the “threat from the West”. With singular audacity and brinkmanship, he unlawfully annexed Crimea and fought wars in Georgia, eastern Ukraine and Syria, with the West standing by, too divided and diplomatically incompetent and faint-hearted to stop him. As a result of his foreign policy successes, Putin’s domestic ratings reached stratospheric levels.
At the opening of the Winter Olympics in 2014, Putin could declare triumphantly that “at last Russia has returned to the world arena as a strong state — a country the others heed and can stand up for itself”. However, even for Putin, all the good things do not happen together. He became a prisoner of his own paranoia as his political raison d’être changed in tandem with his insecurity. Popular protests in 2011-2012, debilitating Western sanctions, the collapse of the oil price, Russia’s average economic growth falling to 0.6 %, as well as the cost of wars in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria caused his policies to refocus on domestic issues in tandem with substantial beefing up of domestic security and military might.
“Effective authoritarianism’’ became the new Kremlin mantra as Putin, true to his KGB roots, reintroduced Soviet-style authoritarianism and revisionism, enforced by elitist securocrats and soliviki (former KGB strongmen). His foreign policy became decidedly right-wing and propagandistic. Anti-liberalism, anti-Westernism, circumscribed by the dictum of absolute Russian nationalism, dominated Russian foreign policy.
Putin made a great show of supporting ultraconservative leaders in Europe and elsewhere. Posing as “philosopher ruler”, he voiced anachronistic Westphalian ideas about the normative conduct of international relations. At home he propagated a new understanding of “Russian sovereignty”, Russian “traditional values” and Russian “moral superiority”, declaring the West “morally decadent” and its liberalism “obsolete”.
At this stage of his prolonged rule, Putin realises that the greatest threat to his regime comes from inside the country. He also knows that change at home would be slow and cumbersome, with success not guaranteed. Hence his paranoia about a popular “colour revolution” in Russia, as experienced in former Soviet republics Kyrgystan, Ukraine and Georgia, which ushered in new presidents.
The August protests (60,000 Russians participating with 2,000 brutally arrested and the continuing harassment of dissidents) could be the harbinger of things to come. Putin’s main challenge is, therefore, to safeguard the Russian body politic against the threat of increasing deprivation among the long-suffering masses, growing discontentment of a new middle class while keeping Russia strong and competitive as an international role player. Obviously, more repression will only render Russian politics more volatile, which is exactly what the Kremlin is doing.
“New Russians” have emerged: a young and modern professional class, connected by the internet and in touch with the outside world, and looking for democratic alternatives. With this new class of political role players on the rise, the homo sovieticus phenomenon, a dominant Putin support base, is losing its grip. As Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, “the ruler who becomes master of the city accustomed to freedom can never sleep easy”. Of course, though not accustomed to freedom, New Russians know what it means, and this is what they are fighting for.
What should particularly concern the Kremlin is that the August protests were no longer only about ballot access in the municipality of Moscow, but a broader challenge to Putinism and his ruling class, nullifying the popular stereotype that Putin is the unchallenged leader and that there is no alternative to his rule. The protests are essentially a public rejection of a corrupt and anachronistic political system that denies Russians their democratic rights and dignity.
Reading the danger signals, the Kremlin is set to rub out popular protests against the regime once and for all by using disproportional, ruthless and brutal government fiat and repression. This, of course, is the politics of defeatism and retreat. Every authoritarian regime has its expiry date. When power cannot change at the ballot box, sooner or later it will be changed on the streets.
Of course, Putin has a formidable arsenal at his disposal in his security services, which in August rendered Moscow almost a city under military occupation. But over the longer term, as Russian long history shows, popular dissatisfaction and unrest are harbingers of worse things to come, even if it takes time. So, as Russia moves increasingly and ineluctably towards repressive authoritarianism, the people will speak out, and speak louder.
• Olivier is a University of Pretoria emeritus professor and former SA ambassador in the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan.