Has Putin Come to the End of His Regime?

December 12, 2011 4:15 PM

On Saturday December 10, the spell of the Vladimir Putin regime was broken. Today, the key questions that many are asking are how fast he will lose power and what will come in his place.

Peaceful mass demonstrations took place all over Russia. In Moscow, probably 80,000 gathered on Bolotnaya Ploshchad near the Kremlin to protest against Putin and what they and most observers say were the stolen elections of December 4. I had argued before these protests that if more than 50,000 came, the regime would be seen as finished.

This was the biggest and most important demonstration in Russia since August 1991. Demonstrations took place in at least 15 Russian cities throughout the country, so this is a national phenomenon and not limited to Moscow. A 26-year-old Russian told me that for the first time in his life he was proud of being Russian.

Since 2005, I have been waiting for the collapse of the Putin regime. I have argued that on the one hand, Russia is too open, well educated, and wealthy to accept such an authoritarian and corrupt leadership. On the other, since 2003 it has been evident that President and then Prime Minister Putin's primary goal was the enrichment of himself and his friends. In order to safeguard their wealth, he needed to stay in power and impose a certain amount of repression, but he has hardly ever used more force than was necessary. His regime has excelled in good intelligence rather than crude repression, even if some repression has also been present.

Putin has lived on the high oil price and accomplished little. He arrived at a laid table, having been appointed president on New Year's Eve 2000, after Russia's economic growth had taken off. He cautiously rode on the achievements of economic reform in the 1990s and on an ever rising oil price. From 1999 to 2008, Russia enjoyed an average economic growth of 7 percent a year. Many leaders have fallen into hubris for less. Increasingly, Putin seems to have believed his own propaganda that the achievements were his.

In September 2008, Putin made his most euphoric speech about Russia as a "safe haven" in the global financial crisis, but it was not. Its GDP plummeted by 7.8 percent in 2009, and its stock market plunged by 80 percent in 2008. Russia's recovery has been slow and unimpressive, with a growth of 4 percent in 2010 and perhaps 3.5 percent in 2011. Russia has lost three years of economic growth, in sharp contrast to booming BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries and oil producers.

The reasons for this failure are all too obvious. Russia belongs to the dubious group of the most corrupt countries in the world. Conspicuously, it failed to extend its road network after 1997. In prominent publications by the liberal opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, charges of personal corruption against Putin have been detailed and documented. The alleged amounts exceed $50 billion and continue to rise.

A young lawyer, Alexei Navalny, started a campaign through his blog against corruption and fraud against minority shareholders of the big state-dominated companies. His big feat was to reveal evidence that appeared to prove that the management of the state oil pipeline company, Transneft, had embezzled $4 billion when building the Far East Oil Pipeline. Needless to say, nobody was prosecuted, though the main culprit fled to Israel after some time. Navalny, the effective propagandist, labeled Putin's party United Russia, the Party of Crooks and Thieves, and that name has stuck. Navalny has managed to burn through Putin's Teflon and make the label "thief" stick to him.

Russia's regular elections for parliament, or Duma, were scheduled for December 4, with the voting for president scheduled for March 4, 2012. It was considered obvious that United Russia would win the parliamentary race, while three loyal support parties would be permitted to contest the elections. No independent opposition parties were allowed to register or to share the air waves with the favored political powers. After having gone through this procedure in 2003–04 and in 2007–08, most observers saw the outcome as a given.

The only question was whether Putin would follow through on his plan to return to the presidency by replacing his sidekick and successor in that office, Dmitri Medvedev.

The turning point in Putin's fortunes occurred on September 24, earlier than expected, when he and Medvedev jointly delivered the answer to that question at the Congress of United Russia, a motley selection of mediocre officials and opportunists. They would undertake what the Russians are deriding as a castling, a chess move designed to protect the king: Putin would become president again, and Medvedev would switch back to the role of prime minister that he had played earlier. Not very plausibly, Putin claimed that they had agreed to do so four years ago.

At that moment, Putin made three spectacular mistakes in one. First, he undercut any claim that Medvedev had been serious with all his talk about liberalization and modernization. If what they said was true and the plan was hatched four years ago, they had taken the modern Russian middle class for a ride. Second, Putin effectively took the responsibility for the last three bad years on himself, even though the sensible thing to have done would have been to blame Medvedev. Third, an announcement of a presidential candidacy had been expected after the Duma elections but before the presidential election. By moving early, Putin and Medvedev in effect declared that popular opinion was irrelevant to them.

A popular joke during the Medvedev presidency had been that there was certainly a Putin camp and a Medvedev camp, but the question was to which camp Medvedev belonged. Now he has made clear that he belonged to the Putin camp, leaving the modernizers without a leader. Similarly, Dmitri Muratov, the editor of the independent Novaya gazeta, stated that Russia had two parties: the television party and the Internet party. Putin led the television party that has had a majority of two-thirds, while the Internet party had no leader. After September 24, Medvedev became a figure of public ridicule, even on official television, while the Internet party is looking for a leader.

In 2008, Putin had elaborated on an impressive economic modernization strategy called Russia 2020. It contained most of the many structural reforms Russia badly needed, since hardly any reforms had been carried out since 2003. Alas, nothing has been done in the last four years. Putin alienated his excellent finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, by pushing through a populist and unfinanced increase of pensions—by 45 percent—in 2010!

The government did not even bother to present any new election program ahead of the balloting this month. The three-year budget for 2012–14 showed that the only priority was military and security, especially salaries and pensions. Astoundingly, the government is intent on cutting expenditures on education, health care, and public investment in infrastructure. Putin explained that public investment in particularly corrupt sectors should be cut, without even pretending that he was motivated by a desire to reduce corruption. This was a budget for repression and against modernization, and a more lackluster election campaign has rarely taken place.

On November 20, Putin encountered his Ceausescu moment. On a cold day in December 1989, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu spoke to a large crowd, which started booing, and Ceausescu eventually fled in a helicopter from the roof of the party headquarters. At the Olympic Stadium in Moscow in late November, Putin appeared before 20,000 people at a wrestling event, and they began booing. This disdain was directly broadcast on Russian state television, showing Putin losing his nerve. He looked like a very small and insecure man.

Ever since, all representatives of the so-called Party of Crooks and Thieves have been several times greeted with jeers, and Putin has cancelled all large public events. As the Russian journalist Julia Latynina pointed out, a dictator has to be feared. When he no longer is, he is just ridiculous. That is Putin's new conundrum.

Shortly before the December 4 elections, the ratings of Putin and United Russia started collapsing, which was not unexpected, but the results of the heavily rigged elections came as a surprise. Only 60.2 percent of the electorate was reported to have voted, and out of these votes United Russia received only 49.5 percent, a dramatic loss compared with 64.3 percent in 2007. Foreign observers and others all report massive fraud of all kinds at the polling places, and a realistic assessment is that one quarter of these votes were somehow stolen. That would mean that only 22 percent of the electorate actually voted for United Russia, and many of those were subject to massive pressure, such as threats of being sacked, in an environment hostile to any dissenting point of view.

In effect, the Duma elections were a referendum on Putin, which he lost. The three loyal support parties are of little interest. They are permitted to exist because they are obedient, but they received their votes because they are not Putin.

The question was how the insights flooding the Internet would impact the real powers. Moscow saw an uncommonly big demonstration on December 5 with probably 7,000 to8,000 participants. Finally, the young middle class had taken political action. The lead speaker was Navalny, who was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison for resistance to the police. In the course of three days of limited and peaceful demonstrations 1,000 activists were detained. The opposition accordingly decided to gather all forces on Saturday December 10.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Putin's former chief of staff, prohibited various venues for demonstration and limited their permitted size, but he clearly felt popular pressure. He then allowed the rally to take place at Bolotnaya Ploshchad, across the Moscow River but close to the Kremlin, though only 30,000 demonstrators were permitted. The demonstrations were more successful than predicted, and they were large and spread over the country. In Moscow, the demonstrations were perfectly peaceful following the organizers' call for legal order. Although no fewer than 50,000 police and riot police had been called out, not a single scuffle or arrest took place. The demonstrators took pride in not having broken a single window. In St. Petersburg, Khabarovsk, and Blagoveshchensk, there were some reports about arrests.

The official organizer was Solidarity, which is a liberal umbrella organization led by Boris Nemtsov, but all opposition groups participated, from hard nationalists to communists and liberals. The dominant force was the new young middle class that has never acted politically before. Navalny, who sits arrested, seems to be the given leader, but he has no organization. Real organization appears to be lacking since all communication is carried out via social networks. But organization will be needed for new elections.

The demonstrators adopted a simple resolution that all can subscribe to: that the elections were rigged and have to be redone in proper order. They have called for new demonstrations in two weeks' time if their demands are not met.

The authorities are both reaching out and falling into line. Opportunists have already gone to speak on behalf of the demonstrators, and many in authority are praising themselves for the demonstrators' peacefulness. On December 10, the resistance broke through the airwaves. The television could no longer ignore the massive demonstrations. No provocateurs or hired youth demonstrators were to be seen.

Putin, however, has refused to make any concessions. Incredibly, he claims that the elections were honest, and blames the unrest on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. By habit he is absolutely stubborn. On Wednesday and Thursday, he held televised meetings with select party activists. He looked as if he had lost his bearings, speaking hesitantly and stuttering. Worse, the officials present looked at him with shocked faces as if they wanted to tell him: Don't you realize what has happened and that it is all over?

A sensible dictator would have acted long ago, sacking lots of top officials, and starting a campaign against corruption. But Putin is more like Leonid Brezhnev, the cold war era Soviet leader—he is reluctant to sack any senior person, and he has never fought corruption among his own cronies. He appears to be boxed into a stubborn refusal to face reality or to act. Still, he might become so desperate that he does something truly awful. After all, this is the man who launched the second Chechnya war in 1999, who threw Mikhail Khodorkovsky in prison and confiscated Yukos in 2003, and launched the Georgia war in 2008. War has been his response to electoral challenges.

Yet, I think Putin and his regime were effectively finished on December 10. I do not think it possible for Putin to serve as the next president, and I also think that Medvedev has no future role to play. Common slogans are directed against Putin: "Russia without Putin," "Putin is a thief," "Putin to prison," and "out with Putin!" Both the Russian people and authorities have shown that Russia is ready for a new democratic breakthrough. Yet, all questions about how it will take place are still open.

Many developments will in all probability start in rapid speed. Opportunists within the old regime will likely start acting independently and try to take a lead. Moscow Mayor Sobyanin has gotten somewhat ahead of things by permitting the demonstrations to take place. The three pocket parties in parliament will make themselves independent in a bid to gain credibility, but neither of them is likely to make it. Official journalists will very likely break out of their constraints. Leonid Parfenov of NTV took a lead in the December 10 demonstration. Russian television will gain new life and try to recover from having been outcompeted by the Internet. Now journalists will go after Putin. The corruption and other crimes of the Putin regime will be exposed. A massive anti-corruption campaign—probably led by Navalny—will take place.

The opposition will try to organize. Navalny is the obvious young hero. Nemtsov and Ilya Yashin are prominent and able. The time for violence has probably passed. Nashi, the pro-Putin youth movement, and other Putin young guards, are no longer a potent force.

The pressure on the regime to address the demand for repeat elections will be enormous. It would make sense to hold new Duma elections within half a year or so. The presidential elections should be postponed. Demands for the freeing of all political prisoners have been raised, and demands for the release of Khodorkovsky will rise. Lots of top officials will be forced out. And of course regional governors should again be elected, as they were before Putin changed the system and seized the prerogative to appoint them himself. Russian politics have become exciting again.

December 10, 2011 is the greatest day in Russia's new history since 1991. Finally, young Russians can be proud of being Russian.

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Anders Åslund Former Research Staff

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