Putin Is Gone! Long Rule Putin!

With new president, Russians continue to forgo political voice for economic security

Fred Weir

Even before the elec­tion night returns came in on March 2, Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin was intro­duc­ing his suc­ces­sor to a select crowd at a Red Square rock concert. 

At his side and dressed in a dark leather jack­et that served only to empha­size his short stature, slight build and cor­po­rate lawyer-like demeanor, Dmitri Medvedev appeared slight­ly dazed. After all, until this moment, he had spent most of his pro­fes­sion­al life in back rooms, tak­ing orders, not giv­ing them.

The 42-year-old Krem­lin retain­er had nev­er before been elect­ed to any­thing, had no polit­i­cal base of his own and became well-known to most Rus­sians only after Putin named him as heir appar­ent last Decem­ber. Medvedev gave a brief, halt­ing speech pledg­ing to con­tin­ue the plan that Putin pro­posed.” A smil­ing Putin then con­grat­u­lat­ed Medvedev and assured Rus­sians that this was, indeed, their new president.

Medvedev’s vic­to­ry has been scorned by crit­ics as a tri­umph of man­aged democ­ra­cy,” a sys­tem that reached its cli­max under Putin, in which the Krem­lin defines the polit­i­cal agen­da, stage-man­ages the process and mobi­lizes the pop­u­la­tion to val­i­date the whole exer­cise with their votes. As one Moscow jour­nal­ist, Sergei Strokan, remarked, Putin could have nom­i­nat­ed his dog, and it would be duly elect­ed and inau­gu­rat­ed as president.”

Most Rus­sians were aware that their votes weren’t like­ly to change much. Accord­ing to a post-elec­tion poll by the state-run VTsIOM cen­ter, 88 per­cent of Rus­sians thought Putin will con­tin­ue play­ing an impor­tant role” after he steps down in May, while only 10 per­cent expect­ed Medvedev to ful­ly assume his pres­i­den­tial functions.

On the oth­er hand, there seems lit­tle doubt that the major­i­ty of Rus­sians went along with – and even embraced – the cha­rade. More than two-thirds turned out to vote, and more than 70 per­cent of them vot­ed for Medvedev.

Only two seri­ous oppo­nents to Medvedev had been per­mit­ted in the race. Com­mu­nist leader Gen­nady Zyuganov gar­nered almost 20 per­cent, twice his usu­al vote. With around 10 per­cent, ultra-nation­al­ist Vladimir Zhiri­novsky also exceed­ed expectations. 

In post-Sovi­et times, Rus­sians have had an Against All” option on their bal­lots, and those protest votes were offi­cial­ly tal­lied. But last year, that right was tak­en away by the pro-Krem­lin Duma – the country’s leg­isla­tive body – for rea­sons that seem all-too-obvious.

Cathar­sis for the inmates

After eight years of Putin, the coun­try has a rub­ber-stamp par­lia­ment dom­i­nat­ed by a sin­gle par­ty, whose only stat­ed pol­i­cy is loy­al­ty to the Krem­lin. A new leader is select­ed, as Putin him­self was, by a small cir­cle of insid­ers and then is endorsed in a tight­ly chore­o­graphed pub­lic exer­cise that hard­ly deserves to be called an election. 

Though Russia’s civ­il soci­ety is vibrant and grow­ing, non­govern­men­tal groups with any polit­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive brief – such as envi­ron­men­tal or human rights activists – have been rolled back.

Major media are in the hands of the state or Krem­lin-friend­ly busi­ness­es. Even though there is no direct state cen­sor­ship (as far as one knows), night­ly news broad­casts increas­ing­ly sound as if there were. A few media out­lets seem to buck the trend, but even these live at the whim of pow­er­ful, Krem­lin-con­nect­ed owners.

For exam­ple, the Moscow radio sta­tion, Ekho Moskvi, which has become a last refuge for out­spo­ken lib­er­al voic­es from the 90s, is actu­al­ly owned by Gazprom-Media, a wing of the state-owned nat­ur­al gas monopoly.

The cru­sad­ing week­ly news­pa­per Novaya Gaze­ta, where the late jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya hung her hat before she was assas­si­nat­ed, and which still pub­lish­es an occa­sion­al piece of gen­uine inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, was bought out a cou­ple years ago by bil­lion­aire avi­a­tion tycoon Alexan­der Lebe­dev, who part­nered with for­mer Sovi­et leader Mikhail Gor­bachev to close the deal. Some say it’s lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the USSR’s pol­i­cy of allow­ing a few dar­ing, small-cir­cu­la­tion pub­li­ca­tions such as Lit­er­atur­naya Gaze­ta or the jour­nal Novy Mir, which served only to illus­trate the extent of media control. 

It’s true that we have some per­mit­ted out­lets which are use­ful for the author­i­ties to prove that there’s free­dom of the press in Rus­sia,” says Vik­tor Shen­derovich, cre­ator of the polit­i­cal satire pro­gram Kuk­li, which was dri­ven off the air about a year after Putin came to pow­er in 2000. Shen­derovich now has a week­ly com­men­tary show on Ekho Moskvi. We’re like the inmates of an insane asy­lum,” he says, who are allowed to come out and shout a bit while our doc­tors take notes, then we’re led back to our cells.”

Russia’s counter-nar­ra­tive

There is a nar­ra­tive, believed wide­ly in the West, that Rus­sia was build­ing democ­ra­cy dur­ing the 90s, and it was only with the arrival in the Krem­lin of for­mer KGB agent Putin that the back­slid­ing began. Most Rus­sians scoff at that, for they see the 90s as a time of eco­nom­ic whirl­wind, social mis­ery and the rise of Krem­lin oligarchy. 

Boris Kagar­l­it­sky, a left-wing philoso­pher who holds the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing been arrest­ed by Sovi­et leader Leonid Brezh­nev and also by the first Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin – in both cas­es, iron­i­cal­ly, because he active­ly espoused demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism – argues that the sin­gle brief flow­er­ing of pop­u­lar democ­ra­cy in Rus­sia came toward the end of for­mer Sovi­et leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s per­e­stroi­ka era. In that moment, which last­ed about two years, Com­mu­nist Par­ty rule evap­o­rat­ed and grass­roots ini­tia­tives filled the void, he says. Mul­ti-can­di­date elec­tions took place on a lev­el play­ing field with enthu­si­as­tic mass participation. 

It end­ed pret­ty quick­ly after Yeltsin came to pow­er,” says Kagar­l­it­sky. They start­ed dis­man­tling it as soon as the [neolib­er­al] reforms start­ed kick­ing in.”

In the Putin era, mil­lions of Rus­sians have enjoyed a type of pros­per­i­ty that has allowed them their first trip abroad, even if only a cheap hol­i­day pack­age to Cyprus, Egypt or Turkey. Huge shop­ping malls have sprout­ed in Moscow and oth­er large cities, com­plete with food courts and mul­ti­plex cin­e­mas. The aver­age street news­stand is short on seri­ous polit­i­cal read­ing mat­ter but boasts a full range of West­ern con­sumer titles, from Vogue and Men’s Health to Bet­ter Homes and Gar­dens.

Evening news broad­casts may be almost as stul­ti­fy­ing as their Sovi­et-era pre­de­ces­sors, but these days they are fol­lowed by Hol­ly­wood films and famil­iar-look­ing sit­coms, soap operas and real­i­ty shows. Increas­ing­ly, the enter­tain­ment is Russ­ian-made and includes some high qual­i­ty offer­ings, such as recent TV pro­duc­tions of Boris Pasternak’s Doc­tor Zhiva­go and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta.

All of this is under­pinned by Russia’s extra­or­di­nary eco­nom­ic revival under Putin. Since late 1999, when Yeltsin named Putin as heir appar­ent, the glob­al price of Russia’s main export, oil, has shot from around $12 per bar­rel to more than $100.

On the back of this, the Russ­ian econ­o­my has quadru­pled in eight years, while aver­age month­ly salaries have grown from around $100 to almost $600. Two years ago, Rus­sia paid off the bulk of its for­eign debt, and is now a net cred­i­tor nation.

Unlike the Yeltsin Krem­lin, which gave away the whole shop to its pri­vate oli­garchic back­ers, Putin has banged heads and inject­ed state-led dis­ci­pline into the busi­ness world. He drove away Yeltsin-era oli­garchs like Boris Bere­zovsky, impris­oned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodor­kovsky, and effec­tive­ly re-nation­al­ized much of Russia’s oil and gas resources. Crit­ics say Putin has con­struct­ed a state-run bureau­crat­ic oli­garchy that con­cen­trates unac­count­able eco­nom­ic pow­er in a few hands, even more than was the case in the 90s, but there’s no doubt it’s been popular. 

Yes, we have author­i­tar­i­an rule in which the state is syn­ony­mous with big busi­ness, but peo­ple are liv­ing much bet­ter,” says Ilya Pono­mary­ov, a Duma deputy with the Krem­lin-cre­at­ed Fair Rus­sia left-wing par­ty. Rus­sians think with their pock­ets. Is that so unusual?”

Sheep-like obe­di­ence

Putin also exploit­ed the threat of ter­ror­ism, which loomed large in the ear­ly years of this decade, to reshape Russia’s polit­i­cal land­scape. A wave of unsolved apart­ment bomb­ings in late 1999 was used to vault the pro-Putin par­ty into par­lia­men­tary dom­i­nance and to legit­imize a fresh Russ­ian mil­i­tary inva­sion of the sep­a­ratist region of Chech­nya. That tiny repub­lic has since been paci­fied under a pro-Moscow local strong­man and is, by most inde­pen­dent accounts, a total­i­tar­i­an hellhole. 

Sev­er­al Chech­nya-linked ter­ror attacks in Rus­sia – includ­ing a bloody 2003 mass hostage-tak­ing at a down­town Moscow the­ater and a hor­rif­ic slaugh­ter of chil­dren at a school in Beslan the fol­low­ing year – were employed to jus­ti­fy sweep­ing crack­downs on civ­il rights, curb­ing the elec­toral sys­tem and extend­ing the pow­ers of secu­ri­ty services. 

The present [Putin] admin­is­tra­tion has been a régime of emer­gency mea­sures,” says Sergei Luka­shevsky, an expert with the Demos Cen­ter, a net­work of Russ­ian human rights groups. Dur­ing those years, he says, fear of ter­ror­ism was a major fac­tor form­ing the polit­i­cal system.”

Dra­mat­ic expan­sion of the space for pri­vate life, polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty, plus a bit of oil-fuelled pros­per­i­ty, explains the appar­ent sheep-like obe­di­ence of Rus­sians, say many experts. 

The pop­u­la­tion has made kind of a bar­gain with author­i­ty, in which we promise to give the stamp of approval to all their polit­i­cal deci­sions, and the lead­ers pledge to keep the sta­bil­i­ty going,” says Strokan, a polit­i­cal colum­nist with the busi­ness-ori­ent­ed Kom­m­er­sant news­pa­per. Sta­bil­i­ty means a piece of bread and per­son­al free­dom, but for Rus­sians that’s enough for now.”

As demo­c­ra­t­ic as possible

It’s typ­i­cal of the Putin Krem­lin that it has stopped try­ing to respond to its crit­ics at home and abroad, and start­ed invest­ing petrodol­lars into chang­ing the narrative. 

In 2006, the Krem­lin signed a con­tract with the U.S. pub­lic rela­tions firm Ketchum, to advise on ways of improv­ing Russia’s image. Big Russ­ian busi­ness­es are fund­ing the new Insti­tute for Democ­ra­cy and Coop­er­a­tion, which opened offices in the Unit­ed States ear­ly this year. Its chair­man, Ana­to­lay Kucher­e­na, told the Moscow news­magazine Pro­fil, Our prob­lem is to defend our peo­ple against assess­ments that are real­ly attacks, to find out why poi­soned arrows are being aimed at Russia.” 

Mean­while, the Com­mu­nist Party’s old pro­pa­gan­da agency, Novosti, has been revamped com­plete­ly and now puts out a dai­ly mul­ti­lin­gual newswire, spon­sors a mul­ti­tude of pub­li­ca­tions and beams a 24-hour Eng­lish-lan­guage TV news chan­nel, Rus­sia Today, around the world by satellite. 

A Sovi­et-era pro­pa­gan­dist would be astound­ed by the lav­ish fund­ingth­ese orga­ni­za­tions enjoy, as well as by the sophis­ti­cat­ed, smooth style they employ, which includes airinga wide range of dif­fer­ing views. (Dis­clo­sure: I am a fre­quent com­men­ta­tor on Rus­sia Today.)

At the core of all this pub­lic rela­tions activ­i­ty is the claim that, like those well-stocked shop win­dows and con­sumer-dri­ven news­stands, Russ­ian democ­ra­cy should be accept­ed as full-blood­ed West­ern-style lib­er­al­ism with a few local pecu­liar­i­ties. After all, it has mul­ti-can­di­date elec­tions, and the most pop­u­lar guy wins. 

We do not call it man­aged democ­ra­cy.’ For us, that term is a pro­pa­gan­da defama­tion,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Moscow-based Effec­tive Pol­i­cy Foun­da­tion and long­time polit­i­cal advis­er to the Krem­lin, who is wide­ly regard­ed as one of the system’s pri­ma­ry archi­tects. The sys­tem cre­at­ed under Putin is as demo­c­ra­t­ic as it can pos­si­bly be, giv­en the real state of our soci­ety,” he says.

A not-so-dif­fer­ent view comes from ven­er­a­ble Marx­ist his­to­ri­an Roy Medvedev (no rela­tion to the new pres­i­dent), who says, There are not yet enough bricks to build a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety, such as a big mid­dle class, inde­pen­dent media and inde­pen­dent busi­ness­es. I would rather call Rus­sia an enlight­ened author­i­tar­i­an soci­ety that has begun to develop.”

For activists like Kagar­l­it­sky, who now heads the inde­pen­dent Insti­tute for Study of Glob­al­iza­tion and Social Move­ments in Moscow, that debate is no longer inter­est­ing. He says big polit­i­cal change will come to Rus­sia from the top – as it always does – per­haps through a future pow­er strug­gle between Putin and Medvedev.

In the mean­time, he says that there is an upsurge of activ­i­ty in grass­roots move­ments, where peo­ple are orga­niz­ing to defend their liv­ing stan­dards, build trade unions or try­ing to stop local offi­cial abuses. 

You in the media don’t notice it because it’s not about dra­mat­ic and direct con­fronta­tion with pow­er,” says Kagar­l­it­sky, but it may be a good thing that it’s not politi­cized, because estab­lish­ment politi­cians would try to inter­fere with it. Let it stay below the radar screen.”

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH