The Limits of Russian Strongman Putin's Power
Continued from previous page
In this case it hardly matters how much the results were falsified. The main thing is that the local power structures were unable, or unwilling, to secure a satisfactory outcome for United Russia. And this was a powerful blow to the political model of authoritarianism with one dominant party that was established in 2007. This model is considered by political scientists to be the most stable, institutionalised if you like, type of authoritarianism, the classic example being Mexico, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party has been in power for almost 70 years. United Russia should have presented itself as the institutionalised embodiment of Putin’s power vertical, exercising control over the regions and consolidating the loyal elites. The election demonstrated that this model had been rejected by at least half of the population, and not just ordinary voters but regional elites as well.
The battle for Moscow
The third manifestation of approaching crisis was the Moscow protest rallies. To retain a formal majority in parliament, the Kremlin had to resort to an unprecedented level of falsification of election results in the capital. The widespread protest activity triggered by this can be looked at in two ways.
Firstly, it can be seen as a conflict between Vladimir Putin and the group generally known as the chattering classes. Or one could call them simply sophisticates. Either way, a broad intellectual elite, a well educated and westernised (in terms of their lifestyle) urban population, spoke out loudly and clearly against Putin’s political system. The consequences of this conflict will be more serious than is generally thought. The problem for the regime is that this group’s understanding of the situation in Russia today, and the political agenda it developed during the protests of the winter and spring, will inevitably attract new followers and increase its popularity.
Putin can appoint Igor Kholmanskikh, a tank factory foreman and candidate chess master, as his presidential envoy to the Ural Mountains region, and Vladimir Medinsky, who has been accused of plagiarism, as Minister for Culture, but they will clearly be unable to come up with a view of Russia today that can compare with that formulated by the intellectuals.
The regime is incapable of putting forward a vision for the future acceptable to a majority of the Russian public: on the contrary, it is having to retreat into the past (in the hope of retaining the loyalty of the ‘provinces’), which will only boost the popularity of the opposition’s agenda.
But the Moscow protests reflected another conflict: that between Putin’s cronies (most of them his Petersburg buddies) and Moscow. This is not only a quarrel between Putin and the chattering classes, but hostility towards the president among Moscow’s elites, who lost their political protection when former mayor Yury Luzhkov was forced to resign. You could argue that a mere 0.5 – 1% of Muscovites attend rallies, but over half of the rest express support or loyalty to the protesters, and 2/3 of Muscovites are critical of the new legal restrictions on protest action. This conflict, like the previous one, is unlikely to be settled in the foreseeable future. The battle for Moscow declared by Putin in his pre-election speech at Luzhniki is following the exact template of its historical Napoleonic model: Putin has taken Moscow, but lost the battle for the capital.
The ‘reaction’ and its consequences
The new assault on the media; legislation, full of Stalinist rhetoric, against demonstrators and NGOs; preparations for a major political trial of opposition figures à la Lukashenko after the events of 6th May – all this comes under the heading of ‘reaction’.