In his eight years as Russia's president, Vladimir Putin has clamped down on his country's newborn freedoms and returned it to a more confrontational stance toward the West. His second and constitutionally final term is scheduled to come to an end on May 7, 2008; as that date began to draw near, the perennial Kremlin power struggle that Winston Churchill once described as "a bulldog fight under the rug" grew more intense. The December 2007 elections for the Duma, the tamed Russian parliament, took a back seat to the mystery of presidential succession. Would Putin stay? Leave? Continue to rule through a figurehead heir? The only thing clear was that the decision would be made under that rug, with minimal input from the Russian people.
Putin solved part of the mystery on December 10 by endorsing a successor: deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, a 42-year-old lawyer currently in charge of "national development projects." He has also accepted Medvedev's offer to take over as prime minister (which, under Russia's current system, is mainly an administrative post with no political or executive power). Barring any surprises, the top jobs in the Kremlin for the next presidential term are filled.
Yet in many ways, Russia's political future remains almost as much of a mystery as it was in the fall. The unknowns include whether 140 million residents will live in a partially free, liberalizing society or under increasingly authoritarian rule, and whether a country filled with nuclear missiles and vast energy resources will be an ally or enemy of the West.
Deciphering the Putin Plan
In late 2007, you could be excused for thinking that the Kremlin was clearing the way for some form of open-ended Putin presidency, if not a de facto coronation. In October, even as the former KGB chief announced he would join the ranks of mere mortals by heading up his United Russia Party's list of candidates for parliamentary elections, a third-term-for-Putin movement gathered force, with a wave of "spontaneous" rallies, meetings, and other events around the country. The kind of adoration lavished on the termed-out president by his servile party and the equally servile state media did not suggest an impending retirement. On October 7 Rossiya, one of several government-owned national TV channels, marked Putin's 55th birthday with a worshipful 20-minute tribute produced and narrated by Nikita Mikhalkov, the director of the 1994 Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun. Less than two weeks later, the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an open letter from several leading cultural figures, including the ubiquitous Mikhalkov, begging the dear leader to stay for a third term. "Russia," they wrote, "needs your statesmanlike talent and your political wisdom."
United Russia's parliamentary campaign became a national Putin love-in. City streets and squares sprouted posters and banners celebrating a previously unheard-of Putin Plan, with such Soviet-flavored slogans as "The Putin Plan Is Working!" and "You, Too, Are a Part of Putin's Plan," sometimes helpfully accompanied by circles marked "pensions," "salaries," and "student aid." A United Russia booklet titled "The Putin Plan Is Russia's Victory!" featured photo after photo of the great man inspecting troops and strolling through wheat fields. United Russia and the government-run media touted the election itself as a referendum on a man whose post-election plans remained a mystery. Putin's role as "national leader," they declared, transcended mere constitutional time frames and had to be preserved one way or another. An essay by United Russia activist Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, posted on the party's website in early November, advocated a "National Civic Council" that would formally anoint Putin as national leader.
The December parliamentary elections were brazenly rigged in favor of United Russia. Opposition leaders were all but barred from television (with the occasional exception of the private REN-TV channel, now owned by a Putin crony but still retaining vestiges of independence). Some parties were kept off the ballot: The authorities required a high number of signatures on their petitions, and many signatures were reportedly invalidated arbitrarily. Others, such as the pro-western Union of Right Forces, faced official harassment and intimidation; the police confiscated their campaign materials, and state TV rejected their ads as too negative or "extremist." In the run-up to the election, the repression grew worse. Self-styled "Marches of Dissent" in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, organized by the opposition to show that not everyone in Russia was on board the Putin bandwagon, were routinely dispersed by special security forces, with beatings that sent dozens of people to hospital emergency rooms. Putin himself, at a November 21 rally of 5,000 supporters, railed against "those who go jackaling around foreign embassies and diplomatic missions, relying on foreign foundations and governments rather than support from their own people." The prominent "jackal" Gary Kasparov, chess grandmaster and founder of the dissenting Other Russia coalition, was arrested and detained for five days for attending a banned rally on Moscow's Pushkin Square.
On December 2, the results were in: United Russia won a whopping 64 percent of the vote, followed by 11.5 percent for the Communists, 8 percent for the misnamed "Liberal Democratic Party of Russia" (led by the clownish right-wing provocateur Vladimir Zhirinovsky), and just under 8 percent for a new left-leaning party called Fair Russia, which hovers somewhere between loyal opposition and junior partner to the party in power. Russia's democratic opposition finished dismally—the Union of Right Forces received slightly below 1 percent of the vote, the Yabloko ("Apple") party about 1.5 percent—though liberals were still somewhat heartened by the fact that United Russia's landslide victory wasn't even bigger.
It's hard to tell how different the results would have been in a fair contest. Media access was grossly unequal. Fraud was massive; in the southern province of Ingushetia, which is under virtual martial law, close to 100 percent of all eligible voters chose United Russia. There was also widespread vote-coercion—of soldiers on army bases, patients in hospitals, and employees at government institutions. In a post-election wrap-up commentary on the radio station Echo of Moscow, the political satirist Victor Shenderovich compared United Russia's posters thanking voters for their support to rapists sending flowers to their victims. The metaphor was a little extreme: For the most part, the Russian electorate was not so much raped as alternately seduced and bullied into submitting in front of a powerful, oil-rich provider and protector. But popular passion for the victors was clearly lacking. The fact that the Putin regime was anxious enough to defame and suppress the opposition suggests that it did not feel entirely secure.
Having sewn up its dominance in the Duma, United Russia was widely expected to try to change the constitution to let Putin stay in office. Yet one week later, on December 10, United Russia and three other pro-government parties nominated Medvedev as their presidential candidate. Putin publicly endorsed his old protégé, who in turn said on television that he would agree to run only on the condition that Putin would pick up the reins as prime minister. While Medvedev's election seemed virtually assured at press time, this news still raised more questions than it answered. Is Russia in for a non-succession succession in which Putin will remain the de facto head of state? Or would a Medvedev presidency usher in a possible liberalization? A power struggle in which the loyal protégé might turn on his mentor?
With the rollback of post-Soviet freedoms in the Putin era —the restoration of censorship, the assaults on the multiparty system, even the return of the old Soviet anthem with updated lyrics—it is tempting to view the Putin regime as a regression to Soviet communism. Certainly, there are striking echoes and parallels. Izvestia television columnist Irina Petrovskaya has pointedly compared Mikhalkov's birthday panegyric to a 1970s documentary extolling Brezhnev. The "Putin Plan" booklet evokes Soviet-era imagery, and there are echoes of the Stalin cult in praises of Putin's "wisdom" and statesmanship. Putinism has even developed its equivalent of the ubiquitous Soviet-era children's and youth organizations: "Nashi" (Our Guys), a semi-official movement for people ages 18 to 25 that promotes old-fashioned morality and harassment of opposition activists, and "Mishki" (Little Bears), a Nashi-sponsored group for the eight-to-15 set that bandies about such slogans as "Thank you, President Putin, for our stable future."
But Putin is not Brezhnev or Stalin. A Soviet-era Rip van Winkle waking up in Putin's Russia would not easily recognize his country. Western companies and consumer goods are omnipresent. Russian TV may be largely scrubbed of dissent, but it offers a superficially plausible simulacrum of Western-style programming, from celebrity gossip to daytime soaps to sensational, often gory crime news.
Despite periodic outbursts of anti-Western rhetoric, the Putinites are clearly anxious to be accepted by the West as equal, "civilized" partners. They have made occasional noises about a uniquely Russian political path, such as an attempt in late 2006 to popularize the concept of "sovereign democracy" (which essentially boiled down to "we'll make democracy our own way—butt out!"). But they do not try to assert, as Soviet leaders did, that they have a different and better conception of human rights and freedoms; they just claim that rights and freedoms in the usual Western sense are thriving in Russia, with their exercise merely hampered a little by the hardships of transition. There has been some partial rehabilitation of the Soviet period—particularly of Putin's beloved alma mater, the KGB—but this has its limits; a controversial high school history textbook recently omitted from its final version a particularly odious chapter presenting a whitewashed Stalin. If Putinism has an ideology, it is not Marxism but a pseudo-populist statism laced with religion, which is touted as society's moral guide and foundation. (The Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, is closely allied with the government.)
The practice behind the rhetoric, meanwhile, is a corrupt crony capitalism in which public/private corporate hybrids roam the land—dominated by Gazprom, the oil-and-gas leviathan. The boundaries between business and government are infinitely flexible. (The Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin has dubbed this bureaucratic business class "bureness.") It is a system in which an obscure ex-KGB man turned oil trader named Gennady Timchenko, a longtime Putin pal, is worth some $14 billion as co-owner of the Russian/Swedish petroleum export company Gunvor. It is a system in which other Friends of Vlad control virtually all of Russia's oil and gas industry. It is a system in which, according to The Moscow Times, United Russia sold slots on its candidate list for as much as $4 million.
In short, Putinism is not a return to communism so much as a movement toward the capitalism of Soviet caricature: the rule of robber barons who control the state behind a façade of pretend democracy, with religion as an opiate for the masses and televised bread and circuses to further pacify the people.
Yet under this corrupt authoritarian regime, there remains a semi-free space that would have been unthinkable under totalitarian Soviet rule. It is a space that permits some latitude for the print media; even the pro-government daily Izvestia still publishes dissenting voices such as
Petrovskaya and Maksim Sokolov, a commentator who directs his caustic swipes equally at the government and the opposition. Echo of Moscow, the radio station whose independent future seemed in question a few months ago in the hands of a new pro-government management, continues to provide a platform to vocal critics of the regime. Between the radio, the newspapers, and growing access to the Internet, free speech has a solid foothold in Russia.
This niche market is constantly under threat. In 2007, an opposition website was fined 20,000 rubles (about $820) for publishing an article that referred to Putin as "Russia's phallic symbol." In December, New Times reporter Natalia Morari—a Moldovan citizen with legal residency in Russia who has written several articles exposing corruption—was unexpectedly denied re-entry to the country following a trip to Israel, on unspecified "national security" grounds.
And yet, in this semi-autonomous space, surprises still abound. For instance:
• In November, the political satirist Shenderovich held a solitary protest on a Moscow street with a "Free Gary Kasparov!" sign. (Under Russian law, lone protests, unlike group events, can be held without official authorization.) After politely declining a police request to leave, Shenderovich was suddenly joined by a smirking young man armed with an opposition party sign—which immediately turned his legal one-man protest into unlawful assembly. As both were hustled into a police car, the young man unabashedly admitted that he was a plant. After a few hours at the police precinct, Shenderovich was released (but not before signing autographs for the cops). In January, the case against him ended in acquittal.
• Petrovskaya's scathing Izvestia review of the Putin birthday tribute, initially killed by the editors, was eventually allowed to run (albeit paired with an opposing viewpoint) after the story was discussed on Echo of Moscow and picked up by liberal websites such as Grani.ru.
• The open letter begging Putin to stay for another term "in the name of Russia's art community" brought forth a public backlash from other artists, including the popular singer and Duma member Iosif Kobzon. On October 25, the NTV channel's debate program At the Bar had Mikhalkov square off against writer Venedikt Yerofeyev, who castigated the filmmaker for encouraging Putin to violate the constitution and addressing him in servile terms more befitting a sultan than a democratically elected president. When a testy Mikhalkov asked, "Who told you I'm promoting a personality cult?" Yerofeyev shot back, "I'm telling you." Three of the four in-studio judges declared Mikhalkov the winner, but the viewer call-in vote went for Yerofeyev, 90,000 to 52,000.
Writing on Grani.ru, the columnist Adrian Piontkovsky argued that the program may have been a small but important turning point in Russia's political life. The independent-minded portion of society found its voice and spoke against the "government-fostered little personality cult" of Putin. It's hard to say whether this popular reaction, along with the tepid landslide of December 2, had anything to do with Putin's decision not to seek a third term. Notably, too, the essay advocating Putin's confirmation as "national leader" was removed from United Russia's website after a chorus of pointed criticism. (In another curious development, the Nashi youth organization, built largely around Putin worship, underwent a rapid decline by the end of 2007. Its rallies thinned, and its loss of official favor was evident when it attempted to picket the European Commission offices in Moscow to protest the denial of travel visas to some of its activists. The demonstration ended with police intervention and arrests.)
Russian civil society, then, may not be as dead as it seems. And Russia's repressive machine, despite its petty viciousness, is far from reopening the gates of the gulag.
Wishing for a Better Czar
What will happen to Putin's machine as he formally leaves office? There is little doubt that it will be used, if necessary, to ensure an uneventful succession. Already, Kasparov has been denied the opportunity to register his presidential bid because the initiative group for his nomination was unable—apparently due to behind-the-scenes government pressure—to lease a space to hold the nomination conference by the registration deadline. At press time, it appears that the other leading opposition candidate, Putin's former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, will be disqualified from running, on the grounds of allegedly invalid signatures on his nominating petitions (though in any case, his chances of winning were only theoretically above zero). In Russia, the introduction of Dmitry Medvedev as "the next president" is not merely a figure of speech, as it is in America. Every Russian journalist assumes that the election results are a foregone conclusion, with a "play communist" and a "play liberal" joining Medvedev on the ballot merely for decency's sake.
But what then? Putin has vowed, more than once, that there will be no redistribution of power from the presidency to the office of prime minister. No one knows whether to take him at his word. It is widely believed that Medvedev was picked because he is a Putin protégé who will be easily controlled by his former boss. Yet a number of Russian commentators suggest there may come a day when even the "good boy" Medvedev will realize that real power is now in his hands to use as he pleases.
Many liberals are at least somewhat encouraged by this situation. They anticipate the growth of a dual power structure, an unwieldy beast with its loyalties divided between Putin and Medvedev. Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin argues that at the very least, under a Medvedev/Putin (or Putin/Medvedev) regime, different interest groups within the state-corporate leviathan will solidify into competing factions that unwittingly act as checks and balances on each other. Still others speculate that Putin is not interested in maintaining an active role in Russian politics and wants to stay close to the center of power only to avoid being tossed to the wolves in case the economy falters and the new government needs a scapegoat.
Some dissidents even suggest that Medvedev is, in the words of the columnist and radio commentator Yulia Latynina, the "best of successors"—the standard-bearer, perhaps, of Putinism with a human face. In the past, Medvedev has cautiously voiced concern about the government's assault on the YUKOS oil company (owned by Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky), and has criticized the aforementioned concept of "sovereign democracy." He is also one of the few men in Putin's inner circle who does not have a KGB background. Medvedev belongs, Latynina notes hopefully, to a different, post-Soviet generation. (Of course, no one knows how that will play out. The political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky cautions that Medvedev may take steps to curb political speech on the Internet because, unlike the older-generation Putin, he understands the Web's power and relevance.)
So three months before the presidential election, Russian liberals were reduced to hoping, yet again, for a better Czar—or for a good-Czar/bad-Czar system whose inherent tensions may cause the authoritarian regime to collapse upon itself. Yet there may also be some other checks on the Russian state, from the elites' desire for acceptance by the West to the small and battered voice of Russia's own civil society. Post-Communist Russian democracy, like Communism itself, is dead. The authoritarian system that has risen on its wreckage is not a pretty sight. But there are still signs of life.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields).