It has been just about a year since Vladimir Putin 2.0 was inaugurated in the Kremlin as Russian president. He was succeeding his own interregnum successor Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev and the liberalization policy carried out under the Medvedev-Putin tandem, referred to be the present author first as a ‘thaw’ and then with deepening liberalization, ‘perestroika 2.0.
Perestroika 2.0 left several tasks unresolved: democratization, market liberalization, and political instability characterized by opposition mobilization, splitting within the Putin elite, and a malaise among Putin’s constituency within the population. With Putin’s return to the Kremlin, democratization and market liberalization were no longer near the top of the agenda; stabilizing politics moved unequically to the top. This does not mean that democratization and marketization are off limits for the mid- to long-term, but rather that they will not be pursued as ends in and of themselves and without pressure from below exerted by the opposition or external circumstances.
With political stabilization at the top of the agenda, Putin needed to accomplish three tasks: weaken the street opposition, consolidate the elite, and re-mobilize his popular constituencies.
Weakening the Street Opposition
In order to weaken the opposition, Putin undertook what might be called a ‘squeezing operation,’ in which he put pressure on the street opposition while continuing some aspects of Medvedev’s perestroika 2.0 in order to nudge moderate opposition elements off the streets and into the political system. The squeeze included: draconian laws on demonstrations, NGOs, and espionage; investigations, house searches, and repeated detentions of opposition leasders; and the Pussy Riot sentence. (One caveat here: Russia’s Constitutional Court recently ruled that the fines for violations of the law on demonstrations were too large, and the Dma has been ordered to amend the law and reduce them.) These actions made it more difficult for the opposition to call and organize mass meetings, and they put the fear of the secret police into those who would challenge the system from the outside.
On the other side of the ledger, Putin maintained almost all of Medvedev’s late perestroika 2.0 reforms of the political system sparked by the December 2011 demonstrations protesting the Duma elections. Those laws eliminated the need for parties to gather signatures to run in local, regional, and federal parliamentary elections, and eased the signature requirements for registering presidential candidates. Only the re-institution of gubernatorial elections was rolled back and only partially so. Now, each region will decide whether it wishes to hold elections under the system passed into law under Medvedev.
At the same time, Putin followed through on Medvedev’s proposal to return to the mixed system for electing deputies to the State Duma dismantled by Putin in 2003. Instead of deputies being elected only from nationwide party lists, half of the deputies as before will be elected from party lists and the other half will be elected in single district voting as occurs here in the U.S. This system is considered more democratic in that it limits the effect of centralized use of administrative resources and the power of incumbency that a ruling party can enjoy in order to cheat in the election process.
The combined effect of cracking down on the street opposition and liberalizing the electoral system is to push some elements off the street, at least in part, and focus them on winning elections. Thus, even before Putin’s inauguration, the once banned Republican Party of Russia (RPR) led by the Vladimir Ryzhkov saw its registration reinstated by Russia’s Supreme Court. Soon the RPR merged with the National Freedom Party (PARNAS) and the new party registered.
Shoring Up the Elite
Regarding the elite, Putin has followed up on Medvedev’s new laws requiring officials and their close relatives report their income and asset holdings by beginning what appears to be a real crackdown on some of the worst ‘corruptionaires.’ To be sure, some of the investigations and arrests of high officials are selected for pursuit in order to resolve political problems, but there are simply too many arrests and investigations, including many from the ruling United Russia party to chalk them all up to politics. One attendant explanation is economic; the anti-corruption campaign coincides precisely with Putin’s objective of creating an attractive investment climate.
Moreover, Putin is now pushing a new law that would ban officials from holding any assets abroad. This will help keep the elite honest as well as resolve political and economic tasks. One political side benefit of both the crackdown on corruptionaires and repatriation law is to step up discipline within the elite, as Putin’s near-monopoly access to compromising materials, so-called ‘kompromat’, will allow him to pressure officials who might in one way or another oppose certain Putin policies or seek to jump ship to the opposition. The resulting repatriation of badly needed capital back to Russia is an obvious economic side benefit, but it also reduces the political risks posed by the freezing of foreign bank accounts or other assets provided for in the Magnitksy Law.
It should be added that these laws also help Putin resolve his first task of weakening the street opposition by coopting its charge that Putin and his United Russia party are the ‘party of cheats and thieves.’
Consolidating His Popular Base
These laws also help Putin resolve the third major task of his first year back in the Kremlin – shoring up and mobilizing his electorate. Putin’s electorate has declined along with his popularity ratings in recent years. This contrasts with his first two terms when voters from across the political spectrum could vote for a candidate with no clear ideology but who promised to restore order in impossibly chaotic political and economic circumstances.
Putin’s electorate is now limited to the siloviki, oil and gas networks, moderate nationalists, Russian Orthodox believers, the elderly, and Russians who live in small provincial towns and villages, and even that base is seen as fraying a bit because of rampant corruption. Thus, Putin’s new campaign against corruption serves as a campaign against bureaucratic corruption and disdain for the population. This populist angle can both shore up Putin’s core constituencies and appeal to some outside them.
Other policies perform a similar function. For example, the Pussy Riot verdict appealed to Orthodox Christians. The recent anti-American campaign sparked by Russia’s response to the Magnitsky Law – the so-called ‘Dima Yakovlev Law’, which bans adoptions of Russian children by foreigners – and the death of a Russian adopted child in the U.S. appeals to nationalists and siloviki.
Putin has also attempted to shore up the traditionalist wing behind him by way of several mostly overt political measures: the formation of the statist ‘conservative’ Izborsk Club, the appointment of the doctrinaire Vladimir Medinsky as Minister of Culture, and new laws allowing church-based ‘druzhniki’ or volunteer police or watchmen and Cossacks to help patrol Russia’s streets.
The above makes clear that during his first year back in the presidency Putin was focused almost entirely on domestic tasks, largely political, partially ecoonimic in their purpose. With a certain meta-stability seemingly accomplished, Putin 2.0’s year two is likely to be focused on economic and foreign policy. In economic policy, it appears that the liberals may gain the upper hand in theior battle with statists. Elvira Naibullina’s appointment to head the Central Bank, and privatization plans scheduled for the second half of 2013 suggest this. However, there are some economic analysts who see the recent slowdown in the Russian economy as a harbinger of an impending recession, which will complicate political tasks, domestic and foreign.
The real challenges in year two will be in foreign policy, where the Syrian civil war, Iranian nuclear weapons program, and the impending Western withdrawal from Afghanistan pose real threats to both Russian national security and Russian-Western relations. All of these issues also pose potential security risks for the jewel of Putin’s second year – the Sochi Winter Olympic Games scheduled for February 2014 – given the Caucasus Emirate mujahedin’s various signals that it will attempt to attack the Games or some other target around the time they are being held.
Thus, by the Putin 2.0’s second anniversary in spring 2014, the Russian president could be facing very different political, economic and/or international landscapes. Therein lies the vulnerability of Putin’s cautious development strategy. The longer the transformation of Russian into a viable market democracy, albeit with Russian characteristics, the greater the odds that unforeseen events provide ‘reason’ to slow down or even backslide further. Under such circumstances, Russia will barely get by, if at all, while it chases an ever moving horizon.
Gordon M. Hahn is Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC; Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and founded and writes the CSIS Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at https://csis.org/node/33013/publication.