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The failings of Putin's 'managed democracy'

By Sudhanshu Tripathi - posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012


The politics is real again in Russia. The unprecedented wave of public protest emerged in Russia after the recently held largely rigged election to Duma allegedly at the instance of Government is not going to subside. This is clearly visible in the continuing anti-government demonstrations, in the form of large and small rallies, following the declaration of parliamentary results.

This event, in fact, adds to the tag of 2011 as a myth-busting year, because, for the first time, the generally considered as the ‘stereotyped and politically reluctant’ Arabians who staged successful revolutions known as the ‘Arab Spring’ in the entire Arab world to uproot and overthrow the well-entrenched autocratic and dictatorial regimes. After this, the ‘self-centred and market-oriented’ Americans organised the collective Occupy Wall Street movement to prevail upon the mighty financial barons.

And now it appears to be the turn of the ideologically-disciplined and authority-preferring Russians to show their displeasure with the yet-to-be reformed politico-governance system by the long serving politician and the present PM, Vladimir Putin who is slated to be the next Russian President replacing Dmitry Medvedev with whom he had exchanged his present position.

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Perhaps the people are now fed up with the system of Putin’s decade-old façade of “managed democracy”, which severely restricts democratic rights like electoral choice, freedom of speech and media access. That is why, they are not only demanding fresh election and punishment to those responsible for the fraud committed in the election but also chanting the slogan, ”Putin has to go”, which has not yet been permitted to be telecast on Russian television.

As is well known that the hitherto Russian political culture stands for concentrated authority ensuring order and stability, whether it was Tsarist rule, Communist era or the current ‘Putinist’ phase of history. For the last 12 years, Putin has been accumulating power into his own hands (eight of which were as President and four years as PM), and barring any unforeseen event, he is all set to return as President for another 12 years in the forthcoming presidential election scheduled to be held on 4 March 2012.

But, with Mikhail Prokhorov, a liberal billionaire who was driven from the political stage last September, also staking claim in the upcoming presidential election, the contest may not be so easy. As a result, many knowledgeable people in Moscow now hold the view that the countdown to the end of the Putin’s political career has begun and his regime is in the last decade of its tenure.

The situation is very fluid and the prevailing popular anger with the present political establishment may pave the way for a, consequent, long period of instability. As a matter of fact, one point is clear that both leaders, Putin and Medvedev, misread the public opinion and committed an error by announcing on 24 September 2011, that Medvedev will not go for the second term and Putin will contest for the Presidency for a third term. The announcement badly maligned the personal images of the two leaders, presenting them as arrogant and dismissive of the public will. It was so away from reality that it politicised even those who were unconcerned with politics.

Also a deep sense of ossification through entrenchment of the security services and their preferred business aristocracy had set in over the past few years, and Putin’s unrelenting grip on power without serious reforms was stirring unease among liberal Russian populace causing decline in his performance ratings. And the prevailing economic uncertainty and rising corruption has resulted into a massive popular backlash. All these have inflicted irreparable damage on the system causing a serious legitimacy crisis of Putin’s regime.

This announcement, in fact, shattered the hopes among such Russians who expected of a peaceful top-down evolution of the regime and the introduction of sincere reforms however incremental and gradual they may be. The on-going popular outburst in a usually quiescent Russia is a manifestation of the people’s unease with the Putin and his United Russian party perpetuating themselves through the soft authoritarian means.

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And it is not a mere coincidence that the Government has de-facto legitimised the idea of peaceful protest to its policy by allowing public rallies in Moscow and ordering the police to maintain law and order for a change rather than just cane the protesters and then showing it all on TV. Consequently, it will now onwards be increasingly difficult to ban the public meetings, as was the established practice practise earlier, and to brand the Opposition as paid agents of America: a blame frequently put by Putin himself.

May be, the authorities are devoid of any strategy to deal effectively with the protesters although this seems highly unlikely given the long history of authoritarian culture. From repression to indifference to semi- acceptance to ruses and tricks, appear to be the part and parcel of the continuing authoritarian means but they are not confidant of regaining the public confidence. Instead, they have promised an offer of unprecedented salary hike to the military and special police forces and also to nail the parliamentary Opposition, Putin and his advisors have offered them half of the Duma committee headships or even Duma speakership to the opponents of Putin’s United Russia party along with the assurance of yet more liberal laws.

Further, Putin can sack some of most unpopular stalwarts among United Russia’s leadership or gradually distance himself from the United Russia and float a new party as his bandwagon after his expected victory in next year’s presidential election. Besides these, the Government might use the divide and rule tactics against the democratic opposition by focusing on the nationalist fringe movements and inciting them to prevail upon the pro-democracy protestors.

Above all, Putin may still end up with the last laugh from this upheaval as he is supposed to be above the United Russia, and regarded as a stentorian but unifying figure with a public relations machine that him casts as macho alpha male reviving Russia’s lost glory. As there is still no established party system in Russia, outfits like the United Russia can take the heat and field of the public outrage, then vanish and give way to replacements, while Putin emerges victorious and undisturbed at last against all odds.

But all these tricks and tactics notwithstanding, the only option that Kremlin is not willing to consider is to initiate immediate political and economic reforms ensuring genuine change and accommodating popular desire for a more open, just, transparent and competitive socio-political environment in the country as once characterized by glasnost and perestroika by the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev during mid-1980s. It’s probably no coincidence that Prokhorov’s surprise declaration about throwing his hat in the ring, thereby making the game new and unpredictable, came just few days after tens of thousands of people had roared their disapproval of Putin’s “managed democracy”.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article first appeared at The Election Review on 24 January 2012. 



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About the Author

Dr Sudhanshu Tripathi is an Associate Professor of Political Science at MDPG College, Pratapgarh, India.

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