by Gordon M. Hahn
[This article, which still holds for today, in my view, was first published as: Gordon M. Hahn,“ Problems of Putinism,” Russia – Other Points of View, 5 February 2012, www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2012/02/problems-of-putinism.html.]
In 2012, then Russian Prime Minister and soon-to-be third-time president Vladimir Putin has problems. Almost all of them are rooted in several mistakes. First, Putin went too far in centralizing power in his efforts to rein in the oligarchs, republic presidents, regional governors, and Chechen militants-turned jihadists who ran roughshod over the Russian state and society in the 1990s. Soft authoritarianism was not needed to accomplish the tasks he set.
Second, he made the classic political mistake of beginning a political liberalization only to appear if not moving to put a halt to it. Putin backed the liberal Dmitrii Medvedev for the presidency in 2008 and did not interfere in any significant way when Medvedev began to liberalize slightly but significantly the MVD, the courts and sentencing laws, the prison system, the state-centric economy, the media and much else. This produced rising expectations which when deferred often provoke a societal backlash and even revolution. However, by deciding to run for the presidency and thereby deprive Medvedev of a second term, Putin gave at least the impression of ending the liberalization, even if he does not intend to do so in reality. This and the exceedingly slow pace of political reform – limited to peripheral issues of lowering the percent of the vote needed for parties to enter the Duma in the 2016 elections and requiring by law equal television time and debate participation by parties – led to the explosion of public outrage in the wake of the unfree and unfair Duma elections.
Third, Putin responded inadequately to the expression of popular will represented in the December demonstrations, by calling them names even as he made small concessions to the spirit of their demands, thereby negating any good will he mght have garnered from concessions. Medvedev’s tone and serious political reform proposals at his last annual address to the Federal Assembly on December 15th were the proper response, but these underscored Putin’s overreaching in deciding to elbow Medvedev out of the presidency.
More recently, Putin made his fourth serious mistake by refusing to take part in presidential debates leading up to the March 4th presidential election.
Putin’s Putinism presents him with problems in the new political atmosphere. In particular, Putin’s two mistakes since the Duma vote – his denigration of the fair election demonstrators and his decision not to join in the debates – inject potentially explosive irritants into Russia’s new open politics. Recent public opinion polls show that Putin is in real danger of being forced into a second round runoff in the presidential vote. The Levada Center’s December polling found that only 36 percent of decided voters intend to vote for Putin. Even if Putin takes that share of those voters who have not decided whether they will vote (11 percent) and who have not decided for whom to vote (22 percent), Putin would win only 48 percent, forcing a runoff with the second-place finisher (www.levada.ru/12-01-2012/prezidentskie-vybory-v-marte-chego-ozhidayut-rossiyane). Dividing undecided votes in the same way, other agencies’ late December and early January polling also show Putin under 50 percent, respectively: FOM – 49 percent (44 percent plus that percent of the 11 percent undecided, http://bd.fom.ru/report/map/dominant/dom1152/d115201) and VTsIOM – 48 percent (no undecided potential voter figure indicated, http://wciom.ru/index.php?id=168). I am inclined to give more credence to Levada’s polls, but we can average the three polls for objectivity’s sake and give Putin 48.7 percent.
This means that Putin needs to win more votes than he has now and therefore must be especially careful not to antagonize voters. If his numbers decline, then he may need to employ more pre-election administrative resources and even allow more ballot stuffing and falsification of the count. Already the news programs of the main state television channel ‘First Channel’ include long pieces of five minutes in length covering Putin managing the country by dressing down governors and criticizing other officials. Such additional mistakes risk creating more problems for Putin by provoking the population and strengthening the nascent ‘white revolution,’ making it less amenable to negotiating or fizzling out.
In other words, Putin is caught between two flames or by a Catch-22. The more he relies on his pre-Medvedevian Putinist practices (albeit many of the methods ‘perfected’ under Putin existed under his predecessor), the more he alienates voters making it seem to him necessary to rely more on Putinism, and so on. This is why he might well be better off kicking over the gameboard and starting afresh by delaying the presidential elections until September, holding new Duma elections, and in consultations or negotiations with opposition forces adopting new electoral and party system legislation by the end of spring. Unfortunately, Putin seems to be stuck in the rut of past practice and his own stubborn prejudices and resentments to be able to think outside the box. Inside that box, Putinism is compounding the problems he and a peaceful Russian transition to democracy face.
Enter Putin’s January 16 article “inviting society to a discussion” about Russia’s future course. Overall, the article does not solve any of Putin’s or Putinism’s problems. However, the assumption of the need for democracy and to “perfect the political system” suggests he may be open to change. By emphasizing that Russian society has changed, a middle class has formed, an educational revolution has occurred, and rhe middle class is entering politics, Putin took credit for these changes. He noted: “(T)oday’s claim for the highest standards of living and democracy are the best indication of our success.” Putin is acknowledging that the opposition demonstrations demanding real democracy are a positive, preparing perhaps to take the logical next step: give in to the calls for democratic transformation (Vladimir Putin, “Rossiya sosreditochivaetsya – vyzovy, na kotoryie my dolzhny otvetit,” Izvestiya, 16 January 2012, 00:01, http://www.izvestia.ru/news/511884). Assuming that Medvedev’s December 15th propoals for democratizing the system for elections of the Duma, governors, and the president were agreed upon with Putin, then those ambitious proposals also suggest Putin’s willingness to meet at least some of the opposition’s demands.
This would be a break with Putinism in its past form; a break Putin is capable of, given his penchant for strategic and tactical flexibility and practicality as opposed to ideological rigidity. The question remains: When will the further steps needed to ensure that the new institutional environment being proposed is accompanied by a change in the behavior of bureaucrats responsible for ensuring free and fair elections. Putin ignored this subject in his article in favor of discussing the general situation both in the country and the world in which policies “after the elections” will be adopted.
At the end of his article, Putin promised that in the next few weeks he would offer “concrete ideas” on the issues he raised. For Russia’s sake, they would best include radical ideas on how to ensure compliance with electoral and other laws in all future Russian elections, including the March 4th presidential elections. The transparent ballot boxes and closed circuit cameras he proposed in December are a good start, but much more needs to be done to impress upon election commission and other officials, party leaders, and citizens alike that violations ill be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Another election faulty election will bring Russia, as one commentator succinctly put it, a cold civil war.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution. Dr. Hahn also has been a Contributing Analyst for Russia Direct (russia-direct.com) and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California) (www.russiaotherpointsofview.com).