by Gordon M. Hahn

As noted numerous times, Putin is not an all-powerful dictator. He is a soft authoritarian leader riding a relatively unstable or metastable ‘sistema‘, state and society. One of his oft-discussed roles is as arbiter between institutions and elite clans seeking access to the state resource feeding trough. Another less discussed role is to balance various ideological orientations and political parties ranging across the entire political spectrum, state and society, allowing each to participate in Russia’s political life within limits he largely sets. Some forces are allowed access to elements of power to one extent or another; others are kept at various distances from power centers and economic and financial resources controlled by the state, depending on their perceived controllability and potential to seriously weaken the regime should they defect to the opposition and thereby potentially threaten Putin’s carefully balanced system. To be sure, when necessary Putin represses, but this must be done by carefully calibrating the extent to which he can repress and not provoke significant backlash.

One of the elements he needs to calibrate, balance and limit is the liberal societal opposition, including the intelligentsia, the ‘creative class’, parties such as Yabloko, the Progress Party, and Parnas, and leaders such as Grigorii Yavlinskii, Alexei Navalnyi, and Mikhail Kasyanov.

What evidence do we have that Putin balances and limits – and thus leaves space for the liberal wing in Russian politics – nowadays? First and foremost perhaps is the mere fact that the liberal opposition is allowed to function openly, organizw mass demonstrations, and run and even sometimes win elections. An example of Putin balancing liberals is the regime’s harassment but refusal to sentence to jail opposition leader Alexei Navalnyi. There are surely elements within his circle calling for this, but Navalnyi remains free to campaign for the presidency. Both Navalnyi and his campaign are at the same time kept under wraps, for example, by constant legal battles, imprisonment of Navalnyi’s brother and harassment on the campaign trail. Similar balancing over the past year includes, the freeing of Ukrainian Nadia Savchenko in April of last year and of political activist Ildar Dadin in February of this year. The Central Election Commission’s annulment of the fraud-plagued regional election in Barvikh based on a complaint by the democratic parties, including Navalnyi’s Progress Party (https://tvrain.ru/news/vybory_v_barvihe_otmenili-407818/ and http://cikrf.ru/cik_info/news/20160419.html).

Most recent is the flexible position adopted by one of Putin’s key political clients, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, to compromise with opposition elements after resistance emerged to a city plan to demolish old housing. Sobyanin made a series of compromises and allowed a mass march opposing the plan to be held on May 14th. First, Sobyanin annulled the plan in several districts where anger against the demolition scheme was running high (www.bbc.com/russian/features-39788459). He then introduced amendments to the law undergirding the plan that would require that a replacement apartment for those deprived of housing after demolition be of equal market value to that of the their demolished apartment and be located in the district in which their previous apartment was located (www.kommersant.ru/doc/3296778?utm_source=kommersant&utm_medium=all&utm_campaign=hotnews). Then just prior to the march, which drew some 20,000 Muscovites, Sobyanin announced another compromise that makes available a cash compensation option in addition to the opportunity to receive a replacement apartment for those forced from their homes under the demolition (https://themoscowtimes.com/news/moscow-offers-cash-compensation-for-residents-hit-by-controversial-demolition-scheme-57979). This, one must agree, is not the methodology of a Hitler, Stalin, or even a Pinochet.

Rather than denying that corruption exists and fully shut down those who expose it, Putin has sought to co-opt the corruption issue from liberals like Navalnyi, who rose to prominence in Russian politics through his corruption exposes. Over recent years corruption arrests have occurred higher and higher state officials, and this past year touched deputy ministers and sitting governors, for example, last April’s arrest of Deputy Culture Minister Grigorii Pimunov (http://echo.msk.ru/news/1751242-echo.html). Officials appear vulnerable to arrest as long as they are not close Putin associates and have been involved in corruption at a level exceeding their rank, violating the principle ‘vorovat’ po chinu’ or ‘steal according to your rank’ from state and state-tied coffers.

Putin’s appointment a year ago of former Finance Minister and opposition-sympathizer Aleksei Kudrin as presidential economic advisor and to direct the Center for Strategic Development in preparing a long-term economic development plan for Putin is a classic example of cementing liberals within the system by coopting them. Similarly, last autumn Putin appointed the liberally-oriented Sergei Kirienko to the post of presidential administration deputy head, which includes the media portfolio. Kirienko was a protege of the assassinated democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in the 1990s and later one of the founders of the liberal Union of Right Forces party (for Kirienko’s biographical details, see  https://gordonhahn.com/2016/11/22/putins-surprise-the-resurrection-of-sergei-kirienko-complete-version-parts-1-and-2/ and Gordon M. Hahn, “From Chernomyrdin to Kirienko and the Rise of the Nizhegorod Group,” Problems of Post-Communism, 45, 5 (September-October 1998): 1-15, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10758216.1998.11655802). This month, the Kremlin’s state service, personnel recruitment, and grant-giving policy operations were given to Kirienko (http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001201704120006; https://news.rambler.ru/video/36597767/?utm_content=news&utm_medium=read_more&utm_source=copylink; and https://news.rambler.ru/video/36597767-kirienko-poluchil-novuyu-dolzhnost/?utm_campaign=news_politics_topday&utm_medium=exchange&_openstat=%3B%3Bpolitics_topday%3B&_openstat=ng%3B&utm_source=ng). Even mainstream U.S. media organ Politico perceived a Kremlin “thawed attitude to the media,” including a grudging, even backhanded, albeit, compliment: “Under Kiriyenko’s stewardship, the Kremlin has relaxed its choke on the media in an attempt to appear less paranoid and appeal to more moderate Russians ahead of next year’s presidential election” (http://www.politico.eu/article/russia-media-dissident-press-meduza-enemy-of-the-kremlin/?utm_source=CGI+Daily+Russia+Brief&utm_campaign=593422ee85-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_04_24&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_814a2b3260-593422ee85-281712945&mc_cid=593422ee85&mc_eid=f4aac5f16f). Another small scale example of such inclusion by cooptation was Putin’s February meeting in the Kremlin with ultra-liberal economist Vladimir Mau (http://special.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/53898).

Putin has also balanced by containing on occasion policymaking by ultra-statist, nationalist, and other hardline elements in the presidential administration, government, and State Duma. Thus, in a nod to economic reform, Putin at the time initiated and got passed into law a program offering free land in the Far East to any Russian willing to live in the harsh, sparsely- and increasingly Chinese-populated territories (http://polit.ru/article/2016/05/03/far_east/). Another way Putin has contained hardliners’ policymaking is by introducing or supporting the introduction of rather draconian laws only to subsequently soften them somewhat through amendment. For example, last year he amended the tough ‘foreign agent’ law – one often exaggerated in Western media – so that charities would no longer need to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents” if they receive money from abroad. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in areas such as art and culture were also made exempt from the “foreign agent” label under the amendments to the 2012 law (“Russian Charities to Be Exempt From ‘Foreign Agent’ Label,” The Moscow Times, Moscow Times, 18 May 2016).

Similarly, Putin has rejected calls for other draconian measures, most recently including calls to respond tighten controls on the Internet in Russia – something he has blocked several times – and other calls to introduce communist-style ‘educational work’ in primary and high schools about not attending political demonstrations after the March 26 demonstrations included inordinately large numbers of very young marchers (www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2017/04/03/683873-kreml?utm_source=CGI+Daily+Russia+Brief&utm_campaign=ddacfea211-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_04_03&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_814a2b3260-ddacfea211-281712945&mc_cid=ddacfea211&mc_eid=f4aac5f16f and www.kommersant.ru/doc/3260816?utm_source=kommersant&utm_medium=all&utm_campaign=hotnews&utm_source=CGI+Daily+Russia+Brief&utm_campaign=ddacfea211-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_04_03&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_814a2b3260-ddacfea211-281712945&mc_cid=ddacfea211&mc_eid=f4aac5f16f).

It is important to put Putin’s authoritarianism in perspective. The regime is perspicacious, allowing space for democrats, centrists, socialists, communists, nationalists, ultra-nationalists, and neo-fascists to one degree or another. It does so willingly or in fear of provoking the oft-mentioned, sudden ‘merciless Russian revolt’ by careful calibration of the respective power, malleability, irreconcilability of and threat potentially emanating from these various ideological strains. Liberals are not the least beneficiaries of this relatively soft authoritarianism. Neo-fascists and other forces more violently-inclined are afforded less space than liberals. Indeed, some ideological liberals like Kudrin are welcomed inside the Kremlin tent precisely because they are moderate in the way the criticize and relate to the regime. Putin’s ability to calibrate and co-opt liberals into his regime perhaps was most evident during the Medvedev interregnum and political thaw of 2008-2012, which I documented quite a bit at the time (see Gordon M. Hahn, “Is A Russian ‘Thaw’ Coming?,” Russia: Other Points of View, 18 April 2008, www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2008/04/is-a-russian-th.html#more; Gordon M. Hahn,“ Medvedev, Putin, and Perestroika 2.0,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 228-259, http://www.gwu.edu/~ieresgwu/assets/docs/demokratizatsiya%20archive/GWASHU_DEMO_18_3/C6RV2N817P0572R3/C6RV2N817P0572R3.pdf; Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0 and the Moscow Spring,” Fair Observer, 11 May 2012, www.fairobserver.com/article/perestroika-20-and-moscow-spring Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0: Towards Non-Revolutionary Regime Transformation in Russia?,” Post-Soviet Affairs, 28, 4 (October-December 2012): 472-515, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2747/1060-586X.28.4.472#.VNIAL53F-uw; Gordon M. Hahn, “Glasnost 2.0 and the Nascent White Revolution,” Russia – Other Points of View, 11 January 2012, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2012/01/glasnost-20-perestroika-20-and-the-nascent-white-revolution.html; Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0 Continues: Russia’s December Thaw and the Return of Politics,” Russia – Other Points of View, 2 January 2012, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2012/01/perestroika-20-continues-russias-december-thaw-and-the-return-of-politics.html; and Gordon M. Hahn, “The Russian Federation in 2012: From ‘Thaw’ and ‘Reset’ to ‘Freeze,” Asian Survey, Volume 53, Number 1 (Winter 2013), pp. 214-223).

This suggests that to some extent, not just its policies but the regime itself may be malleable to change depending on the tenor or face (as well as potential threat) it presents to representatives of the ‘sistema’. Remember most observers assume Putin was really the man in charge during Medvedev’s thaw. Liberals, in particular the rather rabid liberal intelligentsia, would do well to take all of the above into account when it strategizes against the Putin regime. A strong pro-democracy opposition emerging from the liberal elements Putin has left in place might some day be in a position to change the regime non-violently. If strong enough, it might even nudge Putin to a final balancing act — democratic transition talks — and avoid the risks inherent in revolutionary regime transformations.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.), http://www.aigeo.org; a contributing expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.); and an analyst and consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.

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 also 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 and 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.