Lessons from Yekaterinburg

Gordon M. Hahn

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent approach to the semi-crisis in Yekaterinburg was ‘Putin the balancer’ in action. Although I had written several pieces recently asking whether Putin might be losing his touch in, or perhaps even his desire to continue balancing Russia’s sundry political forces opposed, partially opposed, sometimes opposed, etc. to each other along every parameter related to Russian politics (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/09/10/is-putin-losing-his-balance/). Specifically, there was some evidence he was turning to the right and allowing the siloviki to get rougher with the liberal democratic opposition (https://gordonhahn.com/2019/04/23/putins-sistema-authoritarian-imbalance-growing/). However, I did not conclude that he had lost the balancing touch that I have argued repeatedly has guided his soft authoritarian method for ruling Russia (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/06/14/putin-the-balancer-containing-and-balancing-russias-multifarious-forces-through-soft-authoritarianism/).

In the end, the semi-crisis played out as many Russian small and major crises under ‘Putin the balancer’ have. One needs only to recall the compromise with St. Petersburg opposition to the GazProm construction project for the historical city center a few years back or the administration’s much more recent, but somehow forgotten compromise on raising the pension age after the government’s proposals were met with concern and some public protests. The Yekaterinburg semi-crisis pitted the Russian Orthodox Church and the city’s mayor, who proposed and began to break ground on the construction of new church in central city square, against a very local movement with a largely youth-oriented set of demonstrators, who opposed the project referring the retention of the pen square and neighboring green area that locals used for walking babies and dogs and general strolling about.

As the week-long demonstrations began to get aggressive, with activists tearing down the fence that cordoned off the construction area and police beginning to react with use some physical force and arrests to put down the protests, Putin broke his silence. He weighed in on the side of those who proposed conducting a public opinion survey to decide the issue. Those closer to the demonstrations proposed either cancelling construction or, more moderately, holding a referendum.  Several Russian commentators from the liberal democratic opposition as well as Western observers asserted as the crisis mounted that if a opinion survey (or a referendum for that matter) was conducted, then it simply would be falsified, and construction would proceed and if necessary the protests would be violently suppressed. This was the nature of the regime as had been proven over and over again, they said.

What happened? The opinion survey was conducted, and some 70 percent of residents opposed construction. As a result construction at this site has been cancelled. We have not heard many mea culpas from these experts.

What are the lessons of this emotion-driven mis-analysis, in some cases politically calculated dis-analysis designed to ratchet up tensions around the conflict? The first lesson is that assessing the Putin administration’s possible actions in this or that situation should not be done through the prism of ‘the revival of Stalinism,’ ‘recreating the Soviet Union,’ the supposed totalitarian nature of Putin’s soft, if somewhat hardening authoritarian regime, and the like. Garbage in, garbage out. Precisely calibrating the nature of the regime, the extent of its authoritarianism, Putin’s actual approach to authoritarian rule rather than stereotypes conjured up on models of the worst periods of Russian history distort more than they reveal. The results of mis-modeling Putin’s system leads to bad analysis of events such as those regarding the GazProm tower, pension reform, and the Yekaterinburg affair.

The second is less relevant for analysts than for those seeking the transformation of the Putin system one way or another. When politicians or even analysts known for their pro-democracy positions make such egregious errors in analysis, they discredit the democratic opposition and can even play into the exaggerated myth that the Russia’s democrats are a fifth column virtually planted into Russia by elements in the West who control their actions.

Some in the Russian opposition, such as Alexei Navalnyi, have chosen a strategy of attempting to provoke the regime into a brutal crackdown on the streets in order to spark a revolt of the parents against the regime in defense of their children: hence Navalnyi’s provocative actions on Bolotnoi and in other demonstrations and his mis-analysis on Ekho Moskvy radio after the events disappointed him by not leading to a larger regime-opposition conflict. When the interviewer called Putin’s proposal that a opinion survey be conducted to resolve the dispute, Navlanyi quickly broke into say that the breakthrough moment was the violent tearing down of the fence by the demonstrators (https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2429739-echo/). This assumes that violent action alone rather than more massive peaceful action can push the regime to compromise. Such is not analysis but political grand-standing. To be sure, this should be expected from some politicians, but the attitude, the emotion driving Navalnyi’s analysis is the same that drove the mis-analysis by the mistaken experts. Such mis-analysis leads to needless support for radical approaches and actors while also discrediting democracy and Russia’s democrats. Using the wrong strategies and tactics leads to the misuse of resources, diverting them from those with more potential to produce positive results.

In addition, the tendency to see the Putin regime in the worst possible light polarizes Russian politics and reduces the ranks of those in both the regime and opposition who might otherwise be willing to make the compromises that might be necessary to fashion a non-violent regime change or transformation if and when the real regime crisis comes.

All of the above is to say that there is real analytical and political value in getting as absolutely precise a conceptualization of the Putin regime. Such a conceptualization cannot be had on the basis of single-characteristic attributions such as ‘mafia state’, Stalinism, or even authoritarianism. The Putin system is an immensely multifaceted phenomenon even for a hybrid regime, no less an authoritarian one. Neither emotion or memes will help us get it right. To the extent Russia remains a hybrid regime, tilting more to the authoritarian side albeit, the best analytical approach to understanding Putin’s leadership strategy is one that applies the concept of a balancer sitting atop a tempest of competing bureaucrat-oligarchic clans, political ideological tendencies, political parties, communal (ethnic, religious, civic, and secular) groups and trying to stay near the middle of Russia’s political spectrum.

Unfortunately, the hysterical political atmosphere extant in the West today will make it as difficult to develop a good picture of the Putin regime’s subtleties, as it is to get a nuanced view of the West or the United States on Russian television. Just as the GazProm and pension backdowns were ignored or forgotten, so too will the Yekaterinburg compromise. And this will be a detriment to Russians and Westerners alike.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn’s most recent book is Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. He has authored three previous, 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 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.

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About Gordon M. Hahn