by Gordon M. Hahn
I have written for years that regardless of the intermittent brutality undertaken by elements in and around the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is a relatively soft authoritarian regime. It is one that quite often backs down from policies in the face of significant societal disagreement and opposition. I have written in the past about some of the examples of Kremlin retreat in the face of societal resistance: the Medvedev political and electoral system reforms of early 2012, the pension reform, and the GazProm Okha Center in St. Petersburg. This month, in Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan a movement arose against a construction project that would have mutilated a historical site cherished by Bashkirs, and the planned construction was recently stopped. Similarly, the ongoing mass demonstrations in the Russian Far East’s Khabarovsk Krai demonstrate not just the population’s discontent with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s centralized rule, the strains of the COVID crisis, and the resulting economic downturn. Much in the Khabarovsk episode demonstrates the soft authoritarian nature of the Putin’s regime.
First, there is the fact that the governor, Sergei Furgal, whose arrest and removal from office on charges of being tied to a fifteen-year old murder case, had been elected to office against the Kremlin’s will, defeating the Yedinaya Rossiya candidate. This means sometimes the opposition or quasi-opposition in this case can defeat the Kremln. Furgal, moreover, is not the only such case at the gubernatorial level, not speaking of the city level. It is of further interest that the populist-nationalist Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) from which Furgal and its leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii hail, won 30 of 36 seats in the Khabarovsk Legislative Assembly. Thus, not all elections in Russia are rigged in the Kremlin’s favor, placing the Putin’s soft authoritarian ‘sistema‘ leagues apart from hard authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, where real elections are impossible at any time and at any level and often there are no opposition parties to run candidates or do anything else.
Second, the Putin regime has proven capable in this case (and in others) of showing restraint towards protests. Although none of the recent Khabarovsk demonstrations have been officially permitted by the authorities, they have been allowed to take place with little to no interference from the police or security organs. Indeed, the police and even the Russian Guard security forces have been friendly towards the demonstrators, who have also been peaceful and good-natured. (If only American demonstrators could be so well-behaved, we might be getting some where on both sides of the Pacific.) The same was true during the all too brief Moscow spring of the 2011-2012, when in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities mass demonstrations broke out in response to alleged vote-rigging in the December 2011 Duma elections. Then too, the demonstrators of the ‘white ribbon’ or ‘birch revolution’ were peaceful and police responded courteously to the demonstrators until Putin was elected to replace the more liberal Dmitrii Medvedev as president.
Third, the regime has been careful not to demonize the demonstrators as is routine totalitarian and even mid-to-hard authoritarian regimes’ practice. Mark Galeotti has it wrong when he writes: “(W)hen claims surfaced in Moscow that the protests were instigated by professional malcontents from outside the city, maybe even prompted by the United States, local prosecutors gave off-the-record briefings denying them” (Mark Galleotti, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/08/04/putins-security-forces-are-increasingly-unsure-about-putin/). The fact is that ‘Moscow’ in the person of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitrii Peskov — not some unspecified ‘Moscow’ that implies Putin — explicitly stated that the Kremlin did not view the Khabarovsk demonstrations as having been instigated artificially from outside.
The above is noted not simply for purposes of rating the regime on a scale of regime types from democratic to totalitarian. It has real world implications. First, the fact that the regime has allowed these demonstrations to proceed for weeks much as they did the 2011-2012 Moscow and other demonstrations of the ‘white ribbon’ or ‘birch revolution’ movement suggests that it may be in a mindset to come to terms with the demonstrations through compromise as it did then, when then President Dmitrii Medvedev introduced and got passed a series of wide-ranging reforms liberalizing the political system; measure mostly rolled back by Putin once he returned to the Kremlin as president months later.
Second, as with the aborted birch revolution, the restraint of the police and security organs was in good part due to the size of the demonstrations and the ‘weakness’ of the Kremlin’s hand at the time. Regarding the latter, Kremlin ‘weakness’ in 2011-2012 was a result of Medvedev’s lack of willingness to lead a crackdown, denuding the Kremlin’s substantial coercive potential. Now, the Kremlin’s weakness lies in the already multiple internal crises it has to deal with, the upcoming regional and local elections set for September, and external challenges from the West, OPEC, and now Belarus–all converging as Putin is moving to get his ducks in a row for whatever he has decided or hopes to decide for 2024.
Third, the Kremlin’s unwillingness to frame the demonstrations as some sort of CIA plot or liberal collusion with the West indicates it takes the demonstrations seriously and is seeking to avoid stirring the hornets’ nest. This de facto fear or at least trepidation is a sound basis for any opposition to force negotiations or at least induce regime compromise.
The Khabarovsk awakening could take an even greater scale, especially given the revolutionary situation that has now emerged in Belarus; 10 time zones away from Khabarovsk but nevertheless next door to Russia and altogether now all too close. The Khabarovsk challenge therefore could be buttressed by supporting demonstrations in other regions, most importantly in Moscow. However, so far spread of the Khabarovsk movement has been insignificant and not attained anything near the kind of critical mass required to qualify the situation as a another national crisis or force the Kremlin to make some grand compromise beyond the Khabarovsk issue, but the night is not over.
Putin is unlikely to move to quash the peaceful Khabarovsk protest, and he would do so at his peril. Russians love a martyr who has suffered, especially when he has not sinned. The demonstrators would do well to safeguard their innocence and ensure that none among them engages in violence and gives cause and perceived justification for a crackdown. Given this dynamic, it might be that Putin or one or more of the siloviki departments will take a page from Ukraine and deploy ‘titushki‘ in order to create the impression of potential internecine violence — something Russian history has taught Russians is a grave danger and best is avoided. It might machinate a provocation that can be blamed on the demonstrators, making the security organs the ‘victims’ and justifying repression.
Better and more likely would be for Putin to smooth over the arrest — if indeed there is not ‘there there’ in the charges — and to return Furgal to his elected office with the investigation announced to have turned up no solid evidence of Furgal committing a crime. In the event that this is not done before the Khabarovsk challenge goes national, then Putin would do well to throw into the bargain some decentralizing measure for Russia’s atrophied federalism. The Kremlin could find itself in an ironic bind, if there is a ‘there there’, and the demonstrators do not believe it or, in line with Russia’s traditional legal nihilism, do not care. In this case, the Kremlin will be upholding the law but in doing so could exacerbate Khabarovsk’s dissent, sparking a broader movement, even a revolution.
If Putin decides that the crisis is an existential threat to him and his regime or a harbinger of greater instability to come, he might seek and would be better off extricating himself from power. Another option he would be less likely but better off choosing would be to liberalize local and regional elections allowing a democratic regime transformation to percolate from below as was done in Mexico. There, the ruling PRI gradually allowed the opposition PAN to win state elections before finally losing a federal election and voluntarily leaving power altogether. Unfortunately, for historical reasons — not least of which has been Western threats to Russia’s national security, internal stability, and territorial integrity — Russian political culture is very concerned with tselostnost’ (integrity or unity) and all the more so now given the present international situation, tensions with expanding NATO, Western ‘color revolution’ policies, and now Belarus. Putin’s own suspicions of democracy make it a lock he will not move in the direction of ‘transition from the regions’ per Mexico. Thus, in the event of a deepening confrontation in Khabarovsk the most likely outcomes are either a revolution or a crackdown and Putin’s implementation of more strict authoritarian rule. There is still hope, however, that Putin would step back as he did when faced with the birch or white ribbon demonstrations, the pension ‘revolt’, and the other issues mentioned and seek an extrication from power into retirement through a compromise transition pact with opposition forces. But this will require a united, powerful, and peaceful opposition movement like the one in neighboring Belarus. The demonstrations in Khabarovsk could be the start.
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 is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 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, 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.