Vicken Cheterian

Russia Protests: The Putin System in its winter

Now, in power now for over two decades the “Putin system” shows signs of fatigue. Paradoxically, Vladimir Putin is vulnerable more than ever to street pressure now that he ensured total control over Russian political institutions.

The arrest of Aleksei Navalny in Moscow on January 17, 2021, triggered a wave of protest movement across Russia. He was returning from Berlin after spending several months in treatment allegedly for poisoning by agents of the Russian government. 

This protest movement, unlike that of 2012, is much deeper and more dangerous to the stability of the “Putin System”: it surpasses the major urban centres of Moscow and St. Petersburg, to mobilize populations from Vladivostok to Krasnodar. Chanting anti-corruption slogans and the release of Navalny, over 40’000 people gathered in central Moscow. 

Navalny emerged to incarnate dissent against the Putin system, by focusing his campaign on elite corruption and inefficiency. Yet, one should not take him for a liberal democrat, as the impression might be given by Western media reports: if he is a “liberal democrat” it is of a Russian variant. Before focusing on corruption, Navalny was closely associated with Russian nationalist circles, involved in anti-immigrant campaigns, but also against Russians of non-Slavic ethnic background, especially towards North Caucasians. 

Now, the Russian government is in a difficult situation; releasing Navalny would encourage more dissent, while keeping him in jail after the initial 30 days would cause more anger. Repressive politics have their limits, especially in times when authoritarian regimes fail to deliver their part of the deal: economic stability.

The universality of the movement has several causes: one is that Navalny succeeded in hammering his anti-corruption message, by spreading video reports on social media. The Russian authorities dominate over the media institutions, yet censorship has its limits in the age of digital technologies. His team released a video documentary about Putin’s Black Sea palace, which cost 1billion Euros. Navalny accused the Russian leader of having constructed the luxurious palace out of corruption money, qualifying it “the largest bribe in history”. 

The Russian leader reacted to the release of the video saying: it is “compilation and montage” adding that he found it “boring”. “Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did,” Mr Putin was quoted by news agencies. Yet, in less than a week 86 million visitors saw the video. 

The problem of the Russian leader is not limited to the inefficiency of censorship: it is the message of Putin system that is no more convincing for a substantial group of Russian citizens. Putin came to power in a different period and provided solutions not only to the embattled Russian dominant classes, but also satisfied the needs of larger segments of the population. After the years of Soviet disintegration under Mikhail Gorbachev, and chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin, during which the Russian and other formerly Soviet populations suffered enormously, Putin promised stability but also projected an image of Russian power, standing up to an “arrogant” West. Most importantly, Putin succeeded to bring stability to Russia thanks to increasing financial income based on massive Russian energy and raw material exports: by becoming for many years the number one oil producer in the world (third top oil producer in 2019, after the US and Saudi Arabia). Paradoxically, here lies both the strength and the weakness of the Putin system. 

The Soviet economy was once the second biggest economy and military power in the world. Yet, it was lagging behind the West in technological development because of inefficiency in its militaro-industrial complex and because of a political system based on strict hierarchical control and censorship. Gorbachev’s reforms were essentially an attempt to modernize this system, but instead it destabilized it. 

Russian economy today is the 11th largest per Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is true that the Russian economy was hard hit by Western plus Japanese financial sanctions following the forced annexation of Crimea in 2014. Yet, the Russian economy as shaped and stabilized during the rule of Putin suffers from structural problems. It is totally dependent on oil and gas 52% and metals and precious stones 8%, while machines and electronics are only 3.4%. The fact that the Russian ruling elites make their profit through raw material exports does not stimulate its technological sector, nor preserve and develop its industrial capabilities. 

This structural dependence of Russian economy on export of energy and minerals is in crisis, even and dependent on global economic fluctuation. Russia exported the equivalent of 422 billion USD in 2019, and its exports are expected to decrease to 319 billion USD in 2020. 

Now, in power now for over two decades the “Putin system” shows signs of fatigue. Paradoxically, Vladimir Putin is vulnerable more than ever to street pressure now that he ensured total control over Russian political institutions. The message of “power” and “stability” is no more convincing to a new generation that wants change, and see stability as “more of the same”. Antagonism with the West and projection of military power made sense after the Yeltsin years and in the context of Chechen wars, but does not have the same attraction to a new generation. 

Most importantly, Putin failed to solve the fundamental problems of Russia – economic modernization – by preferring stability over reforms. Today, one sees the limits of the choices taken in the past, and that stability cannot be maintained forever. 

The global Corona-19 pandemic only accelerated economic difficulties and will probably cause increase in social dissent. The Russian authorities will need more than repressive policies to contain popular dissatisfaction.