Who Can Beat Vladimir Putin?
Giovanna De Maio 13 October 2019

As the fall season starts to kick in in Russia, the streets of Moscow and other major cities are still heated up by activists and demonstrators that over the past couple of months have been contesting the power of president Vladimir Putin. This summer, thousands of people have manifested against the decision of Moscow’s Electoral Committee to exclude opposition city-council candidates from the local elections of September 8th. Last month, once again, tens of thousands of people rallied in Moscow to demand the release of jailed opposition protesters chanting “let them go” and denouncing repression.

 

The impact of demonstrations

The Kremlin tried to restrict the protests, deployed the National Guard – a police body responding only to the president, that Putin had created in 2016 exactly for situations like these –  that carried on a violent response with hundreds of people arrested. That is why for many observers these protests look like a cyclical attack to the establishment that, just like the mass demonstrations against Putin’s rerun in 2011/12, is inevitably doomed to fail.

Yet, looking at the results of the elections, indeed the protests had some sort of impact. Even though the candidates of the presidential party, United Russia, have easily secured all the posts of regional governors, the “SmartVote” strategy encouraged by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny proved quite effective: as many opposition candidates were excluded from the race, he encouraged Russian voters to express their preferences in favor of whichever candidate had the best chance to win against United Russia (his team made a list of candidates for every region and provided voters with explanations). As a result, United Russia lost a third of its seats in the Moscow parliament, was terribly defeated in Khabarovsk and lost its majority in Irkutsk.

If anything, the latest elections broke down the – wrong – assumption in the international public opinion that sees Russians complacent with the status quo for the sake of order and stability. This could probably be true when the memory of the troubled ‘90s was still fresh, but these protests have shown that it is no longer the case.

 

Which alternatives to Putin’s power?

Over the past few years, since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis and the worsening of the relations with the West, Russia has been conducting a defensive political economy to avoid a collapse over the costs of multiple wars and the pressure of international sanctions. In this complicated context, multiple drivers of discontent emerged: from the opposition to the reform that increased the pension age by 5 years to the rise of income and property inequality (for which Russia currently has similar levels to the United States), to the rubbish problem that becomes more and more urgent and noisy as it is paired with environmental challenges coming from the climate crisis (wildfires in Siberia) that keep bringing people to the streets. As these are the most visible drivers of this and other protests breaking out in Europe in the past couple of years, more inherently they underlie the increasing distance between the people and the establishment whose technocratic choices have failed people and resulted in a denial of representation and therefore participation.

This said, looking at the independent polling data offered by Levada, Putin’s approval rating is still quite high (67%).  Interestingly enough, however, only 27% of respondents in July 2019 thought that president Putin was successfully addressing the problems of the country, and people do not seem to have alternatives in mind (43%) once the presidential mandate comes to an end in 2024.

And this is exactly the problem. The lack of alternatives relies on the system that Putin was able to build in more than twenty years in power, in which he somewhat successfully engaged with various interest groups trying to secure their loyalty through economic and political benefits, while carefully keeping them divided from one another in a cunning divide et impera exercise. In the absence of a system that can ensure not only free and fair elections but also the impartial enforcement of the rule of law, Putin’s succession is likely to turn into a struggle between all the Kremlin’s clans and burst into political chaos. As the President is most certainly working to figure out some stratagems to keep control over the presidency, should he actually leave it in 2024, a new generation is gradually taking over the old guard of Putin’s trustee, and with it, new interests emerge.

In order for a transition to proceed smoothly, the Russian president should come up with a system preventing competing elite groups to undermine the leader that he would eventually choose. While all of this looks like a mere power game where elections seem not to matter even, recent protests showed that civil society is no longer keen to accept that. If it is difficult to imagine a Navalny winning over a Putin’s protégé at 2024 elections, it is not so hard to envisage more young people demanding to have a say in their country’s politics, even ready to face political chaos to get there.

 

Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP


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