Envisioning Russia after Putin

Putin will survive the current unrest. But how will Russia survive after Putin?

After a decade of stagnation and boredom in Russia, the situation there has become exceedingly complicated. It is easy to point to the underlying causes of the present protest movement, but it is difficult to divine the future of the present regime. After Putin, what? Not that the regime seems to be in any immediate danger. True, the new middle class is stirring, and there is a great deal of dissatisfaction among major elements of the country. But the opposition is not united nor is it clear to what extent has it become a significant factor outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

It has been somewhat overlooked that among the demonstrators were elements of the Russian Far Right and neofascists. Their flags and banner slogans displayed anything but an ardent desire for freedom, democracy and human rights. The Russian reactionaries, like the liberals, are split. Some favor marching with the reformers; others think it an abomination.

Vladimir Putin initially underrated the depth of feelings in the streets of the capital. He compared the demonstrators to Bandar Log (the chattering monkeys in Kipling's Jungle Book) and the banners they carried to giant condoms, a comparison that was neither amusing nor politically effective. But soon second thoughts emerged, manifested in a reshuffle of the top of the Kremlin inner circle. Promises were made—for instance, the election of governors instead of their being appointed by the Kremlin. (The heads of regional administration were, in fact, elected by popular vote prior to 2005). With these moves, Putin seems safe as long as the price of oil is $100 a barrel or more.

The opposition’s most popular spokesmen are a successful blogger, a TV anchor and the author of widely read thrillers with a historical background. This is not to denigrate them. They probably are as capable of ruling Russia as the former KGB lieutenant colonel. But they have no chance at present. The country seems to want a strong leader—if not Putin, someone like Putin.

But Putin has been in power for twelve years, and another twelve years could be too much. Few leaders in modern history, even the greatest among them, have known when to retire. Many overstayed their welcome—Churchill, Adenauer, de Gaulle. Hosni Mubarak's cardinal sin was not the corruption in Egypt (admittedly excessive) but the fact that he did not remove himself from office ten or twelve years earlier. But Putin is no Mubarak. He is a younger and more dynamic leader exuding energy and even sex appeal with seemingly secure popular backing. True, his popularity is not what it once was. Political wear and tear is inevitable for those who stay in power for too long.

The slogan uniting the opposition is an end to corruption. But everyone has condemned corruption, including Putin and Dmitri Medvedev. How to combat and uproot corruption, which in Russia has been crass and endemic since the beginning of history (the kormlenie—feeding of officials in early Russia). Two hundred years ago, Karamzin, the great Russian historian, was asked by a countryman returning from abroad what was going on in the country. He replied, “kradut”—people are stealing. Years ago, the Polish British sociologist Stanislav Andreski demonstrated that a bit of corruption was necessary in some countries to lubricate the workings of government. In Russia, it seems safe to say, that has been overdone.

The demonstrations in Russia are a show of dissatisfaction on the part of the burgeoning middle class and the intelligentsia. They want something better than the present authoritarian regime. But so far they represent a relatively small minority. They want new elections in place of the last ones, which were fraudulent according to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal. But there is no overwhelming popular pressure in favor of new elections, nor would they necessarily result in a radically different outcome. Putin has the support not only of the bureaucracy and the security services but also of Middle Russia.

Middle Russia, according to the public-opinion polls, wants a strong and prosperous country, and freedom does not figure high among its demands. The ideology of Middle Russia is a curious mixture of Sovietism and Solzhenitsyn, of strong nationalism and the Pravoslav church, of suspicion of foreigners and conspiracy theories. It is not a very sophisticated doctrine but perfectly adequate for its purpose.

The supporters of the present regime are right to dismiss the political dangers confronting Putin at present. But they seem not to look very far ahead into the future. There have been in Russia growing promises and expectations over recent years. Putin said that by 2020, Russia will be not only among the richest and most developed countries but also a cultural and scientific superpower, in the forefront of all human endeavor. It is difficult to imagine that this will be achieved with a sullen middle class and an antagonistic intelligentsia. The support of Middle Russia is important, but it will not restore Russia to its former major-power status. Several times in recent history Russia managed to lose it intelligentsia. It is sad to watch this process recurring, and Russian patriots may come to regret it.

Walter Laqueur is the author of After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent, an assessment of the European crisis (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012).