According to the famous NYU professor Stephen Holmes, Marx was wrong when he said the history of humanity is the history of class struggle. In fact, Holmes says, it is the history of elite struggle. And no less than Plato suggested that when elites are unitary and consolidated, those below can never overcome the elite’s strength; opposition only stands a chance when the elites are divided.
Without understanding Russian elites and how the tandem of Putin and Medvedev influenced them, we cannot explain the mass anti-Putin protests and demonstrations by well-off and elite parts of the population. The protests took place against a backdrop of Vladimir Putin’s consistently high approval rating, which at over 60 percent would be the envy of the vast majority of leaders in Western democracies. While in the public sphere it is difficult to see a clear split in the political or economic elite, the fact remains that many of today’s slogans and demands, until recently characteristic of a marginal opposition, were gradually mainstreamed under the guise of caring about the country. In fact, they were put forth in the interest of Medvedev.
Many prominent names were involved in utterly discrediting the existing socio-political system and its architect, Putin. The massive campaign included a slew of reports by the Institute for Contemporary Development (which Medvedev chairs), speeches by members of its leadership such as Igor Yurgens and Evgeny Gontmakher, analysts and politicians in the Kremlin, Medvedev’s economic aide Arkady Dvorkovich, former political advisor Gleb Pavlovsky and others who desired a second term for President Medvedev. They planned to prevent any possibility of Putin returning as president in 2012. In the national press and elite circles, the message was clear: the return of Putin means stagnation; it is a Brezhnev regime 2.0 with an old sclerotic leader; it would mean a rapid increase in corruption and a confrontation with the West. This especially amused the organizers of Medvedev’s Yaroslavl Forum, including economist and writer Vladislav Inozemtsev, as well as Yurgens, Pavlovsky and their circles. In the end, a nucleus of people working against the return of Putin formed among elites and media, who spread the wishes of the radical opposition as if their grievances were legitimate and reflected the opinions of part of the establishment.
A part of the elite could not help but think that this campaign, if it was not initiated by the highest levels at the Kremlin, was at least implicitly supported by them. For some in the pundit community and journalistic circles, it sounded the horn for attack. If the high level of trust by the population had previously rendered Putin untouchable from the assaults of journalists and experts, this taboo was now gone, removed either by the Kremlin itself or at least by a segment of the pro-Kremlin politicians, analysts and journalists.
Putin and his circle underestimated this threat and did not take prompt countermeasures. This caused the ranks of elites and media to be largely opposed to Putin’s comeback. There are two obvious strategies that Putin could have employed to counter this turn of events. First, it was possible for Putin to ask Dmitri Medvedev early on to rein in Yurgens, Pavlovsky and Co. (Medvedev himself said at the United Russia Party conference that he had no plans to return to the presidency and had decided together with Vladimir Putin who would run in 2012.) It was not done, and we can only guess why. It is possible that the prime minister and his circle thought the public statements of the opposition were unlikely to swing the situation, given the strength of Putin’s position. Back at the beginning of 2011, the prime minister’s rating stood at 80 percent. Perhaps the reason for Putin’s lack of countermeasures is thoroughly different, and I do not know it. Only Putin himself really knows.
But it was possible to respond in kind to the anti-Putin campaign by unleashing a powerful counter-campaign in the media targeting Medvedev, painting him as a weak leader incapable of taking matters into his own hands and thus preparing both elites and society for the return of Putin as president. This also was not done. Two reasons might explain why: Medvedev was handpicked by Putin, who did not wish to admit he had made a mistake; or, more likely, he did not want a massive onslaught by the media on the acting president to tarnish the sacred nature of the institution. Putin is fully aware of just how key the presidency is for the stability of the political system and will not allow any stain upon it, even to protect himself from the proponents of a Medvedev second term.
A broad alliance against Putin’s return formed in Russia’s public square. It included both representatives of the radical opposition and some members of the establishment. They were joined by some youths and people from the small and medium-sized businesses to whom the Kremlin propaganda proposed Medvedev as leader. The media also polished an image of Medvedev as a liberal leader of young people, a proponent of modernization in the economy and the political system, and a president capable of ending corruption in the high echelons of power (meaning capable of taking on the oligarchic groups that prevented the emergence of fair-market competition.) He was also pitched as a commander who could abolish the power structures that surrounded business and strangled it with racketeering, which rendered owners of small and medium enterprises especially vulnerable. These people joined in the ranks of the protesters in Bolotnaya Ploschad and Sakharov Prospect.