Putin's Russia: Political Theater at Valdai

October 8, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: Russia

Putin's Russia: Political Theater at Valdai

This year's presidential forum aimed more at the home front.

A Russian participant in this year’s Valdai Club conference in Russia, Boris Mezhuyev, wrote in Izvestia that:

“I must admit that, until then, I had never chanced to be present during the performance of such a brilliantly enacted political play. Compared to the 2013 Valdai forum, the United Russia congress of 24 September 2011 looked like a vaudeville in a provincial theater compared with a show by Meyerhold.”

That was also my own impression.

On the tenth anniversary of the Club’s formation, the Valdai this year was much larger than before, and the forum with President Putin was also filmed for Russian television. That meant, of course, that this year the Kremlin’s main target audience was not the international participants and their audiences, but the Russian population.

Part of the message the government wanted to get across of course concerned building up the image of Putin and Russia as important, respected and responsible actors on the world stage. The Russian initiative over Syria gave them an opportunity in this regard that they could hardly have dreamed of a few months earlier. Putin himself, it must be said, looked in excellent shape. I wouldn’t bet any money on him retiring from the scene any time soon.

Valdai did not, however, add anything very new concerning Russia’s Syria policy, other than a certain attempt to caution against exaggerated hopes. Much more interesting was the message that the administration wanted to send about domestic politics. These involved a new and more conciliatory line, including perhaps an amnesty for opposition leaders charged with public-order offences after protests earlier this year. And since these messages required the presence of leading members of the Russian opposition at the conference, this made for the most interesting exchange, both between Putin and other Russian officials and the opposition members, and among the opposition members themselves.

Putin also used his appearance at the Valdai Forum to put across his idea of Russia’s identity as a multiethnic and multireligious state, following on from an essay on the subject under his name that appeared last year. Though problematic, this is in many ways an impressive vision with deep and positive roots in Russian history and culture. It deserves much more attention than it has received in the West—if only, as Putin stressed, because it addresses very difficult issues of immigration, integration and multiculturalism with which West European countries are also grappling.

The Russian opposition representatives were a rather mixed bag, but then so is the Russian opposition. The most famous opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was supposedly invited but could not attend because of the terms of the bail set during the court case brought against him by the state for alleged fraud.

I do not suppose that Putin and his ministers were heartbroken by Navalny’s absence. They seem to have released him and allowed him to stand in the Moscow mayoral elections so as to lend credibility to the vote and to the victory of the Kremlin candidate Sergei Sobyanin; but the fact that Navalny got 27 percent (and perhaps a couple of percent more, shaved off by the administration to allow Sobyanin to gain 51 percent and avoid a second round) appears to have come as a nasty shock to the government. Certainly Sobyanin himself, when he spoke at the Valdai, looked the gloomiest election winner I’ve ever seen.

Of the opposition leaders who did attend the Valdai, Vladimir Ryzhkov, a longstanding Valdai participant from the Altai region of Siberia, was the only one with firm liberal credentials. He sat in the Duma for a range of liberal groupings until being refused registration in 2007.

Ksenia Sobchak should also probably be considered a liberal, though her political ideas are not entirely clear (including possibly to herself). A wealthy socialite and former presenter of a TV reality show known as “Russia’s Answer to Paris Hilton”, before she entered politics she was given to appearing half naked in Playboy and other magazines. Her father was St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Putin’s own first political patron—which may have saved her from too much harassment by the administration despite her recent fierce criticism of official corruption.

On the other hand, if the Kremlin’s political strategists are as clever as they intermittently appear to be, it may be that she has been left alone in order to discredit the opposition. For the average Russian voter, especially from the older generation and in the provinces, is about as likely to vote for her as Nebraska is to elect Paris Hilton as Governor.

This may also be true of Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB lieutenant colonel who later became a deputy from the formerly “loyal opposition” party, Spravedlivaya Rossiya (“Just”, or “Fair” Russia). Despite often having supported the Kremlin, Gudkov was expelled from the Duma for alleged violation of rules about engaging in business (rules which, if enforced across the board, would almost certainly lead to the expulsion of most of the deputies from Putin’s ruling party, United Russia).

In Gudkov’s case, it is partly the radicalism of his rhetoric which is likely to spook ordinary Russians, with their deep (and historically well-founded) fear of upheaval and anarchy. Gudkov’s son Dmitry, also a deputy for Fair Russia, also made a disastrous error of judgment when he denounced the Russian government at a Freedom House event in Washington and publicly supported the Magnitsky Act and its sanctions.

This is the kind of thing that makes me despair of parts of the Russian opposition when it comes to basic political sense. They seem incapable of understanding the obvious fact that this kind of thing is exactly as popular among most Russian voters as a US politician denouncing the US administration from a venue in Moscow would be in the USA. In a race to see what can annoy Russian grandmothers most, this even beats Ksenia Sobchak’s legs, long though they are (by the way, on the assumption that Freedom House wants to destroy the Putin administration and not help strengthen it, this sort of thing also makes one despair of Freedom House).

And indeed, as Lev Gudkov (no relation) of the Levada Center, which studies public opinion, and other Valdai participants pointed out, according to every poll the liberal opposition stands no chance whatsoever of capturing a significant part of the vote outside Moscow and St Petersburg. That does not make them unimportant, or mean that the administration can afford to alienate them completely; but their importance (as indeed Sobchak hinted in her remarks) lies not in the size of their vote, but in the fact that they do represent a considerable part of the intellectual and entrepreneurial talent of Russia that every administration will need if it genuinely wishes to develop the country.

It is to be hoped therefore that neither the administration nor the liberals will make the mistake of their predecessors before 1917: the administration, by excluding the liberals from all influence and so infuriating them that they turned to revolution; and the liberals, in grossly exaggerating their support in the population, and supporting a revolution that could only end in their own destruction. In the past two years, both sides have shown depressing signs of repeating this old syndrome.

However, there were also present at the Valdai Forum a couple of potentially much more formidable representatives of the Russian opposition; and how the Kremlin deals with figures like them will determine much of Russia’s political future, including perhaps the survival in some form of the order created by Putin. These were Yevgeny Roizman, who is now committed to billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s party, was recently elected as mayor of the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, and Ilya Ponomaryov, a deputy who is running for mayor of Novosibirsk.

These figures are potentially formidable because their potential voting base is larger by far than that of the Moscow and Petersburg liberals will ever be. This is due above all to their nationalist populism, and to their provincial bases, which allow them to mobilize provincial anger at exploitation by Moscow, and to garner the support of provincial business elites sick of domination by the Moscow-based oligarchs.

In other words, they can imitate some of Putin’s own strategy, which Putin himself (after thirteen years of ruling from Moscow) can no longer pursue with much conviction. Roizman in particular, with his lean athlete’s physique, strong air of latent ruthlessness (which the rumors of a criminal past do nothing to diminish), and record of toughness as an antidrug campaigner, might almost be a younger, post-Soviet version of Putin himself. This could make these people in the future either Putin’s most dangerous opponents—or his most valuable allies; even perhaps, his anointed heirs.

To judge by the Valdai Forum, at present the Kremlin’s plan is cautious co-option. Particularly interesting were remarks from Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy chief of staff of Putin’s administration, to Ryzhkov, in which he asked him why he did not stand for mayor of Barnaul, administrative center of Altai Krai, and develop experience of administration there, before seeking a position in the Duma. Putin for his part engaged Ponomaryov in a long and polite exchange over the distribution of taxes and powers between the centre and the regions. The Kremlin may well hope that such figures can be split from the Moscow opposition by allowing them into local power far from Moscow. This would also allow the Kremlin partially to defuse regional discontent with Moscow, and at the same time see which of the new provincial leaders were able and potentially loyal enough to be brought into the system of power in Moscow.