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.

If Russian politics were only about ideology and political calculation, then this strategy would have a very good chance of working. Ideologically speaking, with the possible exception of one issue, there is very little difference between them and Putin, and to judge by their careers, Roizman and Ponomaryov at least have a considerable capacity for pragmatism.

But of course, Russian politics is also quintessentially about wealth, and above all the age-old issue of the “ins” and the “outs”: those who have access to the immense patronage that flows from association with the central state, and those who do not. Ten years ago, with the economy booming and oil prices soaring, Putin would have had enough patronage at his disposal to satisfy a range of competing groups. Today, the administration is facing leaner times.

In other words, cutting the pragmatic regional opposition in on patronage will mean the existing state elite losing some of their benefits—which they are unlikely to accept lightly. And of course always in Putin’s mind will be the (to him at least) ghastly example of how Mikhail Gorbachev brought Boris Yeltsin to Moscow as a provincial populist, only to see him revolt against his master. But whether cooption, confrontation or some mixture of the two is Putin’s future policy, in my judgment it is the relationship between the Kremlin and the populist opposition in the provinces that will be the most important feature of Russian politics in the years to come.

Anatol Lieven, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. He is author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2004) and Pakistan: A Hard Country (PublicAffairs, 2011).