Pussy Riot Shows Putin Misreads Politics

Putin must be wondering how did it all go so wrong? So fast?

First, demonstrators marred his moment returning to overt power. Putin even cried a bit. Former Finance Minister Kudrin and others broke ranks and seek his overthrow.

Lately, he’s blamed for inept responses to massive flooding and failed rocket launches. Putin’s presidency is now so volatile there’s open speculation how soon he’s trying to oust Medvedev as Prime Minister. Or whether he can control elite factions anymore. Three young women punk rockers as international superstars just rubs it in.

Putin, Pussy Riot, Madonna

Putin Is An Analog Guy

Putin and his collective instrumental base show a political deaf ear and marked clumsiness since his return as president. It’s a common mistake to attribute everything to Putin himself. As we wrote before in the link above, Putinism operationally (as opposed to substantively) is about preserving his role as arbiter.

Within the wider personal and institutional factions, much occurs without him. Either by ‘working towards’ him by anticipating what Putin might want, or operating more broadly, with the ‘better to seek forgiveness than permission’. Corruption is a vital currency. Putin’s long delay announcing his new government underscores the fractious nature of this political ecosystem – and his essential role as arbiter.

So when Putin does act, it is often in broad measures, trying to set systemic guidance by dramatic example. In the past, these actions were carefully choreographed in exquisite detail by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s former young eminence grise who famously turned Putin into an action figure. Surkov is gone. Asute Russia observers suggest Putin misses Surkov’s shrewd ear to the ground.

In truth, Surkov is gone because he couldn’t foresee the rise of the networked nation and social media. Surkov relied on TV to sell a facade of Putin because TV gives narrative control. Comparatively, Putin allowed print media much greater latitude and even quasi-independence. Surkov and rest simply don’t know how to make Putinism work in a peer to peer world. The 30 year old daughter of Putin’s mentor and party girl, Khesenia Sobchak, was fired from her TV gig for anti-regime commentary. Via Twitter she has become improbably a serious leader of the Opposition. Aleksei Navalny, the controversial blogger, equally (and more substantively) so. Just two examples.

Missing The Slam Dunk

The Pussy Riot trial is the latest in a series of court cases against Opposition leaders. Sobchack and Navalny have been fighting off lurid accusations designed to use court as a theater to tarnish them. There are other cases, too. Pussy Riot was to be a slam dunk.

Most of us don’t think about domestic Russian politics. When the Pussy Riot Installation – in the Gustav Metzger sense of an auto-destructive shock event as ‘happening’ – occurred, most Russians, including the Opposition, were appalled. Religious conservatives, secularists and educated progressives alike. Perfect for a show trial. Apostate, marginal (socially) women triumphantly humbled before State power on a national stage.

And disaster. First, on technical grounds, show trials are essentially a play. Script is everything. The new media ensured narrative chaos. The women also proved to be powerfully articulate (and chose an incredible brand name). When your close ally and Deputy Prime Minister loses a Tweet battle with Madonna, it’s game over. Second, the regime misread drastically domestic sentiment; contemporary Russia might be critical of the stunt at the church, but many are not willing to embrace old (neo-Stalinist) political forms. So maybe it’s time to retreat – look for a face saving way out.

The real question (beyond the verdict to be delivered later this month) is what will be learned? Will the regime see the Pussy Riot fiasco as a signal to recalibrate its tactics for engaging the Opposition? Or is it a one off, situationally unique, the bungling of discrete factional strands? If the latter, Putin’s headaches may only grow worse.

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Verdict Update

The verdict convicts the women of hooliganism and sentences them to two years in jail (of a possible seven). An outcome representing the managed politics in Russia 2012 and a retreat from the initial onslaught against the women for their stunt.

True, the court ran roughshod over defendants’ witnesses and even blatantly misrepresented testimony. Judge Marina Sirovaya’s reading of the lengthy, verbose verdict intended for domestic audiences. Her soporific droning speaking directly to activated elements of Putin’s domestic base: religious conservatives, nationalists, anti-Westerners (of whom Navalny, for example, used to be a part), etc. Arresting marginal and widely despised so-called liberals like Gary Kasparov and Left Front coordinator Sergey Udaltsov at the court during demonstrations icing on the cake.

Putin, Pussy Riot, Verdict

Following show trial norms, the court verdict tried to signal society what are tolerated behavioral and political norms. For example, Sirovaya blatantly linked blasphemy with notions of criminality. And mocked feminism while purporting to support equality. All while claiming to uphold freedom. And on and on.

Still, the regime in some aspects probably regrets the whole affair. Russian non-Orthodox Christian leaders as well as domestic Imams and Rabbis spoke out in support of leniency. Naturally, militant nationalists howl at such ‘alien’ support. But other Russians appalled by the Pussy Riot stunt still opposed the regime’s handling. Domestic support for show trials simply isn’t there. Regardless of the massive international blowback.

The Russian Levada Center, a prominent Russian polling agency, showed that 58% Russians believed that the punishment demanded by the prosecution was too harsh. Only 33% agreed with prosecutors. More importantly is the vector of change. Each month since March has show support grow weaker and disagreement grow. Any politician knows what that means.

From the ruling system’s perspective the verdict (pending any appeal or further action) is an unexpected compromise. A two year sentence (harsh from a humanitarian point of view) isn’t the initially intended crushing signal, and still less than the already compromised 3 year request. Since the arrests, the regime -loosely defined- has only moved backwards. Putin even hinted *before* the verdict he’s open to an appeal when meeting with Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin. That is not the sign of a confident regime asserting power.

The verdict’s reactionary verbiage is a sop to conservative and nativist elements in the disenfranchised ‘base’. But at what cost?