About the only surprise from yesterday’s Russian elections are Putin’s tears savoring his long predicted victory. Putin’s victory speech was erratic. If he tried to stage emotion, it backfired.
Famous blogger Alexei Navalny named Monday’s protest “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” based on the title of an Oscar-winning Soviet melodrama. Ironic use of Putin’s tears fills the Russian Internet from Twitter to Snob.ru. (Putin says the tears came from the wind).
Watch Medvedev introduce the man who took the re-election he wanted so badly himself. Medvedev veers between the manic and awkward unhappiness. 30 seconds into Putin’s speech Medvedev fittingly all but disappears before our eyes.
So what does Putin do next?
Domestically, he’s in better shape than many in the West suppose. The question is how Putin will respond to the opposition to his entire power edifice. Putin, together with advertising wizard Vladislav Surkov, erected a faux democracy (“Sovereign Democracy”). It worked quite well 2000-2008. The wheels came off in 2011. Russians were allowed to live some kind of stable lives in exchange for no real political voice and arbitrary government. Behind Surkov’s televised stunts of Putin as action figure, Putin also bought off the siloviki (power ministers, bureaucrats and military) by looking the other way for corruption.
As we know, Dear Reader, Surkov’s system crashed in ruins last December 2011. He was demoted. But what is to come next?
Putin never really was nor can he now be an authoritarian figure as traditionally understood in Russian history. Even during Surkov’s noontide “Sovereign Democracy” action figure era, Putin and his circles often exercised power indirectly. The genius of the Surkov propaganda machine is that it taught independent actors how to please, accommodate or otherwise anticipate what Putin wanted. Eventually it all degenerated into a self-dealing crony class, rendering Putin sometimes as much a victim of his system over which he can sometimes preside and arbitrate but not really control. Whereas in the 1990s and early 2000s Putin could use corruption to achieve goals its metastasization is beyond even his grasp.
An old political science maxim is that healthy regimes take advantage of opposition. Better to co-opt the best ideas (think triangulation) and people. Hence the famous saying that every rebel is at heart a wannabe aristocrat. It’s not in Putin’s past nature to choose this course easily. His deliberately coarse public language, recent electoral appeals to xenophobia, denouncing so-called ‘liberal media’, the us vs. them, Borodino all make a volte face hard to see.
Still he has a unique opportunity. Russia’s opposition is weak, fragmented, leaderless and without organization. Prospects for the opposition to coalesce and gain political initiative at this stage seem remote. Election rhetoric might harden sentiments. Still, a post-Surkov Putin 2.0 regime might find it easier to co-opt a few opposition ideas than return to failed theatrics of force, fear and coercion. At the least it will buy time.
We don’t see Putin in any immediate political danger. Putin says he wants to prepare Russia geopolitically, socially and economically to be a bulwark between the U.S. and China. Hence his notions for strategic depth, etc. That kind of State-led (although with market forces involved like Bukharin’s NEP) strategic development in time will need the creative, technical and educated contributions from many flirting with or in the opposition. Decisions, decisions.