Putin After The Elections

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.


  1. Aldershot says

    The tears were real, I assume? Then again, he is rather a showboat. I read a good article about him recently in National Interest, http://nationalinterest.org/article/putin-the-uses-history-6276 . It seemed a bit of a puff-piece, but conveyed his great love for Russia.

    The video clip is a little work of art. The overhead shots of the crowd and the beautiful buildings, Putin dressed like a union leader and speaking forcefully.

    • says

      Nice link to Hill and Gaddy’s piece. They’re right to stress the importance of Putin’s chosen key concepts and meme icons ala Stolypin. All things considered, it is as you note a relatively friendly/neutral article.

      If we could add anything, it would be a few paragraphs on the disintegration of the ‘State’ under Putin in the form of staggering corruption on a level but different from the outright theft under Yeltsin. How much power Putin really has to stop or reverse it may be a key factor in realizing his developmental goals.

      It’s been a while since we worked with Cliff Gaddy. His extensive knowledge of Russian and Soviet economics is on good display here.

      The clip does have some visual flair, doesn’t it?

  2. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Agree with you that Putin’s vision of international affairs offered before the election is both zero-sum and pessimistic. What persona Putin chooses to adopt in the upcoming Chicago meetings will be interesting.

    • rkka says

      “Agree with you that Putin’s vision of international affairs offered before the election is both zero-sum and pessimistic.”

      he seems to be able to work things out okay with the Germans and French, so I disagree that his vision is always zero-sum.

      I agree that his approach to the Anglosphere is though, but mostly because they seem to require abject Russian submission as a precondition for just about everything.

      • says

        We’ve long said that Washington’s Russia policy (under GHWB, Clinton and Bush) was short sighted and incoherently provocative. The US ignored geopolitical realities with Russia for short term sentimental ‘gains’ at her expense.


        Sadi it here and at the time with the Bush/Cheney OSD, on the Hill and elsewhere. Spitting in the Neocon wind.


        What’s done, unfortunately, is done. And the ‘reset’ too little, too late.

        It’s interesting that the fairly wide-spread anti-Americanism among the Russian policy and pundit classes attribute capacity and influence to the U.S. that no longer exists. Some realize it, many don’t.

        The Russians are quite pleased to purchase French Mistral ships (mostly for the C3 tech and software). France historically had unique ties to Moscow to spite that Anglosphere during the Cold War. (It used to be said if you wanted to deliver a message to Moscow and be sure it was received, just tell the French it was a secret).

        Yet the French and British were the driving forces for the Libyan war. Paris and London drove the truck through the humanitarian vote at the UN into a declaration for regime change. (France is by most accounts already at war at some level in Syria).

        Aside from the complicated history with Germany, German location and economic preponderance across the periphery from Poland through the Near Abroad mandates a certain flexibility.

        In his concept of strategic depth uniting the entire World Island to stand against China and (improbably) the U.S., Putin needs Germany and France.

        • rkka says

          “Yet the French and British were the driving forces for the Libyan war. Paris and London drove the truck through the humanitarian vote at the UN into a declaration for regime change. (France is by most accounts already at war at some level in Syria). ”

          Sarko’s just hoping that “reviving the glory of France” will help him not get crushed by Hollande in May.

          Ain’t gonna work.


          And yes, Russia’s history with Germany is.. complicated, but two points.

          1) The “Spirit of Tauroggen” and Bismark. That history isn’t all bad.

          2) Russia’s birth rate is a hair over 50% greater than Germany’s. Just aren’t enough Landser for another Barbarossa.

  3. rkka says

    “So what does Putin do next?”

    He battens down the hatches for the next stage of the continuing global financial collapse.

    Fortunately, both the Russian banking sector and the Oligarchs are much less leveraged than they were in 2008.

    • says

      However, Gazprom is in a high spending phase of its capex cycle, and gas prices are heading down due to shale. Levers of power through the Andrew Wilson virtual politics mechanism don’t work. And there are plenty of accounts from the election period of loyalist arseholes not showing up, showing up but not getting paid, etc.

      He retains the dead hand of incumbency and that’s about it. Someone described him as being in his Berlusconi phase, but I think he was in his Berlusconi phase when Berlusconi was in his Berlusconi phase. The media were ostensibly independent but controllable, the institutions worked towards the leader, and the deliberately offensive stuff worked in that it gave him the pose he wanted towards his audience.

      Now, not so much. Anyone else spot Gleb Pavlovsky out of a job?
      Alex recently posted..from hell

      • says

        Gleb Pavlovsky’s dismissal from Kremlin graces by betting on the wrong horse in public with Medvedev last year a black sport hard to overcome in current circumstances. To be fair, an old Moscow hand who was there last year said that the atmosphere so byzantine and betrayal so routine, one can almost understand Pavlovsky’s calculated risk.

        Have seen the Putin/Berlusconi comparisons and if they were a Jeopardy! category would side with you, Alex. (While noting that Berlusconi was merely corrupt and oafish (and recently exonerated by female judges, to boot).

        Alina Kabayeva, Putin’s mistress, is certainly photogenic. But then by Berlusconi’s standards she would be part of the chorus (and possibly too senior).

      • rkka says

        “Someone described him as being in his Berlusconi phase, but I think he was in his Berlusconi phase when Berlusconi was in his Berlusconi phase.”

        Putin has actual accomplishments. Berlusconi, not so much.

        You’ll say “That’s nothing but the oil windfall.”

        I’ll say “No, it’s his extraordinarily prudent management of the oil windfall.” Under Yeltsin, the Oligarchs would have retained it, leveraged it for global business empire-building and lost every kopek in The Crash. Mother Russia would have been naked in the force-9 financial gale of 2009, and would now be like Ukraine or Latvia.

        Did you know that the Latvian birth rate has dropped ~25% since 2008? Or that deaths exceed births there by almost 1.6 to 1?

        Instead, Mother Russia faced that storm debt-free and with 600 gigabucks in the bank. Births have risen, and deaths declined, since 2008.

        So, no. Putin is no Berlusconi.

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