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Putin: For Russians, the thrill is gone

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9 March 2012 14:41

John Besemeres is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for European Studies, ANU. This is part 3 of a three-part series. Part 1 here and part 2 here.

For all Putin's fears of a colour revolution, Russia's oppositionists are basically pretty civilised people and not too formidable. Though impressed by the example of the Arab Spring, they are not desperate members of a huge youth unemployment bubble. The Russian opposition basically wants dignity and respect, a chance to have a say about how they are governed and more generally greater opportunities to realise their professional talents. 

If they are denied these, they can always head for the exits, as many of their like-minded fellow-countrymen have been already doing. According to Sergei Stepashin, a senior Russian official and onetime prime minister, over 1.25 million Russians have emigrated in recent years, including many young, highly-qualified professionals. Twenty per cent of respondents told the independent Levada opinion polling agency that they would like to emigrate. If obstreperous oppositionists chose not to do so voluntarily, it might prove necessary for them to be selectively encouraged to do so.

Putin should, however, beware of believing his own rhetoric that it's only the urban middle classes with whom he has a problem, and that ordinary Russians remain as supportive as ever. One forms the impression that, for many of them too, the thrill has gone and that they see him more as inevitable than as necessarily desirable. At this stage his popularity is probably several time-zones wide, but only an inch or two deep. 

People of all milieus are angry at being taken for granted and infuriated by the ubiquitous corruption, both petty and spectacular, which blights Russian life. The anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny did more than anyone or anything to undermine the governing United Russia's Duma election campaign last year when he coined the telling phrase 'the party of crooks and thieves' to describe it. 

Putin has a serious problem on his hands. But some Western commentators may be getting ahead of themselves in describing him as a spent force, presiding over a dysfunctional and ineffective 'power vertical'. 'The end of Putinism' proclaimed the Washington Post on 5 March. 'Russia's Incredible Shrinking Prime Minister' read TIME's front cover for 24 February, with apt graphic reinforcement

But at a time when many countries in its region are doing rather worse, the Russian economy will get by with sensible management for some time yet, even without the serious reforms that many recommend (eg. 'The Russian Economy and its Prospects' by the eminent British expert Philip Hanson). And while the coercive structures of the state may conceal some structural weaknesses, the opposition would be unwise to test their mettle too much. 

Whilst maintaining his own hardline stances, Putin may also continue his long-standing arrangement of having the reformist but compliant Medvedev issue forth liberal pronouncements and initiatives from time to time to keep the opposition's hopes up and make favourable headlines in the Western media. If under real stress, he might move Medvedev to another post and bring back the strong-willed Kudrin as prime minister, while seeking to make very clear to him that his primary task is to maintain economic stability, not propose early elections or other dangerous liberal ideas.

Putin may be looking more mortal than the swaggering figure of the noughties with his astronomical approval ratings. But he has his 64%, however acquired, and this may start to dispirit the opposition in the months ahead whilst discouraging potential opponents within the so-called political elite from contemplating any palace coup. His brand is tarnished and he seems to have no plausible platform for tackling many of Russia's real problems. But the obituaries are premature.

Photo by Flickr user Person Behind the Scenes.

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