Dick Krickus | The Lithuania Tribune
Article published in russiaprofile.org on 27 January.
Vladimir Frolov asks: “Why is Putin dodging the hard questions about his presidential platform and his plans for the presidency?” The answer is simple: He is confident of winning a third term as president so he is at liberty not to address them. Neither his old opponents—Yavlinsky’s liberals, Zuganov’s communists and Zhirinovsky’s neo-fascists—nor the new ones—the middle-class activists led by bloggers like Navalny have the votes to deny him that office. He is confident that Russians tethered to the vast government bureaucracy—including the military and special services—and the army of ordinary folk who rely upon state entitlements will stick with him.
He neither needs United Russia nor even wants to be associated with the discredited party less his image is tarnished. “If the recent parliamentary elections were rigged, the people associated with the party were responsible, not prime minister Putin”. He also is betting that whatever their grievances, in the final analysis most Russians will accept his offer of providing stability in favor of the mayhem that his opponents will visit upon the country should they somehow wrest power from him and his associates.
Of course, the Kremlin will continue to exploit institutional devices to diminish his rival’s prospects. The Central Election Commission’s barring Grigory Yavlinsky from running as president is an example. So is the government’s shuttering the offices of Golos, the group that monitors elections. The rationale, that their offices required electoral repair work is down-right silly and an admission of confusion.
These absurd efforts to dismantle the opposition, however, underline several important observations:
• Putin and his team remain wedded to the “good old days” when the Kremlin overlords could treat the people with contempt and not worry about the consequences. They will continue to personalize politics on the one hand and de-institutionalize it on the other one and Russia will remain stagnant.
• The Kremlin oligarchs simply have no answers to Russia’s problems and seem to be confused about the surge in grassroots protest.
• They are unwilling to have a real “broad dialogue”—Putin’s words–with the activists that marched in December and to adopt political reforms that open-up the political system and seriously address state-associated corruption.
Within Russia, the Kremlin’s failure to acknowledge that a growing number of people—most of whom are critical to Russia becoming a normal and prosperous European country—will not be denied a voice in matters that are central to their lives, represents an ominous warning signal. Attempts on the Putin’s part to “manage” the March election could spawn serious confrontations between the reformers and the government that produce unanticipated consequences. Among other things, less-privileged Russians who do not share the reformers’ values nonetheless may be emboldened by their clash with the authorities and press their own unique set of grievances. In short, the reformers by themselves may be incapable of making mischief to attract Putin’s attention but as catalysts for widespread grass-roots upheaval, they may be successful.
Beyond Russia, the advocates of a reset in relations with the West will find it ever more difficult to justify joint efforts that address shared global problems. Yes, it will remain true that only the Russian people can move their society toward pluralism; that friendly foreigners can only offer help on the margins; and that self-interest compels East-West cooperation on matters vital to both sides, but the barriers to such cooperation will proliferate should Putin resort to harsh policies to silence the reformers. At the same time, intervening phenomenon like economic turmoil in Europe may serve as a force multiplier and fuel all manner of popular protest within Russia.
Dick Krickus is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington and has held the H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University.