One joke making the rounds in Moscow concerns the mother of Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister and one of the leaders of Russia's ragtag but energetic group of opposition leaders. Seeing her son on Russian TV last Saturday for the first time in eight years, she reportedly called him to ask: “Son, what happened? Have you done a deal with Putin?”
Until December 10, Mr. Nemtsov was a non-person on Russia's state-controlled television. Every channel has a black list of personalities who under no circumstances can be invited to a studio discussion or even shown in news reports.
This taboo was broken after all the national networks showed tens of thousands of people converging on central Moscow to take part in a three-hour long rally decrying massive government-endorsed vote rigging during recent State Duma elections and demanding new elections and punishment of those responsible for the fraud. The crowd also chanted “Putin has to go!” although that part was not shown on TV. At least not yet.
But the implications of the last ten days stretch beyond the changed editorial rules. My conviction is that we are seeing the beginning of the end of Vladimir Putin's political regime as we came to know it in the last decade. The situation is fluid but several conclusions can be drawn already.
Firstly, it is now clear that Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev misread public opinion and committed a monumental error on September 24, when they announced that Mr. Medvedev will not seek a second term in office and that Mr. Putin will run for president for a third time. Mr. Putin's declining approval ratings, rising economic uncertainty and pervasive corruption led to a massive popular backlash. This announcement buried the hopes of those who believed in a possibility of a peaceful top down evolution of the regime and introduction of gradual reform. It tarnished the personal images of the two leaders, presenting them as arrogant and dismissive of the public will. The announcement was so out of touch with reality that it politicized those who were previously uninterested in politics. This inflicted irreparable damage on the system, which will be impossible to limit or repair. We are dealing with a very serious crisis of legitimacy for Putin's regime – no more and no less.
Secondly, by allowing public protests in Russia's two capitals, ordering the police to keep order for a change rather than just beat up protesters, and then showing it all on television, the Kremlin has de facto legitimized the idea of peaceful opposition to the government’s policy. From now on it will be increasingly difficult to ban public gatherings, as was the case before, and to brand the opposition paid agents of America – a charge frequently repeated by Mr. Putin himself.
Thirdly, the authorities do not yet have a strategy for dealing with the situation. From repression to indifference to semi-acceptance to ruses and tricks – this seems to be the trajectory of Kremlin actions. The authorities don’t seem all that certain it will regain public confidence any time soon, hence the unprecedented salary increases promised in recent days to the military and special police forces. In addition, Mr. Putin and his team have decided to throw some bones to the tame parliamentary opposition – giving away half of the Duma committee chairmanships to the opponents of Mr. Putin's United Russia party, as well as promising timid liberalization of electoral laws. Some of the more unpopular stalwarts among United Russia's leadership will be sacked and the parliamentary opposition might well get a couple of important positions – perhaps Duma speaker. Another of the Kremlin's calculations is that protest activity will fade away during the Christmas and New Year season with many people leaving for the holidays. However it doesn't look like their horizons stretch any further for now.
This brings us to the fourth point. The next battle will be fought in the run-up to March 4 presidential elections. The opposition may be aiming at advancing a strong single candidate – an unlikely scenario for now. Alternatively it may well call upon voters to turn out and vote for anyone but Putin (for example, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov) in order to force a second round upon Mr. Putin to demonstrate that his nationwide support is waning.
Vladimir Putin is still widely expected to emerge as president. But in order to grab the initiative and stop the hemorrhaging of his legitimacy, he has to either change his tired and increasingly unpopular public image or open up to the competition and allow real criticism of himself and his policies. Both options seem unlikely, as Russia's prime minister has always considered any concession a major defeat. He doesn't believe that one can lose a battle and win a war. This creates a paradoxical situation in which although still in possession of considerable resources and firm popularity with a significant part of the voters Mr. Putin will see his popularity continue to drop because of this inflexibility.
Fifthly, the government might well use divide-and-rule tactics against the democratic opposition. It may well egg on the nationalist fringe movements (themselves very skeptical of Mr. Putin's government which they see as too lenient on Islam and immigration) and encourage them to try and wrestle the streets away from pro-democracy protesters. There are signs these methods are already being employed. When the leaders of December 10th gathering came to the town hall to ask for permission to stage a new rally on December 24th, they found out that all the Moscow squares proposed as venues were unavailable because the nationalists miraculously beat them to city hall and lodged their own requests. This could provoke the most dangerous of outcomes – confrontation between civilians that could easily spin out of the authorities’ control.
The only option the Kremlin does not seem to consider is introducing genuine change and answering the public's growing need for a more open, transparent and competitive political system. This all but ensures that what we have seen so far is just the beginning of a series of crises that will test the strength and credibility of Mr. Putin's “power vertical” over and over again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.