Putin’s charm offensive: will he moderate his course?

The first indications as to how the Russian regime might react to the country's unexpected protest movement came this Thursday, when Putin took questions during a live TV broadcast. While there was plenty of the old belligerence on show, a new approach to the country’s intellectual elite suggests that Putin has yet to make up its mind.

The numerous protests that followed blatant vote rigging have shown quite clearly how Russian society reacts to being deceived. What hasn’t, however, been obvious is how the authorities would react to such large-scale protests. Would they want to take into consideration the political message of these protests? Or would they pretend that there was no fraud and that the electoral results for ruling party were accurate?

Many representatives of the Russian intellectual elite take a view that the Kremlin has no choice but to react to these events. The more sceptical would say that Vladimir Putin is too utterly self-confident to change his course. It is difficult to judge the relative merits of either position, since Putin has in fact never had to deal with such significant social-political problems in all his time in power.

The first sign of how the authorities might act came on Thursday, when Putin took questions from citizens in the course of a marathon multi-hour live TV broadcast. This format was not new to Putin, but this time round Putin had to depart from the script and show a reaction to recent events. Judging by Putin’s behaviour during the broadcast, it would appear that the authorities have yet to make up their mind about which path to take for the country’s future development. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the new course will be an eclectic set of positions, combining approaches: from the old guard, who are still insisting on towing the hard line, to the liberals, who are in favour of moderating the government’s most harsh policies.

One clear sign of change was the appearance of a large number of representatives of the liberal ‘intelligentsia’ elite in the television studio: figures that Putin, it would seem, deems to be fairly influential. These figures were given the opportunity to ask rather pointed questions. Yet the discussion was extremely cordial – indeed, it even included elements of servility. Some of them, when asking their questions, reminded the audience that Putin had indeed done a great deal for the development of the country. You had the impression that the Russian leader was trying to boost his image with the prestige of such influential figures, to demonstrate to the entire nation how highly the intellectuals rate him. 

Before recent developments, Putin’s policy was completely different. Having the option of using TV to brainwash a wide swath of the population; he pointedly ignored the opinion of the intelligentsia. Putin believed his personal authority to be so significant, that he didn’t need any mediators in communicating with the nation. In the short term, this seemed to be a reasonable strategy, since the intellectuals had for a long time been critical of the government’s course (from around the time of Khodorkovsky’s first trial onwards). Consequently, reaching out to the intelligentsia for Putin meant going to a certain compromise, which he didn’t want to do. Direct communication with the people was a much easier thing for him to do, and while oil revenues continued to rise, he was able to regularly increase wages and pensions. The average guy in the street wanted little else.

Today, it seems, Putin wants to receive the support of the elite. Recently, indeed, he even appointed the famous documentary film director Stanislav Govorukhin as head of his presidential election headquarters. In terms of organisation, this elderly man is of course absolutely useless, but the public love a number of his most famous films, and presumably, he hopes the prestige of Govorukhin will prop the waning authority of his regime. 

You would think that, following on from the above, Putin would also be looking to build new bonds of respect with intellectuals in society at large. Not so, it would seem. During the broadcast, Putin quite rudely insulted the many thousands of people who have begun to wear small white ribbons on their clothing or handbags as a symbol of protest against rigged elections. The Russian leader essentially compared the symbol to condoms, saying that it looked like the people were promoting safe sex. In the West, perhaps, such a comparison would not have appeared to be so insulting. For Russians, connecting the fight for freedom with safe sex was a coarse insult, and Putin clearly understood this.

Most likely, the Russian leader believes his position remains strong, that his support from the lower strata of society and the provinces will stay sufficiently high, and that together with the falsification of ballots, all this will guarantee him victory in the presidential elections in March. For this reason, Putin is trying to separate the “good” part of society, represented by the authoritative cultural figures he had in the studio, from the “bad” part, which, he maintains, is hopelessly under American influence. Putin is ready to openly mock this latter part of society, and is not interested in any compromise with them.

Putin seems set to continue with this line for some while yet. Were his ratings to continue falling, however, he could be forced to take a different tack.

Kudrin and Prokhorov

In such a light, it is worthwhile to consider the recent political announcements of figures such as former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Kudrin said that he stands ready to assist in the creation of a new party, most probably to fill a void in the free market right-liberal spectrum of Russian politics. Prokhorov — who not so long ago to tried to form such a party, but was frustrated by the Kremlin — meanwhile announced the he intends to run for president. 

It is likely that both Kudrin and Prokhorov are counting on some kind of liberalisation in the regime, after which, they believe, people like they will once again be in demand.

For the time being, such a liberalisation is not on the cards. But what might be useful to Putin are new faces to balance the strong influence of old cadres such as the strategist Vladislav Surkov, who was just appointed head of the Presidential Administration, and Sergei Mironov, leader of the ‘Just Russia’ party, who enjoyed a sharp upturn in fortunes in the recent elections.

As a result of Surkov’s manipulations — with which Putin was undoubtedly in agreement — only left-populist parties were allowed to run against United Russia in the Duma elections. The official opposition consisting of Communists, ‘Just Russia’ and the Russian ‘Liberal Democratic’ Party (party of the country’s leading populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky), thus offered absolutely identical critiques of the government. They promised the people numerous new social benefits – and this at the beginning of a new European recession that looks set to impact oil prices and, correspondingly, Russia’s budget revenues. Even United Russia recently began to move towards leftist populism.

A left populist-skewed parliament is an extremely dangerous position for Putin as president, who will have to manage a badly functioning Russian economy in the coming years. By offering a new right-liberal direction in Russian politics, which would offer the future president Putin support in carrying out serious economic reforms, and would warn against unrestrained populism (which has recently curried favour among Russian voters), Kudrin and Prokhorov could be doing Putin a favour. 

On first glance, the kind of offer that Kudrin and Prokhorov could propose looks extremely attractive. Kudrin is an old and fairly close friend of Putin. He is someone who has never let his boss down. He is known for his honesty in personal relationships. Putin, as a former KGB agent (which meant, in his words, “the ability to communicate with people”), values such qualities. He offered very warm words in Kudrin’s direction during the TV broadcast, and in a way he had not done earlier.

In the new political set-up, Kudrin might be seen as a kind of guarantor that new political forces would not start operating against Putin, and instead will look to help him implement liberalisation and reform. Prokhorov meanwhile is someone with a great deal of money. He is someone who can fund the right-liberal plan entirely with his own money. If before the Kremlin had to find money for diverse and costly manipulative schemes instigated by Vladislav Surkov, now all they have to do is not get in the way.

Clearly, Prokhorov won’t win the presidential elections. But were he to have a reasonably successfully campaign, he would be able to demonstrate that a sizeable proportion of the electorate is with him. In this event, Putin could then allow him to form a real right-liberal party under the watchful eye of Kudrin.

It seems that no one is really in a position to offer Putin an optimal scheme of transforming the political regime into something more moderate. At the same time, there is no certainty that the Kremlin wants to move away from a hard-line approach. We can’t be sure that Vladislav Surkov will not continue to decide every parameter of political activity, not least in light of his recent promotion. If, after Putin’s inauguration, Surkov stays on as the Kremlin’s chief administrator, Prokhorov will clearly be unable to act freely. Which means that Kudrin, as a political mediator between Putin and the right-liberal sector of Russian society, will also be redundant.

 

Photo: Yury Goldenshteyn/Demotix. All rights reserved.

About the author

Dmitri Travin is Research Director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Centre of Modernization Studies