Russia: farewell to 'national unity'


Vladimir Putin may have won Sunday’s presidential election, but his new term is unlikely to be an easy one. Russia has changed: the middle classes surf the Internet, compare themselves not to their parents but to their contemporaries in the rest of Europe, and demand change. Meanwhile, writes Andrey Makarychev, the Kremlin is incapable for moving with the times.

Andrey Makarychev
5 March 2012

On March 4, 2012, Vladimir Putin was – still unofficially - declared the winner of Russia’s presidential election. Formally, the political future of Russia for the next six years is more or less settled. But this election result is a classic example of the difference between legality and legitimacy. Even with more than 60% of the vote, Putin’s presidency will significantly differ from the first two terms, since he is going to lead a radically different country with a much more demanding civil society, a wider range of political voices, and much stronger criticism of Putin’s much promoted idea of “national unity”, which masks the power ambitions of the ruling elite.    

'It was naïve to imagine that the first green shoots of democratic politics could topple the regime in a matter of months, but the growing politicization of Russian society will undoubtedly have long-term effects.' 

The key to the current changes in Russian society is its growing – and by many unexpected - politicization. It is this return of political momentum that will provide the strongest challenge to the Putin power model in the next few years. Of course, it was naïve to imagine that the first green shoots of democratic politics could topple the regime in a matter of months, but the growing politicization of Russian society will undoubtedly have long-term effects.   


The overwhelming presence of riot police and the army in central Moscow over 4-5 March has sent a clear signal to those who might wish to dispute the legality of the presidential elections. Photo: cc Ilya Varlamov (Zyalt.livejournal.com)

The public protests that started in Moscow in December 2011 surprised many analysts who believed in the unshakable stability of the regime created by Vladimir Putin and the inherent passivity of the Russian population. Recent events proved both assumptions wrong. Civil society does have a voice in Russia and wants it to be heard, and this forced the regime into making significant changes – obviously not as radical as the opposition demands, but nevertheless moving Russia towards greater pluralism and public participation in politics. This led both foreign and domestic observers to predict the gradual decline in Putin’s power. Russia, therefore, after a relatively stable and uneventful decade, has once again become an enigma.                             

Politics is back

The large-scale political demonstrations that erupted immediately after the Duma election on December 4, 2011 exposed the deep crisis in the current model of governance. In a matter of days it became clear that the stability and national unity promoted by Putin as the core justification for his reign was a mirage, and that the nation was deeply split along political lines, seriously calling into question the “social contract” between the Kremlin and society.

As a result of the high level of mistrust within society and dissatisfaction with Putin – Medvedev rule, the entire system of governance is increasingly dysfunctional. Although the immediate reason for protest was fraudulent vote counting, the problem with the regime goes much deeper, and concerns its structural ineffectiveness in delivering adequate living standards and providing social justice and security. It is these issues that triggered the fall in popularity of the former tandem and the public outcry against the governing elite.

The protests unleashed by the 4th December 2011 parliamentary election were the most important moment for the evolution of the Putin regime, which can be described as a depoliticized type of rule where the word ‘politics’ is mostly used either in a negative context, or to describe the evil intentions of unfriendly foreign states towards Russia. The core element of the Kremlin’s depoliticized discourse is the idea of Russia’s “normality”, which translates as its acceptance by the rest of the world without the need for significant commitments to domestic reform.

In particular, the idea of sovereign democracy was originally meant not so much to differentiate Russia from the West, but to portray Russia as part (although a distinctive one) of the modern European political tradition. Yet this appeal of the Kremlin to supposedly universal practice implies – perhaps paradoxically - the inevitable denial of Russia’s specificity: in Putin’s interpretation, there is nothing unusual in the Khodorkovsky affair, in police intervention against street protests, in strong presidential powers, etc. However, with the realization that this type of discourse wouldn’t work, the Russian elites “shifted their slogan from ‘sovereign democracy’ to ‘modernization’, (which – A.M.) exemplifies the post ideological character of the current regime”[1].

Public demands

The “street opposition” to the regime also began without a clear ideological message, but quite quickly – and inevitably – became explicitly political. Though the immediate reason for discontent was the ubiquitous electoral fraud that ultimately allowed “United Russia” to preserve its majority in the Duma, the opposition raised a whole raft of issues that reached far beyond the technicalities of that particular event, including demands for greater transparency, accountability, good governance, civil rights, etc. The breadth of these claims makes it clear that simply “reloading” the regime (finding a few scapegoats and making some cosmetic changes or minor concessions) will definitely not assuage the situation. The new political momentum in post-December Russia has created a clearly articulated public demand for a radical transformation of a whole system of political, social and economic relations which both pundits and ordinary people recognize as far from effective. This was already clear from the public debates on the concept of modernization in/of Russia, which Dmitry Medvedev deliberately and consistently tried to reduce to purely financial and economic issues, brushing aside the need to modernize Russian political institutions and the whole system of governance.

'The roots of this widespread public discontent go back to September 2011, when at the “United Russia” party convention Dmitry Medvedev not only refused to run for a second presidential term, but instead offered the job to Vladimir Putin in exchange for securing his own appointment as the next prime minister.'

Entrapped in a post-political / post-ideological way of thinking, both Putin and Medvedev put the rise of the anti-government movement in autumn 2011 down to the negative effects of economic crisis. By the same token, Kremlin supporters tried to play down the legitimacy of the protests by citing purely material factors (the growing numbers of car owners, the booming shopping opportunities, etc.). Yet these counter-reactions missed the mark, since purely economic explanations of the new movement for change in Russia, triggered by post-December events, are totally inadequate. The roots of this widespread public discontent go back to September 2011, when at the “United Russia” party convention Dmitry Medvedev not only refused to run for a second presidential term, but instead offered the job to Vladimir Putin in exchange for securing his own appointment as the next prime minister. This clumsy job swap revealed two important points. First, in spite of all Medvedev’s weaknesses as President and his reputation as Putin’s puppet, a significant part of Russian society still perceived him as a moderate alternative to Putin’s hard-line policy of state centralization and anti-Western rhetoric. Medvedev’s voluntary self-removal from the presidential race symbolized for many the end of their hopes for modernization and a more liberal political regime. Secondly, Russians turned out to be very sensitive to overt manipulation of electoral procedures, as exemplified by the clandestine agreements between Putin and Medvedev, as well as by the massive-scale vote fraud, widely covered on the internet and monitored by various social networks. It was around these issues that the political content of protests started crystallizing and maturing.

Of course, as with any unexpected and potentially far-reaching political developments, post-December events in Russia have fuelled excessive expectations and symbolic parallels with the ‘Arab spring’ and ‘colour revolutions’. These comparisons and their political meanings appear to have been exaggerated. The Putin – Medvedev regime has received a series of serious blows, yet it still has huge administrative potential and financial resources for survival.  It will, however, be forced to transform itself, getting rid of its more obsolete political and managerial practices and opening up new opportunities for political competition. In the course of just two weeks, after the scale of the resistance movement became clear, Medvedev urged the partial restoration of direct elections for regional governors (which Putin abolished in 2004 under the pretext of a risk of national disintegration), while Putin promised the legal registration of the opposition ‘Parnas’ party. In short, despite its much discussed lack of strong leadership and internal splits, the spontaneous (and networking in many senses) anti-Kremlin movement will definitely influence the development of the Russian political system in many ways.

New protesters, new politics

The lack of trust and the crisis in communication between the elites and the rest of Russia are likely to be crucial issues that will continue to trigger protests in the future. In contrast to the 1990s, this time the street protestors were not jobless workers struggling to feed their families; nowadays the discontent is most widespread among Russia´s nascent middle class, better educated and with a much wider world view and higher expectations and demands as to the quality of their governance. It is this group that are the largest users of the internet and social networking as their primary means of information exchange and social organisation. Against this background, the protest movement reflects a new form of civil activism, whose political protest is mostly post-material and law-abiding, a reaction against the arrogance of Kremlin rule, the lack of transparency, and the shrinking of public space. In fact, in origin it was an aesthetic  (although very susceptible to politicization) gesture - an attempt to deny the ridiculous and clumsy practices of old-style bureaucracy, incapable of advancing a convincing prospect for the future, that seemed to have meaning for those social groups that are the most critical of the Kremlin.

'The decay of the ruling elites is clear in the evident lack of authoritative speakers for the Kremlin willing and capable of defending it against political attack and articulating new arguments.'

The Kremlin discourse remains overwhelmingly retrospective, marked on the one hand by a triumphalist glorification of Russia´s military victories (especially in the Second World War) and on the other by a denigration and vilification of the pre-Putin decade of the 1990s as “the time of upheavals and disorder”. It is against this background that Putin has constructed his narrative of Russia, but what worked pretty smoothly in his first and second terms in office is no longer credible. On the one hand, the pro-Putin narrative of distancing his rule from the notorious practices of the 1990s has started crumbling, as evidenced by the startling comeback of Sergei Mavrodi (convicted for fraud as the founder of the infamous MMM “financial pyramid”) as a media celebrity, publicly promising to continue exactly as he did then. On the other hand, people in Russia have been increasingly eager to compare the situation today with neither the 1990s nor with bygone Soviet times, but rather with that of the most advanced countries of the world. This shift in perspective, influenced largely by globalization, has led to their questioning the legitimacy of the current regime.

Putin is out of his depth

'There is increasing evidence of Putin’s inability to handle the growing range of public discourse and respond to it adequately' 

In this situation, the Kremlin seems to be losing out, both politically and intellectually, to those whom it has tried to marginalize (such as the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or popular blogger Alexei Navalny whose description of the “United Russia” as a “party of crooks and swindlers” is deeply imprinted in the public discourse in Russia). The decay of the ruling elites is clear in the evident lack of authoritative speakers for the Kremlin willing and capable of defending it against political attack and articulating new arguments. There is increasing evidence of Putin’s inability to handle the growing range of public discourse and respond to it adequately: according to revealing first-hand accounts by by two Brookings scholars, in the November 2011 Valdai Forum Putin often “repeated himself”, was “mechanical”, and some of his statements were confusing and misplaced[2]. He refused, as he has before, to participate in presidential debates. On some occasions he even started to lose the ability to argue with opinions starkly different from his own, as at the meeting with military experts in Sarov at the end of February 2012, where Putin failed to challenge a statement claiming that U.S. anti-missile projects in Central Europe didn’t threaten Russian security. Many of Putin’s public pronouncements and appearances bring him public mockery (such as his driving a yellow “Lada-Kalina” car, which resembled a badly staged business PR stunt, or diving into the sea and miraculously resurfacing with two ancient amphorae which, as his press secretary admitted afterwards, had been secretly placed there for him by archaeologists) – a complete turnaround from the early and mid-2000s, when he enjoyed overwhelming popularity and respect.

The Putin discourse is nowadays in disarray and lacking in substance (regardless of whether the new President understands this or not). A new pro-Putin TV documentary series shown on Russian TV at the beginning of 2012 was called ‘In the First Person’, a title identical to that of a PR book about his 2000 campaign. The multiple commercial TV talk-shows portraying the degree of moral degradation and depth of corruption in today’s Russia are in sharp contrast to the artificial optimism of the political elite. Attempts to explain away massive electoral fraud as mere technical irregularities are largely unconvincing. 

Under these circumstances, the whole administrative system is increasingly going to experience political overloads for which it is ill-prepared. It is hard to predict the tempo and pace of the evolution (or degradation) of the Putin 3.0 regime. Yet at least two things are absolutely clear. First, the spontaneous civil protests from December to March did much more for Russia’s “normalization”, i.e. its transformation into a nation compatible with European norms, than both Putin and Medvedev did in 12 years. And second, the further development of Russia will be defined by the dynamics of the democratic politics of resistance, which, as Jacques Ranciere puts it, is a “dissensus from the police order”[3]. The politics of democracy needs some time to create its own space(s) of a “community of equals”, but it is Russia’s only hope of ultimate success.        


[1] Ivan Krastev. Paradoxes of the New Authoritarianism, Journal of Democracy, April 2011, Vol.22, N 2. P.8.

2 Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. Putin’s Next Move in Russia: Observations from the 8th Annual Valdai International Discussion Club, available at http://valdaiclub.com/politics/36021.html

[3] Todd May. The Political Thought of Jacques Ranciere. Creating Equality. Edinburgh University Press, 2008. P.176.


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