Russia: is change really inevitable?

Very many people inside (and outside) Russia would like to see a change in the current way the country is governed. The protest movements that were formed after the recent elections made this appear a real possibility, but that was then. What now? Vladimir Zvonovsky considers four scenarios.

Vladimir Zvonovsky
18 April 2012

The general consensus of opinion seems to be that Russia is in need of fundamental change: not only political, but also in terms of structural change to the national economy and reforms to the judiciary, education and healthcare. Everyone today acknowledges admits that change is inevitable, from the customary grumbling man in the street, through the expert community, to the authorities themselves. 

In election mode, Putin was himself keen to talk about reforms in virtually every sphere of public life. It is, however, highly unlikely that the group in power will itself carry out the reforms, as it derives its prosperity from this very economic system: as long as the system ensures them the desired level of income, they see no urgent economic need to change their sources of income. Why invest your own money in risky projects if you can use state money, with a bigger and more reliable profit margin? And why create new areas of the economy, thereby creating competition both in the economic and political sense of the word?  

Scenarios for change: 1 and 2

Since the regime itself is not capable of modernisation, let us consider other potential sources of change. There are only four. We won't consider the first (external) source, although the demotivator showing a flying saucer hovering above the Kremlin with the caption 'this is the most likely scenario of regime change in Russia'  has become quite popular in some quarters.

The second source  - regime change brought about by mass protests, mass rebellion and revolution - was eliminated at the height of street protests in late 2011 and early 2012. This was done in two ways. First, a series of parodic pro-government rallies succeeded in getting the passive majority to regard the two opposing kinds of street events as similar events.  Secondly, supporters of the ruling regime managing to convince the demonstrators themselves that violent action was dangerous and unnecessary. The message from those trying to stop the mass protests was that once rebellion in Russia is unleashed it will get out of control. 

The majority of protesters are wary of such a message; others who shared the protest sentiment, but stayed at home, are scared by it. The authorities themselves have exploited such anxieties, using media channels to remind the public of this danger and stressing the potentially destructive impact of violent mass protests. This has been a key part of recent state propaganda.

Data compiled by FOM (The Public Opinion Foundation), an independent social research group, demonstrate that since the protests started, the number of people intending to take part in them has steadily declined. 

Figure 1, for example, shows that in December 2011 44% of the Russian population were aware of the rising mood of protest in their everyday lives, but this rise proved to be insignificant and temporary, dropping to 38% by the end of January 2012. However, it was indicative of the protest mood as reflected in channels of mass communication, primarily the mass media. The overall protest mood itself remained steady until December 2011 (figure 2). After the first mass protests took place in Moscow, personal willingness to participate in protest actions declined slowly but steadily: from 39% in November to 28% by mid-February 2012.  Although willlingness to participate in protests increased somewhat with the approaching date of the presidential election on 4 March, it never climbed back to the nearly 40% that it had stayed at throughout most of 2011. This suggests that willingness to participate in mass protests among Russia's population started to decline just as these actions were beginning to unfold in a manner that might actually have resulted in regime change.  


Figure 1: have you noticed public dissatisfaction and a willingness to participate in street protests over the past month? Source: FOM / 1500 respondents


Figure 2: Are you personally dissatisfied and  prepared to participate in street protests? Source: FOM / 1500 respondents

It is worth pointing out that the Russian opposition does not have at its disposal sufficient human resources to replace even the top layer of the current state bureaucracy. Velvet revolutions in East European countries were carried out by an opposition that was sufficiently numerous to replace the leadership of key state institutions. The Russian opposition cannot, and is unlikely to, boast such numbers in the near future, even in terms of replacing the leadership of key federal law enforcement agencies, let alone of Russia's problematic regions, such as the Caucasus provinces or the Russian Far East. Given the lack of substantial human resources, there could be another option for a rapid change of power, i.e. a revolution. This might be something analogous to the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution, which brought to power predominantly highly unqualified people. 

Scenarios for change: 3 and 4

A third scenario would involve a gradual widening of day-to-day control of power, which was an important demand of participants of the winter protests. However, this scenario has been rejected by the majority of the electorate, which is inclined to support the power of a single person, unified and undivided, even if in presentation only. It is quite possible that later on, perhaps even in the foreseeable future, a strengthening of civic society structures will gradually start dislodging state institutions from the day-to-day administration of more or less local processes e.g. the management of blocks of flats in cities, small villages etc. However, the majority of the electorate are so far unwilling to exchange their trust in a unified (vertical) power for personal participation in day-to-day administration.

A fourth scenario for a change of power is a split within the élite, resulting in a transfer of power from one group of the state bureaucracy to another, as more or less happened in the 1980s and 1990s. This scenario would require the internal opposition within the élite to crystallize around a leader who is either a current élite insider or someone who has belonged to it until recently. This person has to be accepted, first, by the state bureacracy itself, more precisely by the change-oriented section of the state bureacracy; second, by the community of experts;  and third, by the electorate. Fourth, this person has to be accepted by Western politicians, the omnipresent 'Washington party committee'. In fact, this is the most likely way in which change in present-day Russia will occur. No other way is possible.

Indications are that no such split occurred before the 2012 presidential election, which helped Putin's group to hold on to power. An internal split within the élite could happen at any time. It would be heralded by attacks against seemingly very specific individuals belonging to the ruling group, such as Rashid Nurgaliyev [Minister for Internal Affairs] or Patriarch Kirill, as well as against unspecified persons who also belong to the ruling group, as seemed to be the case with the new battle against homosexuals. It is also worth recalling that the attacks on homosexuals within the Nazi Party a year after Hitler came to power were directed against very specific individuals who were subsequently eliminated and succeeded by others.

What makes 2012 different

A transfer of power from one group of state bureaucrats to another would now take place under conditions very different from those of twenty years ago. First, there is no direct and immediate threat of an economic disaster of a kind that might bring famine to the cities, a scenario for which [economist and former Prime Minister Yegor] Gaidar made a more or less convincing case [see: The Collapse of an Empire. Lessons for Contemporary Russia].

Second, the emerging civil society is willing to exercise control over the ruling regime at least to a minimal degree, and will therefore limit its power. The second round of mayoral elections in Tolyatti and Yaroslavl demonstrated that opposition forces have resources which can be sufficiently concentrated in a small city or a region, given a favourable balance of power within that locality. [On 18 March 2012 and on 2 April 2012 respectively the second round of mayoral elections was held in the cities of Tolyatti and Yaroslavl (the first round was held on 4 March). United Russia candidates lost to independent candidates. These events, particularly in Yaroslavl, attracted the attention of the public and international media.]  Sooner or later these kinds of elections will begin to undermine the unity within the élite, helping to build opposition against it.

Generally speaking, an orderly replacement of the ruling power group through honest, fair and transparent elections constitutes the main threat to the current regime. The lack of such succession will block the development of, and changes within, Russian society, and the opposition will be compelled to focus ever more attention and effort on this weakening link in the current regime's chain. 

A transfer of power from one group of state officials to another certainly does not mean that other social groups and the country as a whole will not be affected by change. It is precisely the results of a split within an élite that often bring about changes that are both rapid and irreversible. We have our homegrown perestroika. We may also recall the Chinese reforms that got under way ten years earlier, accompanied by a fierce internal struggle between the groups around the fast rising Deng Xiaoping, and the country's then leader, Hua Guofeng on the one hand, and the Gang of Four led by Mao Zedong's widow on the other. The Chinese élite managed to keep the passion of this struggle under wraps without allowing its fate to be decided by the nation. That is, avoiding election. On the other hand, the Chinese élite discovered within its own ranks resources for gradual development - the country's and its own. Regular succession of the country's top officials became one of the key elements of this development. The Russian élite went in the opposite direction, choosing to keep the ruling group in power by means of the electoral process. 

In this way, regardless of how long the current regime is able to hold on to power, it has proved that it is incapable of changing and of responding to the challenges of the time, and as a result it will have to yield power.  Meanwhile, at least in the short run, Russia's society and its political life will develop through individual elements of the ruling group competing for the mass electorate rather than creating social interest groups and political actors representing these groups. 

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