The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Divided Russia
Published on February 6, 2012

In Moscow this Saturday thousands of people marched against fraudulent elections and the Putin regime’s general abuse of power. This was the third such mass protest since the December 4 parliamentary elections, in which Vladimir Putin’s previously dominant United Russia party failed to get more than 50 percent of the vote despite widespread fraud in its favor.  Clearly, the anti-Putin movement, comprised primarily of members of the urban middle class, is here to stay.

There is a great deal to cheer about seeing Russians protest their leaders’ heavy-handedness and corruption, and indeed American commentators have been among the biggest cheerleaders. Thomas Friedman, for instance, characterized the movement as a northern migration of the Arab Spring, while the Washington Post suggested that it was a New Perestroika, and that the only thing standing between Russia and democracy is Putin’s stubborn hold on power.

But if the situation in Russia merits two cheers for popular protests, we should be more cautious about giving it a third. There was nothing tidy and unequivocal about the two historical analogies Tom Friedman and the Washington Post invoked. As the Arab Spring and the original Perestroika showed us, democratization does not necessarily follow from reformers toppling dictators. In fact, when a country lacks democratic institutions, such revolution can easily lead to violence, or even right back to the authoritarianism it sought to displace. Russia’s middle-class protest movement is especially prone to these dangers for a number of reasons rooted in recent history.

Vladimir Putin’s justification for continued rule in Russia hinges heavily on the specter of a return to the 1990s. As he wrote in a recent article outlining his plans for a third term, Russia back then was facing two potential catastrophes: “bankruptcy and breakup”. By contrast, “the picture of Russia today—seen through the prism of the 1990s—would seem overoptimistic and even unbelievable.” Putin’s implication is clear: I got you here, and without me it’s back to the bad old days for you. As Putin’s falling poll numbers and the popular protests in Russia clearly show, this argument increasingly strikes Russians as a cynical ploy. But in fact, there is something worth paying attention to in the Prime Minister’s warnings. Russia may well be on the precipice of a return to the fractious, zero-sum politics of the 1990s and an accompanying resurgence of violent instability.

For those who see Putin as having “rolled back” democracy in Russia, a return to Yeltsin-era politics may seem desirable: Russia getting back on track after a reactionary interlude. But the rollback metaphor always missed the mark, for the simple reason that there was no actual democracy to roll back when Putin came into office. As Russia watchers from the 1990s should know, Yeltsin never developed democratic institutions, and it is debatable that he even tried very hard to do so. Russia in the 1990s may have had a freer media and a more boisterous political scene, but it also had a political system that functioned on the basis of presidential fiat, ad hoc decisions and back-room deals between elites. Yeltsin resolved his constitutional crisis in 1993 by shelling parliament and then hurrying a constitution he drafted on his own through a less-than-clean referendum. He got himself re-elected in 1996 by giving state assets away to a group of millionaires in exchange for their backing and then falsifying the election. He solved the problem of regions seeking autonomy from the federal center through a series of personally brokered deals with governors. Yeltsin may have had good reason for governing this way, but the government Putin found in place when he arrived was one that operated by the seat of its pants to quell various challenges to its power. By the end of Yeltsin’s term, Russia arguably had no real institutions governing politics—democratic or otherwise.

So why should we expect today’s Russia, whose institutions of democracy, rule of law and federalism are at least as weak as they were in 2000, to react differently to the challenges posed by competing economic demands and ethnic tensions? Over the past decade and more, Putin has only succeeded in papering over the various divisions in Russian society, divisions which now appear to be bubbling up to the surface.

The first major division is one of class. An urban middle class has finally emerged as a political force, and while it is unclear how serious of an opposition movement it will produce, it will almost certainly continue to make demands of government. The regime will find these demands hard to meet, not only because doing so would reduce its own power but also because those demands may run counter to the interests of other social and political groups.

The most obvious source of tension is the middle class’s resentment of political elites who use their government connections to further enrich and empower themselves. The past few years have seen a steady flow of news stories about people tied to Putin (and possibly Putin himself) profiting mightily from their control of energy exports and other industries. The public might not mind this cronyism all that much if the corruption were not hitting them so hard in the wallet: According to Moscow’s INDEM institute, the average amount of a bribe in Russia grew from about $60 in 2001 to $175 in 2010, an increase that has priced many people out of basic government services. Enflaming this basic complaint is the internet, which has allowed citizens to publicize abuses of power by, for example, uploading videos of traffic police taking bribes or officials using their status to dangerously flout traffic laws. December’s fraudulent parliamentary elections merely served up an example of corruption on a mass scale that everyone could see and rally against.

Fanning the flames of this anti-corruption sentiment has been the activist Alexei Navalny, who has shown a rare skill for developing memes that crystallize amorphous popular resentments and has probably done more than anyone to galvanize the protests. His tag for United Russia, “The Party of Swindlers and Thieves”, caught on last year and became the opposition’s favorite taunt for Putin’s team.

But class resentment in Russia today doesn’t just flow upward. Another potential source of social conflict is the divide between the urban middle class and the majority of Russians, who tend to be poorer and more reliant on the federal budget for their livelihood. While the middle class seeks to roll back to power of the state, the poorer majority looks to the state to subsidize the industries it works in and to provide it basic services. The emergence of an urban middle class as a distinct political force is an unprecedented event in Russia, so it is difficult to predict its effects. One thing is clear, however: The interests of this class will not always line up with those of other parts of society.

Russia’s most serious division, though, is still the one between the North Caucasus and the rest of the country, Despite 12 years of war and billions of rubles spent to develop Chechnya and the regions around it, a deadly insurgency continues there. The middle-class protests have the potential to make this division much harder for Moscow to manage. Indeed, one of Navalny’s campaigns, called “Enough Feeding the Caucasus”, is aimed at stopping the flow of funds to this region, where, he argues, local leaders just pocket the money. There is more than a tinge of ethnic resentment to Navalny’s anti-Caucasus crusading. Why, he asks, are Russians paying to support places where they are the victims of discrimination and violence and the laws of Russia are systematically disobeyed?

What “Enough Feeding the Caucasus” really reflects is a weariness with Putin’s project to keep that part of the country within the Russian Federation. According to a 2010 poll by the respected Levada Center, only 31 percent of Russians think that troops should have been sent into Chechnya in 1999. Or consider evidence collected from another excellent barometer of the popular mood: sports. Soccer fans in Moscow have taken to booing one of Russia’s best players, Yuri Zhirkov, over his move from FC Chelsea in England to a Russian league team (Anzhi) in the restive northern Caucasus republic of Dagestan. Shirkov never suffered such abuse from Russian fans while playing in the UK, but apparently his decision to go the Caucasus, rather than to what they see as Russia proper, was too much for them.

Russians’ dim view of the North Caucasus and of Putin’s efforts to keep it within the Russian Federation raise some troubling questions: Should secession movements in the Caucasus regain momentum, will there be the political will in Russia for a new civil war? How long can Russia hold on to territory whose inhabitants the rest of the country resent and have no interest in supporting financially? No one wants to see the brutal Chechen war played out for a third time, but Russia losing control of its periphery would surely have frightening consequences for the whole world. 

While there are no signs at present that a breakup of Russia is around the corner, the situation remains tense. If Putin’s regime were to grow weaker as popular resentment toward his North-Caucasus project grew, serious violence and destabilization could follow. Civil war in the North Caucasus, not to mention other serious social conflicts, would likely push politics back to a traditional model of Russian authoritarianism—possibly one far more oppressive than Putin’s. This, at any rate, was the pattern that the country followed in the wake of the Soviet collapse, when the weakening of the central state was accompanied by social strife, leading in turn to a more autocratic and centralized form of rule.

None of this is to say that Russian politics is immutable or condemned to swing eternally between dangerous chaos and stifling authoritarianism. This pattern is not inevitable now, nor was it inevitable in the 1990s. Other countries with serious internal divisions have built stable democratic orders (although heterogeneity does present serious challenges, and Russia’s heterogeneity is especially acute). Had Yeltsin and other Russian elites succeeded in establishing institutions of checks and balances and a legal framework for center-region relations, they may have at least set Russia on a path to building a system to regulate conflicts of ideology, class, geography and ethnicity. A reversion to authoritarianism may then have held less appeal in 2000.

But this was not how things played out, and Putin’s response was to concentrate power in the federal executive branch while greatly limiting the opportunities for political opposition. This project, combined with the spike in energy prices, has allowed for a period of relative prosperity, social cohesion and political unanimity.

This cohesion and unanimity now appear to be fraying. In the sense of empowering the federal bureaucracy and the security services, Putin has strengthened the state; in the sense of developing a set of institutions that, over the long term, can regulate conflicts, Putin has at best left Russia where it was when he took office in 2000.

This is why those in Russia who are seeking to democratize the country, and those abroad who want to see them succeed, should resist the temptation to focus on the short-term excitement of the possibility of a new group of leaders being swept into power. Colored revolutions may be inspiring, but in many ways they are just an expression and continuation of political systems that lack institutions capable of properly regulating conflict.

Raymond Sontag received his doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford in 2011. He previously served as the program officer for the National Democratic Institute's political party program in Moscow.