20 years under Putin: a timeline

Popular Russian proverb "Every cloud has a silver lining" has a profound meaning. It reminds us that the plainer the evil, the easier it is to mark it out as a target. This past year of Putin's presidency once again confirms the truth of the proverb. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek reviews Vladimir Putin's first steps since his return to the Kremlin.



The ambiguity of Medvedev's rule produced false hopes and expectations. A considerable part of Russia's political class, charmed by the substitute president's moderate liberal rhetoric, started harboring hopes for yet another liberalization from above and political reforms capable of stopping the country’s trajectory toward an authoritarian abyss. Many intelligent people froze, waiting for this not-so-bloodthirsty president to produce a miracle with a wave of a magic wand. Since he said that "freedom is better than non-freedom," they assumed, we will move toward freedom. Relentlessly seeking something that would drop from the clouds on its own seemed pointless in this serene state of anticipation. Fostering such an atmosphere proved to be a safe way to appease a gullible society. If you want a child to stop crying, promise him a candy.

However, when the promised candy was returned to the pocket, it produced outrage. The Medvedev-Putin job swap, announced in September 2011, shocked society and especially those who had pinned all their hopes for the regime's humanization on Dmitry Medvedev. Frankly speaking, the outcome could not have been different; only human nature was to blame for the public’s error in mistaking the wish for the reality and for harboring illusions with regard to Medvedev. In September 2011, these illusions were dispelled and replaced by the appearance of the protest movement. It asserted itself even before the freedom enthusiast was replaced in the Kremlin by the fan of "wasting [terrorists] in the shithouse."

Today, the situation in Russia is much clearer than it was two years ago. It is not better, but it is definitely clearer. There is no more spinelessness, no more democracy games, no more candies for the offended society. Putin's motto is "No carrot—only stick!" It took Putin one year of his second presidency to clearly define his priorities, which include as aggressive an approach toward society as possible, the restriction of rights and liberties to the limit, targeted political repressions, and, generally speaking, a return to Stalin's methods of state government. He is following this road confidently, but not too fast, since he has encountered public opposition. No matter how shapeless and inefficient today's opposition is, it is still capable of curbing the regime's absolutist ambitions and mobilizing civic protest.

Putin's progression toward autonomous rule, uncontrolled by anyone, is far from a triumphant march. He faces many obstacles, which he concludes are the result of his enemies' machinations, directed against the country and him personally. It seems that he genuinely believes himself to be the only one who is capable of solving all problems and important state questions. He is obsessed by the idea of his uniqueness, which will eventually turn into a delusion of grandeur. Everyone realizes the inefficiency of the absolutist model of government in the twenty-first century, probably including Putin, but his contempt for society and distrust for its capabilities leave him no choice. Generally speaking, this is a rather primitive pattern of a dictator's moral reasoning.

It is, however, important not to repeat old mistakes, one of which is the personalization of evil. The idea that all evil of the current regime comes from Putin is both naive and counterproductive.

It is easy to guess how the situation in Russia will develop if the opposition remains at the same level. The tendency to control everything from one center will result in the regime's hypercentralization, which will demand the creation of an effective multibranch mechanism of control and repression. There should not be any difficulties with creating such a thing; the legislative and law enforcement bodies have already gotten down to business. There is no stopping on this road. The logic of the repressive regime is simple and obvious: either the regime keeps tightening the screws to prevent public protest or society responds by fighting to regain a living space and thus deprives the government of the possibility of carrying out such policies. These processes can differ in length and will probably continue for a long time, but there is no question of truce here. Either the government will bring society under control, or it will be the other way around.

We are now witnessing the regime’s systematic attack on society. Some people call it an era of reaction. I would describe the situation as a sad time when society gives up established bounds and the political opposition is incapable of taking decisive action in order to consolidate the civic protest movement. One can drop back a long way on this road, but the longer this retrograde movement lasts, the harder it will be to return to once-established bounds.

How does one bring society out of torpor in order to encourage it to defend itself? Nobody can offer a universal recipe to use in such cases, because such a recipe simply does not exist. Many things are determined through trial and error. It is, however, important not to repeat old mistakes, one of which is the personalization of evil. The idea that all evil of the current regime comes from Putin is both naive and counterproductive. For the moment, Putin is a visible embodiment of this system and its key element. However, the conviction that the regime will collapse with Putin's departure does not stand up to criticism. Even the death of Stalin, who had accumulated in his hands a much more considerable power than that of Putin, did not destroy the system but only diminished its atrocities and made it more resilient.

Putin is the clan's appointee who represents the idea of the triumph of the regime over society. He will continue playing this role until the clan's interests or the evolving logic of the repressive system demand from him something that he won't be able to provide. Bloodshed or the shooting of peaceful demonstrators viewed as a threat to the regime's stability might prove to be a barrier in Putin's career. Or perhaps the inefficiency of Putin's maneuvering between different political forces might play the same role, or his inability to keep regions under strict federal control, or some tremendous blunder, or anything else that the regime might need and Putin, for some reason or other, might fail to provide. In this case, he will likely be replaced by an even tougher manager, who won't hesitate to give an order to shoot peaceful demonstrators or conduct a campaign of mass repressions or a large-scale military campaign against neighboring states. It is, however, possible that Putin will meet all the new requirements and thus remain at the top of the government. After all, for the last 200 years, Russia has not had a single supreme leader who did not use arms against either his own peaceful compatriots or contiguous states.

With the country's current developmental tendencies, the government is likely to change political leaders by advancing low-quality politicians in order to speed up Russia's progression toward total authoritarianism. That is why it is important—for the opposition, for society, and for the whole country—to remove Putin from below, before the elite replaces him with an even bigger "bully."