20 years under Putin: a timeline

The criminal nature of Putin’s government and his circle is obvious to many. Today, Putin openly demonstrates the direction in which the regime is moving—to further tightening of the screws. However, as author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek points out, opposition still retains a good chance to maintain a dignified resistance.


Photo: Reuters


Today, it is hardly necessary to argue the criminal nature of Putin’s government and his circle. It is obvious. Its starkest proof lies in the illegitimacy of legislative and executive authorities established through falsified elections. Election rigging, let me remind you, is a criminal offence. Furthermore, it is confirmed by an unconstitutional redistribution of power, in which the president usurped the power of the government and its agencies. Finally, a series of corruption scandals involving deputies and officials of the highest rank demonstrates the criminal character of the current government.

Today, Vladimir Putin might say to the opposition: “You need a great upheaval, and we need a great kormushka (fief-office)!” As a part of his strategic goal, the president and his government, of course, must solve many other associated problems: economic, political, international, social, cultural, educational, problems involving law enforcement, and others. They understand that these tasks are inevitable sacrifices in exchange for being permitted to remain in power unconditionally. As a result, they spread their influence upon those areas where the stability of their power hinges most, while others remain on the periphery of their attention.

The present regime’s notion of stability is based not on guarantees of public support and public consensus on key issues of state structure, but on balancing opposite political forces, which are capable of influencing the authorities. Generally speaking, it’s a very sloppy structure, and stability achieved in such a way is of extremely low quality. Such a system needs to be regulated manually and continuously. In fact, Russia’s president and authorities are engaged in this regulation today. Genuine state stability is based on public consent, which is verified through the people’s will, but democracy and a functioning electoral system are needed for this.

Today’s Russia is not like that.

Manual control is a tedious and inefficient business in contrast to an automated control system. One operator wields the manual control, and he cannot be replaced without the risk that the new operator will fail and the system will spiral out of control. This explains why the term of a manual operator’s work tends to infinity.

Meanwhile, the operator’s prospects—president or dictator—are limited by the nature of the business. Because of this, ideas of collective leadership, public support, or moderate government emerge from time to time. Of course, these do not work, because the issue must be solved at the fundamental level: either let go of the reins or drive even harder. If he drives harder, rigidity is added to the system. And Putin adds it. He’s been doing this for the past year, he is largely successful at it, and, it seems, he is not going to stop.

His strategy is clear. It is not dictated by any special bloodlust, but by an instinct of self-preservation, by his desire to save the regime of personal power that guarantees him his own well-being and his immunity from prosecution. It is also clear that he will seek a path that minimizes risks to his power, including from the opposing political forces he balances. Indeed, there are many of these forces, and they are various. But to apportion them very roughly: on the one hand, there are security forces and nationalists in statesmen’s clothing, demanding a toughening of the regime, and on the other, there is the liberal opposition, standing against all of them and demanding freedom.

It is clear that Putin intends to make all political forces manageable and therefore totally harmless for him. At the same time, he is not a dogmatist—he understands political influence as something that has a direct impact on the political system, which includes civic organizations. This explains the authorities' actions regarding NGOs that receive foreign funding. In stable democracies, NGOs don't influence the political system through their work in the public sphere. They don't need to. There are plenty of political parties to do that.

Putin’s strategy is not dictated by any special bloodlust, but by his desire to save the regime of personal power that guarantees him his own well-being and his immunity from prosecution.

In Russia, civic organizations, whether they want to or not, become political actors for one simple reason: the authorities have imposed control over all public activities and even private lives, which they view as a subject of political government.

The authorities determine:

  • what kind of literature we can read and what kind of literature is considered extremist;
  • what confessions are traditional and what confessions need to be limited;
  • in which cases people are allowed to protest and in which cases they are not;
  • what people can be invited to speak on television and what people should be banned;
  • what kind of sexual relationships can be considered traditional and patriotic and what kind of sex should not even be mentioned;
  • what words can be used to scold in the media and what words cannot be used;

and so on. There are already too many prohibitions in public and private life.

All of this has become a part of the political sphere. These are clear symptoms of totalitarianism, in which the authorities control all public initiatives and, if possible, citizens’ private lives. Today, the authorities have already shown us the direction of their movement, and one doesn't need an exceptional imagination to see the final destination.

It's already hard to change such a direction, and the further along it we move, the harder this task will be. Today, only a public that engages the political opposition as a tool of reform is capable of such a change. In fact, a substantial part of the public has to join the opposition in order to achieve any noticeable success. This is not an easy task, and under the conditions of the emerging tyranny and its repressions against civil society, it's twice as hard. However, there is no other way—this tumor will not disappear on its own!



The authorities are putting a lot of effort into neutralizing real opposition. First we have seen criminal prosecution, administrative penalties, and extrajudicial repressions. The authorities openly limit citizens' constitutional rights, which is a severe criminal offense. Those rights are the right to elect, to protest, to freely access and disseminate information, to govern the country, and many others. The authorities do not limit themselves to court prosecutions and employ police brutality and lawlessness. All of this is accompanied by the vulgar propaganda campaign in state-controlled media, mostly on television.

Despite this, the opposition still retains a good chance to maintain a dignified resistance. This chance is mostly rooted in the growing public dissatisfaction with the Kremlin's policies. Putin's ratings are declining, and no one can even think of United Russia, the ruling party of the State Duma, without also thinking of the nickname that has been stuck to its title: the “party of crooks and thieves.”

For many years, public polls have been showing that approximately 30 to 40% of the vote in Russia is consistently democratic; that number is probably even higher in Moscow. Meanwhile, at the peak of the 2011–2012 protests, no more than 1% of the city population went out into the streets. The opposition needs to analyze this situation to understand why it happened. What is the reason for the opposition's low popularity among the public while dissatisfaction with the current authorities is so high? Perhaps the opposition has to take a critical look at itself and not accuse the public of passivity and cowardice.

I believe that the key faults of the liberal opposition today are its promiscuity in making political connections; its lack of a distinct face and recognizable political image; and its lack of a comprehensive, constructive, and consistent political program. The liberal opposition sacrificed its image for the sake of a tactical alliance with the communists and nationalists, which undermined its popularity. This has been accompanied by a hardly attractive cooperation with certain officials, including members of the legislative body, which is inexplicable for an opposition that considers all federal authorities illegitimate.

The key faults of the liberal opposition today are its promiscuity in making political connections; its lack of a distinct face and recognizable political image; and its lack of a comprehensive and constructive political program.

Perhaps the liberal opposition has lost all of its appeal in the eyes of the voters, so now it's time for it to seriously rebrand itself and build new political entities on newer, more pure bases. The opposition needs to reduce the gap between itself and the public. It's the authorities who can afford to display a condescending attitude toward the public, based on their possession of arms and control of the repressive machine, and to ignore public demands. The liberal opposition does not possess such resources, and thank God for that! But it has to represent the hopes and interests of the part of our society that sees future Russia as democratic and free. Attempts to be liked by everyone—the left and the nationalists alike—will lead to one end: the liberal opposition will lose face and mass support. It will be left with a small, politically active group of supporters—the one we have seen at recent protests. This group is big enough to label a protest as successful but will never be sufficient to make a serious change in the country.

Meanwhile, the weakness of the opposition and the passivity of society work in favor of the authorities. The restoration of the Soviet order is progressing by “seven-league steps,” as they used to write in the Soviet newspapers. This path involves legislation, politically motivated cases, forced emigration, and even symbolic gestures like the restoration of Brezhnev’s memorial plate. Within such a system, the authorities will feel very comfortable. And one should not be delusional: socialists and nationalists—from moderates to neo-Nazis—will feel just as comfortable in this system. All of these groups are the offspring of the totalitarian system, and today they are dissatisfied with the authorities because they have been marginalized and banned from participating in the state government. They are not opponents of the current authorities; they are their competitors.

A restoration of the totalitarian system is practically inevitable at the current low level of public and international resistance to Putin's regime. It's easy to imagine how the situation in Russia will evolve if this resistance remains at the same level. The aspiration to govern from one center will lead to a hypercentralization of power, which will require the creation of a manifold and effective mechanism of control and repression. There will be no problems with that—legislators and law enforcement agencies have already gotten down to business. There can be no stops on this road. The logic of the repressive regime is simple and obvious: either the authorities will continue to tighten the screws preventing public protest or the public will fight for its place, depriving the authorities of their rigid control. These processes can evolve at various speeds for a long time, but a truce is impossible. Either the authorities will conquer the public or the public will impose its control over the authorities.

Agreeing that radical change is necessary, many people hope for a miracle that will help to transform the country without a substantial public effort. This miracle could be a drop in oil prices, a split of the elites, or simply Putin leaving his post. I’m afraid there will be no miracle. None of these scenarios will bring pivotal change.

A drop in oil prices, even if it takes place, would harm ordinary people and, in the best-case scenario, would lead to a revolt—but for the people’s welfare, not for their freedom. We survived the drop in oil prices in the mid-80s, and the communist regime collapsed, but our country hasn’t really changed. Today, we are sliding back into the Soviet past and have nothing to counter the slide with.

A split of the elites would shatter the stability of the authorities but would only cause the political forces to regroup and, in the best-case scenario, to create a new system of power on the old bases. Even if the new authorities, created from the pieces of the old system with small additions from the opposition, did decide to implement political reforms, they would be unlikely to be successful. Reforms “from above” do not take root and flourish—the Russian experience of the last 25 years has proved this. Such reforms become a bargaining chip in the political game, and there will always be a player who will want to exchange them for his or her own political ambitions.

Even Putin’s departure would not change the very nature of this system. Moreover, his departure—either voluntary or under the pressure of his associates—would most likely lead to the introduction of a tougher ruler, according to the logic of the evolution of the repressive system. However much we want change for the better, we need to remember that the bad is not always replaced by the good—very often, it’s replaced by something worse.

There is no hope for change if one counts on luck alone, without the public making an effort. Each time, trusting its fate to some former secretary of the regional committee of the Communist Party or to some former KGB colonel, the public loses another chance for Russia’s renaissance. History doesn’t give out a lot of chances. The only real—perhaps difficult and even sacrificial—chance to reverse Russia’s centuries-long, dead-end course and direct it to the democratic path is to create public pressure on the authorities “from below,” thus transforming them from an independent force into a government tool—a tool that will regulate the public through democratic institutions. It all depends on the opposition.


This article is based on Aleksander Podrabinek’s report presented at the 20th International Scientific Conference titled “Russia 2013: Reaction, Stagnation, Prospects of Modernization.” Russia, Barnaul, June 29–30, 2013.