At the end of October, Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Sergei Ivanov and his deputy Vyacheslav Volodin attended a meeting of municipal mayors from the Moscow region and indicated that they wanted their audience to be more responsive to voters’ needs and more open to the involvement of civil society. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, contends that there is no sign that the Kremlin will permit anything that threatens the president’s power or fundamentally alters Russian politics.

 

Sergei Ivanov (left) and Vyacheslav Volodin are

At the October 24 meeting of municipal mayors from the Moscow region, Volodin mentioned that there might be a redivision of authority between national and local officials at some point, presumably in favor of the mayors. He also said that it would be up to regional and municipal officials whether to increase the share of single-mandate districts for their legislatures—a small step toward more direct democracy—and noted that some mayors could be chosen through direct elections. The Kremlin leader’s comments appeared to signal a new step in a series of limited political reforms in recent months that include a draft law abandoning the proportional electoral system in favor of the former mixed approach, easier registration for political parties, limited competition in some regional elections, and a mix of direct and indirect elections for governors. At the Valdai meeting in September, President Putin told international guests—many of them skeptics—that Russia’s political system is starting to open up.

Putin’s words notwithstanding, there is no sign the Kremlin will permit anything that threatens the president’s power or fundamentally alters Russian politics. Since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, the authorities have clamped down on protestors and politically active members of society; tightened controls on the opposition, the media, and civil society; “contained” restive elites by launching an anticorruption campaign; and banned officials from holding assets abroad. Although the gubernatorial elections abolished in 2004 have been formally restored, they have been accompanied by a system of “municipal filters” that allows favored incumbents to win anyway. Another filter forbids the nomination of candidates who have been convicted of certain crimes, enabling the regime to exclude unwanted candidates, such as those who have participated in political protests. In the meantime, the Kremlin is stepping up efforts to divide the opposition by coopting what it sees as “more constructive” forces and marginalizing the so-called “nonsystemic” foes who are potentially more dangerous.

Putin’s words notwithstanding, there is no sign the Kremlin will permit anything that threatens the president’s power or fundamentally alters Russian politics.

Volodin told experts in August that developing a more open system is a long-term political strategy, though several of the steps in the strategy seem improvised and appear to lack full elite support, especially from the hardline siloviki. Analyst Vladimir Pastukhov argues that the primary goal of the initiatives is less to encourage meaningful democratization than to show the political class that the Kremlin knows what it is doing and that everything is under control in an increasingly restive society. The plan, Pastukhov adds, is an effort to move from a tactic of heavy-handed suppression of popular unrest to an approach of maintaining public order at a level that ensures the interests and security of the elites. The regime cannot remain mobilized at the level of intensity it has maintained since the demonstrations sparked by the rigged parliamentary elections of December 2011. There are two core components to the Kremlin’s new approach, he suggests: first, retaining control of the “commanding heights” of politics and economics; second, discrediting the opposition by allowing it to come to power in certain places, while not allowing it the actual resources to govern effectively.

The Kremlin has good reason to recalibrate its ruling strategy. “There is fear in society that this regime has run out of steam as the Czarist regime did,” opposition leader Andrey Piontkovsky wrote recently, “that its system is wearing out, as the Communist system did, and a third collapse of the Russian state is on the way.” There is little popular backing for a democratic breakthrough, and Putin’s support is still relatively high among most Russians—though declining and often not enthusiastic. But independent of the success (or lack of it) by the opposition, popular discontent is growing over corruption, the economy’s failures, and the state’s ineffectiveness. At least some of the ruling elite thus seems to have concluded that there is a need to let off steam from the boiler, since a constant tightening of the screws will not lead to anything good.

Russians also are growing increasingly nationalistic, according to public opinion polls. They blame Muslims from the Caucasus and migrant workers from Central Asia for society’s problems, including corruption, crime, and dead-end jobs. Since the 2011 presidential election campaign, Putin has tried to exploit this xenophobia (as well as hostility to homosexuals, Americans, and the West more broadly) and to mobilize his political base against the protest movements in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The unforeseen consequence of this pandering, however, has been the radicalization and defection of parts of Putin’s majority and the weakening of the Kremlin’s hold on nationalist sentiment. Popular disenchantment with political and social conditions and nationalism have thus begun to merge (http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/trying-to-put-nationalist-genie-back-in-the-bottle/489308.html) (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/rising-russian-nationalism-sets-off-ethnic-tension/2013/11/11/9c9c15ae-495c-11e3-b87a-e66bd9ff3537_story.html).

Russians also are growing increasingly nationalistic, according to public opinion polls. They blame Muslims from the Caucasus and migrant workers from Central Asia for society’s problems, including corruption, crime, and dead-end jobs.

The Kremlin’s limited efforts to reset its relationship with society are unlikely to be successful in the long term, unless, perhaps, it resorts to force. The regime’s central problem is more declining legitimacy than its faltering popular support, the intensification of the state’s contradictions, or the decline of government effectiveness. Putin gained more than 63 percent of the vote in the presidential elections of March 2012—a total that would be a landslide in most Western democracies. But his victory did little to reinforce his legitimacy, since the electoral process was rigged and he picked his opponents. A growing number of Russians view him as representing the interests of big business, the power ministries, and the bureaucracy, not the average citizen.

More effective than tinkering with the system to restore legitimacy would be a genuine attack on corruption. A source in the Presidential Administration told Izvestiya last week that a group of siloviki were summoned recently and told the Kremlin would support toughening anticorruption laws. But in a system where that problem is the lifeblood of the regime’s rule, anticorruption campaigns serve different, more political purposes: first, as a way to settle scores among various competing factions, balance them, and score political points; second, as a way to limit corruption to a level that is neither too great nor too destructive and does not threaten the system.

Russia at the end of 2013 is thus likely on the threshold of serious changes that could occur at any moment, with or without sanction from the top. Putin is doubtless the key player, but he cannot do everything, and not all policies are his. Putin cannot eliminate corruption because he cannot control every step of the elite, no matter how hard he might try. Big business, thousands of siloviki, and regional elites all build their own Russias. The country is a complicated mechanism, but it is not monolithic, no matter what Putin or his critics might say about the “power vertical.” The interests of its clans do not always coincide, nor do those of the elite with those of the society at large. But almost every day—even with the latest tinkering—Putin risks disturbing the system’s equilibrium, which could be fatal for the regime and have very dangerous consequences for the country.

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