The return of President Vladimir Putin in next month’s Russian elections is depicted by official statements as doubly vital for the country’s national security. First, it will allegedly protect the state from internal turmoil generated by difficult economic conditions and disruptive public protests. Second, Putin is determined to rebuild the “post-Soviet space” under Russia’s management and remove unwelcome Western influences that undermine the security and integrity of the Russian Federation.
In reality, Russia stands poised between democratic transformation, public revolt, and national breakdown. The political and state structure created by Putin during the past 12 years is cracking as the mass protests against forged parliamentary elections have demonstrated. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a large sector of citizens is displaying open disgust with the ruling elite. They are furious with political manipulation, anxious about the economy, angry over official corruption, and pessimistic about the future. Post-election street protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major cities are an indication of things to come.
Confronting a potentially embarrassing presidential election on March 4, in which he may fail to win in the first round, Putin has two unappetizing choices: crackdown or reform. Limited police actions no longer frighten the public, while the consequences of wholesale repression are unpredictable. The Kremlin is also anxious that mass suppression or blatant election fraud could unleash even more widespread public revolt. Instead, official strategists have acted stealthily to try and limit election competition.
While communists and nationalists are always allowed to stand in general elections, liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky has been disqualified from the presidential contest. In fact, the democratic opposition has no genuine candidate in the presidential race. Most analysts are convinced that billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has been allowed to run for president in order to dilute protest votes without posing a real threat to Putin.
Putin himself has dismissed the opposition as chaotic and intent on pushing through reforms that will jeopardize national stability. In reality, genuine political reform would mean dismantling the “power vertical” that underpins Putinism. Democracy would necessitate severing the close connections between the KGB security network, the governing elite, the self-serving bureaucracy, and business oligarchs loyal to the Kremlin. Both politics and capitalism would need to become competitive and free from clique control, a task that the outgoing President Medvedev was unable to accomplish.
Instead of pursuing a program of reform and modernization, which would weaken his own stranglehold over the country, Putin can also manufacture crises to demonstrate that he best defends the nation from all threats. In his campaign speeches, he has warned that any major electoral reform will fuel ethnic tensions and regional separatism that could tear the country apart. Indeed, the debate on Russian statehood and territorial integrity is growing with some ethno-nationalists arguing that it would be preferable to let the North Caucasus leave the federation. A growth in Russian nationalism will contribute to such territorial fragmentation.
If street protests escalate again after the March elections, Putin will pose as the savior of the Russian state while depicting the demonstrators as national traitors under instructions from foreign agencies. Acts of terrorism perpetrated by Russian security services cannot be discounted in order to raise the fear factor and rekindle public support for strong central rule.
To regain the presidential throne and restore his legitimacy, Putin is reaching for the one card that has always served Russian rulers – the myth of external and internal threat. He has repeatedly charged Western capitals with meddling in Russia’s politics. Most recently, the newly appointed US Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, an architect of the American cooperative “reset” policy with Russia, has been attacked by government officials as a mastermind of “colored revolutions” who is plotting to destabilize Russia.
During and after the March balloting, conflicts can be engineered with the West and with specific neighbors where hostilities persist, such as Georgia or Estonia. Moreover, Obama’s detente with Moscow will be seriously tested as Putin will push hard to extract more advantages for the Kremlin. In particular, Moscow is demanding a freer hand to reconstruct a sphere of dominance in the former Soviet Union, which Putin now styles as the Eurasian Union. Although such plans will be opposed by many of Russia’s neighbors, including Ukraine, they would enable Putin to mobilize imperialist sentiments and justify his authoritarian methods.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Associate in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.