Russia 2012 – History Repeating?
As you will probably have guessed, I’ve been following the recent Russian presidential election with great interest. In many ways the election itself was unremarkable: the outcome was a fait accompli before the first ballots had even been cast and the result simply confirmed what everybody expected – Vladimir Putin’s triumphant return to the Russian Presidency with a respectable 63% of the vote, despite widespread evidence of electoral fraud (in addition to the numerous video clips showcasing blatant examples of ballot stuffing and carousel voting available online, both GOLOS and the OSCE have issued formal statements highlighting ‘serious problems’ with the election).
In another sense however, March 4th marked something of a watershed. Russians were genuinely divided. Opposition to Putin’s proposed return to power crystallised, manifest in a series of demonstrations and protest marches held in the run up to polling day. Then more Russians took to the streets in response, not to condemn Putin but to cheer him. There has been much talk about the 2012 election sparking the ‘re-politicisation’ of the Russian citizenry. Putin’s re-election has dominated international media coverage too, provoking a deluge of commentary and providing a platform for airing a broad spectrum of views about contemporary Russia. Last weekend, as Russians went to the polls, my Twitter feed was alive with analysis, opinion and a wealth of wonderful visual and oral snippets about election day, providing some fascinating insights into events as they unfolded.
Something that particularly struck me during the recent election coverage was the widespread use of historical analogies when discussing more contemporary political developments. These have taken a number of different forms, including:
Vladimir Putin – Tsar or Comrade?: I’ve seen numerous references alluding to Putin as a ‘modern day Tsar’, with parallels drawn with c17th-c18th Tsar Peter the Great in particular. This image was seemingly endorsed by protest leader Alexander Navalny, who referred to Putin as the ‘Emperor of Russia’ in a derogatory speech made after his re-election was formally confirmed. However, Putin has also been critically compared to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, with 4th March 2012 referred to as Putin’s ‘Brezhnev moment’ , with widespread suggestions that the prospect of another 6 years (at least!) of ‘Putinism’, coming at a time of economic decline, will lead to the same kind of stagnation and frustration in Russia that characterised the Brezhnev era.
Electoral ‘Adjustment': Focus on the lack of democracy and transparency surrounding the March 4th election triggered more comparisons with the Soviet era. Ok, so there are some obvious differences here: The 2012 Election provided at least a nominal choice of candidates, compared to the single candidate ‘elections’ that dominated the bulk of the communist period, although there were suggestions that any serious contenders had been prevented from standing on various ‘technicalities’. Putin’s 63% majority is also less risible than the 98% near universal popular endorsement that the communist party used to periodically claim – electoral ‘adjustments’ notwithstanding, the prevailing consensus is that today, the Russian electorate still regard Putin as the most popular and viable option to lead their country at the present time. The OSCE post-election monitoring report claimed that, based on information from their exit polls, Putin would have squeaked by on just over 50% of the vote without any electoral manipulation, securing him a slim majority. This suggests that the various forms of electoral fraud were used as a propaganda tool to skew the vote more firmly in his favour by boosting his majority, rather than artificially creating his support base. In some areas though, Putin did claim victory with a curiously overwhelming majority (I’m thinking particularly here of Chechnya, where local officials claimed Putin won with 99.8 vote on a 99.5 turnout, just days after evidence of a Chechen plot to assassinate Putin had been revealed, with some Chechen precincts boasting voter turnout of 107% !).
Added to this, we have some of the tactics widely reported by the press during the election – particularly the strategic organisation of crowds of pro-Putin demonstrators and the visible presence of large security detachments outside central polling stations (with reports that large numbers of OMON troops were deployed in central Moscow on election day) – both reminiscent of Soviet-era tactics to ‘remind’ citizens of their civic responsibility and to influence (intimidate) them into ‘willingly’ voting for their approved candidate.
Protest and (Potential?) Revolution: Coverage of the growing anti-Putin demonstrations in the weeks leading up to polling day (which have also continued post-election) have also spawned comparisons with other key turning points in Russian history – I’ve seen parallels drawn between the current popular protests and the revolutionary years of 1905, 1917 and 1991 in recent weeks, with some commentators questioning whether 2012 might even herald ‘another Russian Revolution’. I was also interested to hear about Putin’s recent claims that ‘Western influence’ lay behind the demonstrations – the return of another favoured Communist-era tactic, that of blaming the guiding hand of foreign forces for inciting domestic unrest! Traditionally, in the post-Stalin era, communist leaders in the USSR and Eastern Europe used a combination of coercion, compromise and concessions to try to minimise overt expressions of opposition to their rule (something that was particularly prevalent during the Brezhnevian era ‘Little Deal’) and while it is still early days, Putin appears to be approaching his third term in office by adopting a similar approach – with the recent announcement that the case of imprisoned oligarch and outspoken Putin critic Mikhail Khororkovsky is to be reviewed after 7 years, balanced with a crackdown which resulted in the arrest of many protest leaders (including Alexander Navalny) in the aftermath of March 4th.
I asked a ‘troika’ of seasoned Russia-watchers – Mark Galeotti, Luke Harding and Edward Lucas – to share some thoughts about these historical analogies and to make some predictions about what the future could hold for Russia during Putin’s return to the Russian presidency. Their responses provide a good indication of the broad range of opinions that exist. Their overall consensus seems to be that when it comes to Putin, some historical analogies may carry more weight than others, but that we should always beware of drawing overly simplistic comparisons between Russia past and present. So, over to them:
I have seen a lot of recent references describing Putin as a ‘modern day Tsar’. Is this a fair description? On balance, would you say Putin was more of a Peter the Great, an Ivan the Terrible, or another Tsar altogether?
Mark Galeotti: As always with these kind of comparisons, none fit perfectly. Ivan the Terrible was an effective institution-builder in the first period of his reign, an increasingly destructive paranoiac in the second, which may prove to be a decent metaphor for Putin, but we’ll have to wait and see. In many ways, I’d also throw in a comparison with Tsar Nicholas I (who reigned 1825-1855), an authoritarian with a military background, who came to see the intellectual case for reform, but who never was able ultimately to overcome his visceral mistrust of it and the chaos change tends to bring.
Luke Harding: I’m not sure how helpful it is to compare Putin to either Peter or Ivan. But I do know that staff in his administration quite often use the phrase “Tsar Khochet” [The Tsar Wants….]
Edward Lucas: Personally, I don’t like any of these historical analogies. Russia now is quite different from Imperial Russia. Putin is a Red-Brown-White amalgam: his approach is friendly to orthodox while keeping Lenin in his mausoleum and using fascist rhetoric. To view him as a ‘Tsar’ is too simplistic.
Critical comparisons have also been drawn between Putin and long-serving Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). Do you agree?
MG: I’m not so much compelled by comparisons with Brezhnev as a person so much as the era. Brezhnev was the beneficiary of extremely favourable circumstances, both political and economic, with buoyant oil and gas export prices and a rebound from Khrushchev and his ‘madcap schemes.’ This allowed for a process of buying off every interest group, from the masses (with ‘sausage communism’) to the military and the increasingly corrupt elite. However, then the money began getting tight and everybody’s expectations had grown and that’s when things became troublesome. Brezhnev by that stage lacked the temperament or power to force harsh decisions on the government and to a large extent cuts hit the masses. Putin has likewise been the beneficiary of great good fortune and social and institutional expectations have grown, but on the other hand, Putin is no Brezhnev and he has the ability — though perhaps not the will — to adapt to meet changing economic needs.
LH: I’ve used the Brezhnev analogy before most recently in my Guardian article following Putin’s election victory, which you can read HERE. The comparison isn’t absolute, of course. But the similarities are obvious: a personalist regime, a leader who refuses to step down, the absence of any kind of succession mechanism. No-one can quite see how Putin will end – other than in the same way Brezhnev did. Plus of course, there are broader historical parallels: stagnation, high oil prices, emigration, an Olympics and a regime that – just about – has a degree of international respectability.
EL: Again, in my opinion this comparison is not really appropriate except as an insult. Modern Russia is far more open and dynamic than during the Brezhnev era.
To what extent have we seen a continuation of communist-era election tactics to influence the 2012 vote in Putin’s favour?
MG: Well, I would for a start challenge the suggestions in some media reports about a strong military presence at polling stations. None of the ones I visited had more than a bored cop or two…
There was a degree of fraud, but that was certainly not communist-style. Back then, if they wanted to stack the votes, they just counted them appropriately. Phenomena such as carousel voting is very definitely a post-Soviet development. Where there is a degree of continuity though, is in the dominance of the public narrative, largely through control of the TV and through ‘administrative resource’ – but on the whole I think the idea of linking this to the Soviet era is a mistake. Election fraud is election fraud.
LH: There are plenty of similarities here, but the most important factor has been State controlled TV – a glossily updated form of Soviet telly – which has broadcast wall-to-wall pro-Putin propaganda…
EL: I disagree. In my opinion, this is another wrong comparison. Election-rigging in its modern form started under Yeltsin (eg during the 1994 constutional referendum, the 1996 presidential vote). Communist elections were single-candidate so there was no need to rig them.
Historically, the Russian/Soviet authorities tried to suppress dissent, protest and rebellion through a mixture of coercion and concessions. It’s only been a week since Putin’s election victory but already, we have seen evidence of both. How do you think Putin will handle continued opposition to his rule?
MG: We will see more of the same. I have discussed this further on my blog HERE.
LH: The conventional wisdom is that Putin has two choices. One to announce vague liberal seeming reforms, or pseudo-reforms in order to assuage the demonstrators and those more loosely fed up with his rule. The other is to employ the lugubrious KGB methods we’ve seen in the past: arrests (like last Monday), black PR against opposition leaders, administrative measures. Or both. I suspect both.
EL: A Mixture. Both options are limited. Opening up threatens to destroy the system, but it is too weak for mass repression.
The Russian protest movement has been attracting a lot of attention too – again, numerous historical parallels have been drawn, often between 2012 and 1917, although many have argued that 1905 is a better comparison and some have mentioned 1991. Do you think 2012 will bring another Russian Revolution?
MG: I haven’t seen any 1917 parallels, and I think they are pretty dumb. Where’s the revolutionary party? More to the point, where is the evidence of a weakening of central, existing power? 2012 will see no revolution.
The parallel with 1905 works better though – Again I’ve commented on this in more detail HERE.
LH: Yes – it’s 1905 not 1917. 2012 won’t bring another Russian Revolution. At this point I’m more pessimistic than optimistic, despite the encouraging middle-class-led uprising against Putin’s rule. The problem is this: the Russian governing class – worth billions – will fight very hard to preserve the current power dynamic and to hang on to their assets. The opposition are no match for the Kremlin. Putin and his ruling team have a kind of gangster energy about them.
EL: I’d say the current protest movement is more reminiscent of the late Gorbachev era, but much less naïve. Yes, it is good that the middle classes are involved in politics again, it’s good to have debate, satire etc. But it is a long way from reaching ‘critical mass’.
Finally, what do you think the future will hold for Russia, during Putin’s third term as President?
MG: This term, Putin’s last in power in my opinion, will see the slow, painful, two-steps-forward-one-step-back emergence of a genuine political alternatives — and maybe alternatives — to Putin and ‘Putinism’, but he and it will not go easily or quietly…
LH: Stagnation, frustration, emigration. A growing consciousness among Russia’s thinking population that the country is going nowhere under its current leadership…
EL: Change will be messy and remain inside the elite/system, at least at first. My bet is that Putin will not be leader after 2 years and one month. For more on this, see my recent interview HERE.
Mark Galeotti is Clinical Professor of Global Affairs and Academic Chair at New York University. His previous publications include The Politics of Security in Modern Russia; he writes a regular blog about Russian crime and security at In Moscow’s Shadows and he was present in Moscow during the recent presidential election. You can follow him on Twitter @MarkGaleotti
Luke Harding worked as the Moscow correspondent for the Guardian between 2007 and 2011 and is the author of Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia. You can follow him on Twitter @lukeharding1968
Edward Lucas is International Editor of The Economist and author of The New Cold War and Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes The West. You can follow him on Twitter @edwardlucas
Many thanks to Mark Galeotti, Luke Harding and Edward Lucas for their comments!
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