Hardly any feeling of political resolution exists in Russia after the two events that focused attention and expectations for the whole summer: the G20 summit in St. Petersburg and the mayoral elections in Moscow. Russia’s chairmanship in the fledgling G20 was supposed to demonstrate its economic dynamism and to uphold its international profile, but it has been effectively hijacked by the escalation of the civil war in Syria (http://en.ria.ru/columnists/20130906/183224911/Due-West-Russias-G20-Summit-Promised-Little-and-Delivered-Even.html). The reasonably clean elections in Moscow, meanwhile, were supposed to demonstrate that Putinism as a political system can mobilize a broad support base, but have proven instead that the bureaucratic monopoly on power cannot be sustained if even limited competition is allowed (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 5). President Vladimir Putin can hardly be satisfied with his performance in St. Petersburg and has every reason to be worried about Moscow. And the reasons for the lost control over both events go far deeper than his major idiosyncrasies and minor cold.
His master plan for the G20 summit was to focus on growth so that Russia would rally the dynamic “emerging economies” and establish as fact the profound geographic shift in global economic forces. Russia’s disappearing growth has derailed this plan and Putin’s attempts to explain it away by blaming the stagnation in the West do not square with the somewhat forced optimism expressed by the G20 (Vedomosti, September 3). The real problem for this summit was the slackening growth in China, Brazil and India, so the idea to create inside the G20 a separate cabal around the BRICS club (a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that would establish norms and rules of “fair” globalization was a non-starter (Kommersant, September 7). The five members may create a joint bank, but the key concern in their financial policies is the wrapping up of the third round of “quantitative easing” by the United States Federal Reserve (http://ej.ru/?a=note&id=13264). In the long and tedious speech at the post-summit press-conference, Putin boasted about the progress in preventing tax avoidance. However, his peers know perfectly well the scope of capital flight from Russia and resent its dubious leadership in exporting corruption (http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/5950).
Putin found himself in isolation in the debates on Syria at the G8 summit last June and would have much preferred to keep this issue off the G20 agenda, but the shocking use of chemical weapons in Damascus on August 21 broke the pattern of international indifference to this civil war (http://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/70449). Putin tried to build a coalition of the unwilling to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime for this breach of international law and to pull into it all those supportive of a “political solution” (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2013/09/07_a_5642277.shtml). He succeeded in making the unscheduled discussions entirely fruitless but has probably only strengthened US President Barack Obama’s readiness to deliver a heavy rather than a symbolic strike on al-Assad’s war machine (Kommersant, September 7). Meanwhile, seeking to make the thin Russian naval deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean appear more impressive, Putin ordered the launch of a Bulava ballistic missile from a new Northern Fleet submarine on the last day of the G20 summit, but the test ended in failure (http://lenta.ru/news/2013/09/07/apl/).
Putin’s obstinate anti-interventionism may appeal to many Russians who do not much like the idea of the US bombing appointed “rogues” at will, but he cannot gain fresh support because Syria is irrelevant to the political crisis that is developing inside Russia. Regional elections that took place all over the country last Sunday (September 8) were supposed to prove the restoration of stability after the wave of street protests in 2012, but what they actually showed was the deepening disillusionment in the quasi-democratic regime, which exploits populism and paternalism to cover up the bureaucratic predation. In the few places where the opposition had a chance to defeat the local authorities, like Yaroslavl or Yekaterinburg, every dirty political “technology” and every instrument of direct pressure were used to undermine the challengers (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 6; http://ej.ru/?a=note&id=13267). It is, nevertheless, Moscow that concentrates most of the organized discontent, much the same way as it accumulates the bulk of financial resources, and it is in Moscow that the attempt to reinvigorate Putinism has instead revived political contestation centered on the search for alternatives (http://polit.ru/article/2013/09/04/oreshkin/).
Popular anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny has been fighting against impossible odds, including the blatantly unjust criminal conviction that is being appealed and pending confirmation, but he has shown so much joyful courage and readiness to reach to the Muscovites in the street that the cultural-political paradigm of habitual conformism and cynical opportunism has cracked (Novaya Gazeta, September 8). He has managed single-handedly to re-orient the exhausted protest movement toward a positive program, in which many elements are hotly contested or seriously underdeveloped (despite the help from the exiled economist Sergei Guriev), but which nevertheless focuses not on removing Putin and his cronies but on the hard work that will be necessary afterwards (Novaya Gazeta, September 6). Presently, not only the newly-emerged corps of volunteers and the much-harassed activists of non-governmental organizations (NGOs—who took heart from the meeting with Obama after the G20 summit), but also large parts of the political elite find themselves involved in executing this program (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/chirikova/1152102-echo/). Putin relies on a change-averse bureaucracy for blocking this trend. Yet, even his lieutenants, including incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who scored a rather unconvincing victory in Moscow, have figured out that his self-styled “conservative pragmatism” amounts to little else but a desperate clinging to power, which could have only one outcome (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 6).
The opposition in Moscow may be disappointed in the low turnout (only about a third of the registered voters partook in the elections), but a new wave of street protests appears unlikely—until the authorities turn the screws too far in asserting their monopoly on abusing power. The logic of the evolving political crisis propels Putin, who is royally out of touch with the worries and aspirations of the urban middle classes, to prove his Olympian superiority by destroying opponents and reshuffling the court. Over-reaction and whims have become a norm of “manual management” of Russian politics, and it remains to be seen which mistake of judgment may trigger the capsizing of his fast-melting authoritarian iceberg.