A capacity for unleashing targeted repressions is crucial for the survival of authoritarian regimes, and President Vladimir Putin finds it increasingly difficult to demonstrate that he has such a capacity—or that he controls it. Health problems keep him confined to his cozy residence outside Moscow, but his presence would have hardly changed the micro-dynamics of changes that test the readiness of the authorities to enforce order. The Kremlin is anxious about the activity of the street opposition, but a series of recent events has illustrated that the political climate in Russia is escaping central control. A riot in a prison camp in Chelyabinsk oblast revealed the depth of anger in society against the inhumane conditions in the modern-day GULAG; rebels in the North Caucasus and football fans in St. Petersburg defied the police monopoly on violence; and even a Russian beauty queen spoke against “the chosen few” who are draining Russia’s wealth (Gazeta.ru, November 26; Ezhednevny Zhurnal, Novaya Gazeta, November 27). Putin’s preaching of the placid obedience underpinning his trademark “stability” is, therefore, increasingly at odds with the discontent that tears at the rotten seams in a society infected by bureaucratic corruption.
Seeking to channel this indignation into a controllable course, the government has sharply accelerated the ever-dragging anti-corruption campaign. Each day, new revelations of embezzlement in the Russian Ministry of Agriculture or misappropriations in Roskosmos are revealed as breaking news on the tightly censored television channels (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 27). Loudly advertised investigations are meant to prove that any abuse of office can now be punished. But it is mostly lower-level bureaucrats who are scapegoated, like in the purges after the massive siphoning of funds allocated in preparation for the September 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok (Newsru.com, November 27). The loudest reverberations spread from the scandal in the defense ministry, but the key suspect, Yevgenia Vasilyeva, boldly defies the allegations, and the rudely fired Anatoly Serdyukov remains untouchable for the prosecutors (Kommersant, November 27). In fact, the “cleansing” campaign—instead of disciplining the elites—has become a means of clan struggle, in which Putin pretends to play the role of supreme arbiter (Moskovskie Novosti, November 19).
It is indeed the Armed Forces that are supposed to represent most materially the repressive power of the state. But newly-appointed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is appalled by the fact that most of the “new look” brigades are 40 percent under strength, which means that their combat readiness is entirely fictitious (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, November 22). The top brass immediately suggested extending the duration of conscript service from 12 to 18 months, but Shoigu is too politically astute to subscribe to such unpopular ideas, even if he understands that the plan for hiring more contract soldiers is financially unsound (Newsru.com, November 23). He is also bracing for a long fight with the industrial lobbies that see in the rearmament program great opportunities for selling old arms for new money (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 24). In the meantime, the military cannot provide meaningful support to the police in the North Caucasus, where shootouts and explosions occur every day and rebels are gaining in public support. Last week, a crowd blocked the road before the OMON riot troops that were dispatched to arrest three suspected militants in the village of Gimry, Dagestan. The suspects, consequently, had to be released (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, November 26).
This episode reveals the growing reluctance in the numerous “power structures” to engage in confrontations with angry crowds of determined villagers, or football fans, or relatives of prison inmates. The weakness in the law enforcement forces translates to grave doubts among the elites as to the safety of their assets in Russia. Thus, every third villa in the famous Rublevka gated community outside Moscow is for sale, while the estimates of capital flight in 2012 have been raised to $70 billion (Newsru.com, November 20; Kommersant-FM, November 19).
Against this background, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has apparently decided that the moment is right to re-confirm his ambitions. And in an interview with French journalists, he compared the Kremlin with a river into which he was ready to step in twice (Gazeta.ru, November 26). It remains to be seen how exactly Putin will act to cut his junior partner down to size, but the disgruntled elites are definitely not inclined to give Medvedev a second chance. Putin is hardly in a position to reveal another surprise appointment, and he has—very much against the unwritten rules of court politics—already raised Shoigu above all other stake-holders in the Kremlin, despite knowing that the new defense minister possesses independent political capital and is easily electable (Moscow Echo, November 27).
Such a self-reproduction of the isolated and self-serving regime is entirely unacceptable for the “white opposition,” which finds itself on the receiving end of selective but painful repressions. The newly-elected Coordination Council of allied opposition parties is busy preparing the next street rally on December 15, in order to mark the anniversary of last year’s sudden explosion of protests and to prove that street power has not dissipated. Divisions in this proto-parliament run deep, but one demand that unites the “revolution makers” and “reformists” is the release of all political prisoners, starting with Mikhail Khodorkovsky and including the two young women from the punk rock group Pussy Riot (BestToday, November 27). The risks of repression are real for the Council members, as they are for every picketer and blogger. But instead of fear, these acts of repression restore the liberating feeling of togetherness and strengthen the moral superiority that the protesters have gained over those who are hiding behind the Kremlin walls (New Times, November 26).
Confinement is probably aggravating Putin’s detachment from the real ebb and flow of politics, which is happening outside the dull chambers of the State Duma and is distorted beyond recognition in the TV news. The Russian president is a firm believer in strength and so can hardly comprehend that his authority is based not on the ability to deliver punishment but on inertia and the habit of agreeing without obeying, thus actually making repressions counter-productive. The elites are losing respect, and the opposition groups are learning to respect one another; but Putin is not paying attention because accepting that the putinist system of “stability” is over would mean having to face the door marked “Exit.”