Putin Won't Go Quietly - If at All

A specter is haunting Russia—the specter of a revolution. That much is clear. The tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people braving sub-zero temperatures in the street clearly attest to an unprecedented popular discontent and a clear wish for a more democratic and less corrupt country.

Because of the scope and force of the protest, the obituaries for Prime Minister (and once and future President) Vladimir Putin, and for “Putinism,” have started to crop up right and left. The argument is that even a “sovereign” democracy cannot survive if the majority wish for a change. It is, we hear, not a question of if—but only of when—Putin decides to pack up and go.

Irrespective of what one would like to see happen, this kind of reasoning seems to be premature at best. It is promoted by many of the same starry-eyed people who welcomed Putin in 2000 as the best thing since the invention of vodka, as an organizer and modernizer who would overcome the chaos of Yeltsin years and usher Russia into the 21st century.

There was nothing preordained about what was going to happen to Russia more than ten years ago, just as there is nothing preordained about what is going to happen to it now. But to gauge the events by the standards of the civil rights movement of 1960s or the revolutions of 1989 is hopelessly naive.

The salient fact about Putin is, and has always been, not that he is a cool-looking dude who does judo and rides horses, or a coldly analytical brain who speaks passable German, but that he is, in the modern Russian parlance, a silovik. He has been well educated, in what was one of the most thorough training regimens in Russia available to anyone, in methods of controlling, manipulating, and deceiving people. The chances that he is watching the demonstrations on television and telling himself, “My, I must have done something wrong, these folks really seem not to like me, maybe it’s time I should up and go,” are therefore pretty slim.

First of all, unlike an authoritarian ruler of a smaller and less important country, he has nowhere to go. There is no country in the world powerful enough to try to shield him from questions people will inevitably want to ask him once he loses his power. Second, for a politician he is relatively young at 60, and shows no signs of losing his appetite for power. Third, he is a president in a country where transitions usually take place at a funeral or at gunpoint rather than at a ballot box. Boris Yeltsin’s departure is the sole exception, but he may have been tired and emotional when he resigned.

Most importantly, the contest with the opposition is not taking place on a level playing field. The opposition may increasingly have the public mood on its side and in today’s Russia it may easily find the wherewithal to run a sustained campaign. On the other hand, it has many ambitious and a few courageous leaders but not one clear leader or a clear structure. Successful revolutions are almost invariably associated with a clear, charismatic leader. Whether the existence of such a leader is a prerequisite of a successful revolution or simply a symptom of its success, or both—probably both—is another question. What Putin has is the network. It may be not as all-powerful and all-pervasive as in the Soviet times, but it certainly exists. As a trained intelligence operative, Putin is able to use it in a rather savvy, economical way with the minimum amount of force necessary rather than in the heavy-handed manner of a Middle Eastern dictator. That, however, does not mean he does not know how to shift gears. Alternations of periods of relative liberalism with times when the gloves are off have been rather typical of Russian and Soviet history.

Whoever thinks that Putin is going to give up power voluntarily or without a fight only has to look at Syria and the Russian vote in the UN Security Council. That was putting one’s mouth where one’s heart was.

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