20 years under Putin: a timeline

In December of 2011 a new political phenomenon has taken shape in Russia. Its key features include the mobilization of the urban class angered by the increasingly repressive regime, and the confrontation between the actively dissenting minority and the conformist majority of the population. As Russian opposition functioning outside of the official political system is groping for possible ways of action in this new reality, numerous inquiries on ways to organize are surfacing with questions such as: What strategy would work best? Does it make any sense to engage with the Kremlin? Is there a need for a unifying political platform and a united party? Tatyana Stanovaya, IMR advisor and Head of Analytics Department at the Center of Political Technologies, provides us with her insights on, and some answers to these questions.



The aftermath of Russia’s parliamentary elections, declaring Putin's victory, has sprouted a new opposition base. The category of Russian individuals dissatisfied with Putin’s regime now includes the elite, a group that is affluent and cognizant of its own political interests.

As the opposition operating outside of the system has become markedly more active, visibly showing the expansion of its support base portrayed by last winter’s mass scale protest actions, more and more of Russia’s elite are becoming aware of the deteriorating situation in Russia and siding against Putin’s regime.

Nonetheless, the opposition movement remains divided, as its leaders continue to disagree on a number of issues. Pollsters indicate that their total electoral power combined amounts to no more than 15 percent of potential voters. Unfortunately, the lack of an organized program of action relevant to society and the absence of leaders capable of providing any real competition to Vladimir Putin, persist to be the main challenges of the Russian opposition. So far, every effort to address these two issues has been fruitless.

From the political management techniques point of view, we could try to predict the actions necessary in order to present the opposition as a fully functional political force, capable of replacing Putin’s regime. It is important to identify three key elements on which the opposition’s new strategy should be based on: content, format, and procedure.

Although, most of these claims amounts to pure propaganda, there is also an elemenabt of truth to them. Currently, the only unifying aspect of the Russian opposition is the protest movement itself. Yet, when it comes to reaching an agreement on key aspects of socio-economic and foreign policies, the opposition finds itself at a loss due to varied perspectives.

The ostensibly political character of the opposition’s demands includes an array of criticisms of the regime concerning Russia’s political system, people’s rights and freedoms, the lack of freedom of speech within the media, the lack of an independent judiciary, the decay of the legal environment, and corruption. Thus, if the opposition leaders intend to become a worthy enough adversary to compete with Putin, they needs to shift its emphasis toward the socio-economic issues, instead of bickering among themselves.

As revealed by one of the most recent Levada-Center polls, the list of Russians’ main grievances against their government includes the inability of the authorities to deal with price increases, falling incomes, unemployment, corruption, the inability to address economic challenges, the absence of a clear-cut economic strategy, and the increasingly “oligarchical” character of the authorities (meaning they have solely the interests of big business in mind).

At this point, it is important to identify two key constituencies. The first constituencyconservative, conformist, and resistant to modernizationprevails in the provinces and is largely dependent upon the government and government-funded agencies. The second is represented by the “angered urban class,” a term first coined by Vladislav Surkov, formerly the chief mastermind of Russia’s domestic politics, currently deputy prime minister in charge of modernization. Surkov created this expression to describe the comparatively more educated population of large and medium-sized cities.

The opposition should abandon its pursuit of an ideal political platform that would unite all of its currents.

So far, the opposition was only able to join rather than lead the protest movement of the educated urban class, but any real procedures to ensure the future of this union are yet to be set in place. As of now, after the mass-scale protest actions of last winter, the "Now what?" question remains to be answered.

But let's take a moment to get to the bottom of understanding how acute the contradictions between Russia's passive majority and its active minority really are. The opposition should be pursuing a two-pronged strategy: working to erode the support base of the present regime in the Russian society while at the same time mobilizing the middle class. The two societal opposites have also some points of convergence between them: "the overwhelming majority of Russians shares the protesters’ view that Russia is under the rule of a corrupt regime of government-based mafia clans, demagogues and embezzlers, who have usurped and privatized power in the country and have been using the state apparatus of legal coercion to advance their personal agendas."

According to the polls, two thirds of respondents over the years (62 percent in November 2007 and 69 percent in October 2011) remain of the opinion that the interests of the authorities and those of the Russian public are fundamentally at odds with each other. As shown by the results of Levada-Center surveys, 63 percent of Russians believe that the activities and the efforts of Russia’s senior government officials are currently directed primarily toward ensuring and protecting these officials' personal interests.

Therefore, the new opposition agenda's set of priorities should be built upon three pillars. The first being the opposition to the new “government-based oligarchy.” Years ago, the anti-oligarchical trend in society formed the support base for authorities’ fabrication of the Yukos case. Presently, there is a trend toward a powerful aggregation of forces for the struggle against the oligarchy of a new type, which the opposition can use it as a foundation of its political platform.

Secondly, it is important to prioritize the socio-economic aspect of the new agenda. In addition to collecting and disseminating information about questionable business deals and government contracts and billions of dollars that have been disappearing from the treasury, opposition leaders should also pay attention to the huge number of violations of Russians’ socio-economic rights. The regime’s Achilles' heel is the government's inefficacy in the implementation of its socio-economic policies. The accumulation and analysis of evidence across Russia’s regions attesting to the failures of the regime to fulfill Vladimir Putin’s endless promises may be just as powerful a weapon, in this age of informational warfare, as the reports about Putin-owned castles.

An economic policy program should be the third pillar. Perhaps Russian opposition’s biggest mistake at this time is its extreme attempts to either reach an agreement on certain universal recipes or completely avoid discussing controversial topics altogether. Should the government raise the age of retirement? What should be done about the savings part of the retirement pensions? How fast should the salaries of government employees be going up? Should the government reduce the number of schools? Objectively speaking, Russia now faces the specter of unpopular socio-economic reforms. Meanwhile, the opposition has the advantage of being able to offer solutions and create an environment for fostering and growth of ideas, while the powers-that-be have no choice but to make decisions, taking responsibility for their consequences.

The implication is clear: the opposition should abandon its pursuit of an ideal political platform that would unite all of its currents. At this stage, it is strategically important to set up new frameworks for debates focusing public attention on challenges and alternative solutions. The latter should be offered in abundance. The opposition should end its search of the best answer to controversial questions in favor of a search for a large number of good ideas. It is important to move from the content of political platforms to the procedures and frameworks of discussion about the different scenarios of Russia’s alternative future.

The lack of alternatives to Vladimir Putin is the principal aspect of his current invulnerability. The presence of an alternative, or rather, multiple alternatives, and of fierce competition would pose a substantial threat to the existing regime. The opposition should set up a discussion venue, named “Alternative.” In this venue, it would be able to develop a bank of alternative ideas and solutions, utilizing horizontal connections, social networks, and communities of experts.

Let us note that Putin has established an expert council under the presidential administration, while the cabinet has been forming the so-called Open Government. Shouldn’t the opposition also move toward creating a system for “branching out” of programs and ideas, instead of endless elections of co-chairs of countless unions, committees, and societies? Especially given that the established, liberally minded part of the expert community has long since been supportive of the modernizing, progressive part of Russian society.

The regime’s Achilles’ heel is the government’s inefficacy in the implementation of its socio-economic policies.

Within such a unified network organization, it is easy to envision the operation of an array of expert groups, led by alternating moderators. Each of these groups would be in charge of a set of issues, such as pension reform, tax policies, the issues of the efficacy of government management, the system of government-funded agencies, etc. Such a network, provisionally titled “Alternative,” could have its own commissioners, each focusing fields such as human rights, children’s rights, rights of the business community to be protected from government pressure, etc. The opposition possesses all the intellectual capabilities required to outperform Putin, while proving to Russian society that the lack of alternatives has been an illusory facade maintained by artificial means.

In the meantime, as the regime proceeds with another tightening of the screws, political life in Russia is becoming even more detached from reality. Points of entry into real politics have become so heavily guarded as to render them impenetrable. Should one play by the rules imposed by the authorities? This is one of the most controversial issues that divide Russia’s present-day opposition. It seems like the opportunity for legal political participation is too limited.

Russian liberals will almost inevitably set up a political party. But under current conditions an arena inequitable for all players, with a head start for the "party of power" and, to some extent, those who work within the system and have learned to strike deals with the Kremlin, a new opposition party will immediately be discriminated against and steamrolled by the Kremlin juggernaut that will marginalize the former in the public opinion. Of all the available forms of political participation that promise at least some hope of success, only two remain: first, street protest actions, and, second, elections at the local level, where the efficacy of the power vertical is extremely low. This is precisely the reason that local elections give the opposition an exceptional opportunity to test its political capabilities and assets, its new ideas and new candidates, while also broadening its experience of using primary elections and social networks to advance the campaigns of local political leaders.

Dmitry Medvedev likes to expound on the advantages of the new age of “online democracy.” Perhaps, Russia’s opposition movement should embrace the possibility that it, too, has a groundbreaking opportunity to present itself in a new framework –a self-regulated, interactive social network. In this format, established experts will have the opportunity to express their view, while voters will get a chance to vote for specific ideas. This is a new framework that allows the movement to identify new leaders, announce new projects, and focus public attention upon the issues that frequently escape from the purview of the opposition. Moreover, this system would provide electronic filtering, zeroing in on the most comprehensive solutions. This will create a healthier, balanced yet more competitive informational environment, which would consequently serve to dismantle the informational monopoly created by domineering authorities in the information space.

At the same time, this new format would also largely disarm the authorities of their favorite weaponry against their critics: mainly implementing unfairly tough legislation or, in local settings, utilizing criminal lawsuits against the opposition leaders. If such a social system of protest is set up, then every arrest of an opposition activist will provide yet another push to a better organized and more powerful mobilization. Every new criminal case will detonate an explosion of information and awareness. Those who will be detained or arrested will be replaced by dozens of new activists, thus making the opposition’s collective face more diverse and expressive. Online democracy will be the conclusive force that will inevitably lead to the downfall of the anti-democratic, reactionary regime.