20 years under Putin: a timeline

On December 12, Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address. This address had been eagerly anticipated, since it would be the president’s first statement of policy since the winter protests, following on the heels of a significant toughening-up of legislation and the beginning of persecution of the opposition. The question the public wanted answered was what would the “Putin line” be in these new political realities? Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the analytical department at the Center of Political Technologies and an advisor at the IMR, tries to read between the lines of Putin’s answer.



It is important to note that the December 12 speech was the first presidential address since 1994 that has been so lacking in real substance, and this made it a great disappointment for the experts. The address is one of the key mechanisms for establishing a line of dialogue between the authorities and society, but this occasion more closely resembled a dialogue between deaf-mutes. We can clearly see the set of questions posed indirectly to the president by the public—but Putin ignored these questions, the most important of which were: What major line will Putin follow in his third (de facto his fourth) term as president? Is the toughening-up of political legislation a temporary, one-off measure (as a response to protests), or is it a long-term strategic approach that will be continued for the next six (or even twelve) years? What measures does the regime intend to take in order to minimize the risk of a destabilization of the political system as a result of increased activity by the protesting minority? What is the regime willing to offer the “creative class” in the broad sense of that term? Does the Kremlin really believe that the ruling party is not in any need of reform and that the system is prepared for a scenario of political inertia? Who are Russia’s enemies within, and why are they being used so aggressively to frighten the people? Putin did not give direct answers to these questions.

It is astounding that Putin also contrived to completely avoid the subject of the protests—the major political issue of 2012. However, the absence of a direct answer does not mean that there was no answer at all. By analyzing the text of the message, we can formulate the key elements of the regime’s position in relation to the protest movement and opposition from outside the system.

Element number one: there is no protest movement. The Kremlin has in fact been proceeding for a long time on the assumption that the protest movement is in decline and will die out. This belief partly stems from the regime’s own convictions and partly acts as an instrument of propaganda: the Kremlin is trying to convince the experts, society, journalists, and—most importantly—itself that the sociopolitical situation has stabilized and the protest movement of last winter was merely an exception to the rule. This stance is borne out, for instance, by a report prepared by the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society on the eve of the first anniversary of the winter rallies and titled A New Wave of Protest: Myths and Reality. As background, this foundation was set up several months ago by the former head of the Kremlin’s Department of Internal Politics, Konstantin Kostin, whose wife, Olga Kostina, happens to be a prosecution witness in the Yukos case. In other words, the functions fulfilled by the report are not merely analytical, but propagandist in nature. The report’s main conclusion is that the opposition, having taken at least six months too long to elect its Coordinating Council, has lost its initial impetus. The authors argue that the protest movement has a small core group of activists (5,000 people out of 12 million in Moscow), and that a significant number of those who came out for the December 2011 rallies have voted for Putin in the March elections. “The protest has gotten bogged down in itself,” the report argues. “The fashion for it has passed, and any attempts to make protest relevant again lead to seven-hour discussions of the procedural rules of the Coordinating Council. Only a winner can be fashionable, and once again the winner is Putin.” In other words, the protests were a short-term fad, not a profound sociopolitical phenomenon.

Putin’s speech did not contain a single word about the demands for change that have resounded in the public squares of major cities.

By virtue of its silence on the subject of protest, Putin’s address provides confirmation that this is the Kremlin’s view of the external opposition. Putin’s speech did not contain a single word about the demands for change that have resounded in the public squares of major cities. And indeed, there was no promise of any changes at all. “Stability is the principal condition for the successful development of the country,” said the president.

Element number two: the extra-systemic opposition is a threat to the regime and not a counterpart for negotiations with the authorities. In his address, Putin partially confirmed the ongoing policy of “criminalizing” the extra-systemic opposition—that is, the regime will continue to attempt to place its critics outside the law and subject them to criminal prosecution. This policy follows implicitly from the “rules of bona fide competition” specified by Putin. He named five such rules: the exclusion of separatist and nationalist elements from the political agenda, the unacceptability of external interference (that is, the financing of opposition activity from abroad), the unacceptability of criminal activity in politics, compliance with the law, and equal access to the media.

Of these rules, two are by far the most interesting—the requirement for compliance with the law and the unacceptability of foreign interference. The president noted: “A civilized dialogue is only possible with those political forces which act in a civilized manner in proposing, substantiating, and formulating their demands, and which advocate them within the framework of the law. Change and modernization of the political system are natural and even necessary, but, as I have already said in this connection, paying for the craving for change with the destruction of the very state itself is impermissible.” This ingenious formulation, under which compliance with the law is interpreted as willingness to play by the Kremlin’s rules, and demands for change are associated with the destruction of the state, looks distinctly paranoid.

How is it possible to comply with the law when the law is interpreted by the authorities to suit their own convenience? For instance, why can numerous pro-Kremlin organizations hold rallies in the very center of Moscow, but the extra-systemic opposition cannot? Why can corrupt officials accept kickbacks from foreign companies, but human rights organizations cannot receive legal foreign grants? This is an expression of the immense hypocrisy of the regime and an attempt to give the protest movement a very simple answer: you do only what is approved by the Kremlin, or else you will be considered to be outside the law.


According to Tatiana Stanovaya, in today's context, the return of single-member districts in State Duma elections will above all benefit the United Russia party.


The third important element of the regime’s position on protest is a ritualistic “democratism.” Russia’s democratic institutions became decorative long ago, but the semblance of competition is maintained, which in itself facilitates the legitimization of the regime. Judging from Putin’s December address, the policy of strengthening the managed model of the Russian regime will continue. Evidence for this conjecture is indicated by Putin’s initiatives in the area of electoral legislation. The head of state has proposed a return to the mixed system of elections for State Duma deputies (not only from party lists, but also from single-member first-past-the-post districts) and consideration of the possibility of allowing the creation of electoral blocs. These proposals are probably the most significant (and pretty much the only) new ideas in the entire address.

Having said “A” last December, the Kremlin is now obliged to say “B.” Let us recall that, under pressure from the protests, the presidential administration was obliged to concede a certain degree of liberalization of the laws concerning politics and political parties. One of its key elements was a simplification of the procedure for registering political parties, which resulted in the number of parties in Russia increasing several times in the past year. However, the present system of elections to the State Duma is so rigid that it renders all these measures meaningless unless they are followed by a reform of the electoral laws. Such reforms were enacted a little less than a year ago, but only symbolically: at that time, then-President Dmitri Medvedev tried to bring back the mixed system of elections that was in place before 2003 (when 225 deputies were elected from single-member districts and 225 from party lists via a proportional system). However, Medvedev lacked the political will to enforce these measures, and as a result, the proportional system underwent virtually no change—parties were merely obliged to divide up their electoral lists into 225 regional sections.

Putin laid the groundwork to portray himself as bearing the mantle of “spiritual arbiter of the nation” who decides for himself where the boundary lies between what is right and what is wrong for the state.

The decision to bring back the mixed system will work in the interest of the largest political party, United Russia. Bearing in mind that, using the administrative resource, the ruling party rakes in an overwhelming majority of votes throughout the country, we must acknowledge that half the State Duma is already in the Kremlin’s pocket. But as it turns out, even that is not enough for the administration: the Kremlin has decided to insure itself against a fall in the electoral popularity of the ruling party—which is effectively an acknowledgement of the risk of political destabilization and the regime’s preparedness to deal with increasing levels of protest. That is why Putin mentioned the possibility of allowing electoral blocs. Realizing that the reputation of United Russia is beyond repair and that its reformation is a politically risky process with no guarantee of success, the Kremlin is toying with the idea of establishing a coalition of pro-Putin forces on the foundation of United Russia and the All-Russian People’s Front, a structure set up in spring 2011 to mobilize support for Putin from social organizations, trade unions, cultural figures, and so on. A bloc of pro-Putin forces could establish a distance between the president and a ruling party that is losing ground, and thus help present him as “the father of the nation.”

The fourth and perhaps the most important element of Putin’s position with regard to the protest movement can be expressed in a well-known formula: “He who is not with us is against us.” A highly fluid and contentious (but extremely manipulative) mechanism for the evaluation of political activity on the basis of moral principles and moral character is being introduced into the political sphere. In his address, Putin laid the groundwork to portray himself as bearing the mantle of “spiritual arbiter of the nation”—a moral authority who decides for himself where the boundary lies between what is right and what is wrong for the state. For the first time, Putin publicly set himself above the state and above the law.

This position is expressed in Putin’s attempt to formulate a state ideology based on certain spiritual values. “It is precisely in civic responsibility, in patriotism, that I see the basis for the consolidation of our politics. . . . A sense of responsibility for the country is not shaped by slogans and appeals, but when people see that authority is transparent and accessible, that it ‘slaves away’ for the sake of the country, the town, the region, the village, and every citizen, that it takes account of public opinion,” said Putin. This is a clear attempt by the Kremlin to draw a line between a “bawling” opposition and a regime that is “slaving away.” From this position, any admission of prior mistakes is cast as a display of weakness.

The conclusion to be drawn from the state-of-the-nation-address is that Putin is attempting to assume the leadership of the nation by ignoring the protest movement and the schism in society between a passive majority that is dependent on the state and an active, well-educated minority. The authorities are trying to ignore the increasing polarization between the two camps, attempting to depict the former as the embodiment of the Russian people and the latter as misfits, spies, revolutionaries, and criminals. The attempt to link the assessment of “legitimacy” of political activity with spiritual and moral criteria is a clear sign of the gradual degeneration of the regime, which, armed with this vision, will be obliged to move in the direction of ever-greater severity. This is the message that Vladimir Putin put across to his people.