There is a phenomenon in Russia these days, grown out of the Putin era, of encouraging and utilizing the nationalistic instincts of the country’s youth. Unfortunately for Vladimir Putin and his plans for a “disciplined” future, these radicalized young people have there own ambitions. And these ambitions do not include acceptance of what they now consider the “old order” — V.V. Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and the siloviki of the past decade.
In an odd association of bedfellows, the liberal partisans and parties have found themselves demonstrating for the same anti-Putin causes that have driven the young radical rightists. The anti-establishment, anti-Kremlin rally the last week of December 2011 had been estimated to be an amazing 100,000 demonstrators. That number and more marched through downtown Moscow on February 4. Nothing this size has occurred in the last twenty years. The stage for this extraordinary political action was set several weeks before the December affair when several thousand protesters rallied in Moscow against what they claimed were fraudulent actions by Putin’s party, United Russia, in its majority victory in the parliamentary elections.
Neutral observers from the Council of Europe supported these claims of electoral fraud, which they characterized as “flagrant procedural violations.” This was a diplomatic way of referring to obviously stuffed ballot boxes, 99% victories, and the accumulation of votes in excess of the population living in various districts. These violations were so egregious that it brings into question the political competence of the Putin machine — or perhaps the degree of control Vladimir Putin’s lieutenants have over his local followers.
Of course, none of this was supposed to happen. The right-wing youth were considered solidly in the Putin camp. The middle class urban liberals had never shown any real sense of organization — and certainly not enough to join in a massive public demonstration. Given the coolness that Putin has personified over the years, he certainly was deemed to have his country’s politics and his own future under control. What happened?
To begin with, the quiescent Russia that the Medvedev/Putin tandem has purportedly personified apparently does not exist. Medvedev’s representation of the economic middle class and the intellectual liberals was calculated as a balance to Putin’s supposed attraction to the more conservative nationalistic “ordinary citizen.” This latter group turns out to have a larger component that is far more radical than previously perceived.
Conservative nationalists include a segment of the youth demographic that reveres the racist beliefs of Nazism and extols the thuggery of street action. This segment of the population is dominated by the under-thirties who strongly feel their estrangement from the establishment. The FSB and local police thought they had these neo-Nazis and skinheads well penetrated and under control. They were wrong. The so-called conservative nationalists may include many “ordinary citizens,” but it also embodies the violence-prone hooliganism akin to the early days of Bolshevism and, of course, Nazi street fighters.
The numbers of the politically liberal include many who originally supported the reforms urged by Putin because the laissez-faire Yeltsin years dominated by newly minted multi-millionaire oligarchs had produced so much economic inequality. The ranks of the people who consider themselves “liberals” are weakened by an excess of leaders who, in spite of their considerable number, are unable to energize and effectively organize their followers. In brief, these anti-Putin elements suffer from the traditional “too many chiefs — not enough Indians” syndrome.
Structurally, therefore, the opposition to Putin’s imperial leadership lacks the cohesiveness and strength to challenge Putin’s dominant political party, United Russia. Overturning the government through public demonstrations has no possibility in a Russia that in general still is accepting of the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin.
There is a tendency in Europe and the United States to view the leadership style of a former career KGB officer as inconsistent with the growth of democracy in Russia. This view is counter-reality, according to Kremlin insiders. The belief of these Putin loyalists, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is that strong leadership is the sine qua non of today’s democracy in Russia. In this context holding the nation together with a firm hand — politically, economically, socially and militarily — is necessary in order to encourage democracy to thrive in a country struggling to define itself in global terms. Self-serving, true, but that’s what they believe.
Putin’s drive to return Russia to the forefront of world political military powers will brook no interference from internal divisions. His aim is to bring Russia back to superpower status and he will do whatever necessary to achieve that objective. According to Putinistas, if the left and right wing mobs in the streets don’t understand this, they will have to be “taught.”