Putin's system is beginning to crack. How long before the big bang?
Not the warm embrace he was waiting for. Barely a few days after he launched his campaign for the 2012 presidential elections, Putin's once inoxydable aura is visibly tarnished: recently booed as he climbed on stage, increasingly ridiculed in the social media, Russia's Prime Minister is now facing the biggest street protests since the 1990s. An estimated 60 000 took to the street of Moscow this weekend, and a demonstration of similar scale is planned for December 24.
The backlash comes at a time when Putin's power seems most consolidated. There is no real challenge to his system of managed democracy, in which, under a veneer of democratic process, he gets to appoint every significant player in Russian politics; the economy, along with the patronage system governing it, is firmly under his control. None of which seemed to bother Russians much so far. So what's going on?
The people's sudden angst has two immediate causes. First is the fallout from last November, when Putin announced that he would take over from the current president, Dmitri Medvedev, and return to the top job next year. The manoeuvre made a mockery of the country's institutions, and confirmed what most speculated - that Russia should brace itself for 12 more years of authoritarian, paternalistic rule. Ordinary citizens understood they would have no say in this decision; they didn't like it.
But they liked it even less when, during the last parliamentary elections, they caught the Kremlin perpetrating massive vote rigging. Russian polls, to be sure, have rarely been immune to fraud. But this time footage of ballot stuffing, vote buying, and results falsification were captured live on camera phones, posted on social networks and blogs, and viewed million times online. The thousands of Russians now taking to the street want to show they're not fooled.
Yet the current uproar is symptom of a far deeper malaise - one that predated this month's vote. The leadership took the risk of large scale cheating to hide an uncomfortable truth: its popularity is eroding. And the results of the elections, humiliating for the ruling party despite the fraud (its share of the vote fell from 64% to 50%), proves how fast it is happening. To most Russia watchers, one thing becomes plain: Putin's model is beginning to crack.
Putin's decade-old tsar system has rested on two pillars. One is that, despite his disrespect for human rights and his kleptocratic clan, he still enjoyed legitimacy because he was himself hugely popular. This is now being tested: the rising middle class, who welcomed the former KGB officer, and his pledges of stability amid the post-Soviet chaos, back in the 2000s, are now tired of his paternalistic rule. They don't find his well-mediatized stunts all that funny anymore (he's been seen riding horses, scuba-diving, hunting), have switched off state TV, and resent a system that so openly distribute wealth and power to the President's friends.
But where Putin's troubles really lie is in the economy. For, as long as he was able to guarantee steady progress in living standards, Russians were content to sit on the sidelines and watch. And for most of the past decade, stratospheric energy prices allowed for just that. But the middle-class has now reached a plateau, and is afraid to roll back down: ever-higher prices are now needed to balance the books, due to the inefficiencies that comes with a state-managed economy; growth, still recovering from the 2008 recession, is likely to go down; capital and talents are exiting an economy that offers scarce opportunity; and wages no longer outpace inflation. The grim global outlook is unlikely to make these prospects any brighter.
Could the system suddenly explode? Unlikely. For one, most Russians are not calling for a revolution - they just want a new vote. The fractious opposition, furthermore, has yet to unify around a single figure, much less around a program. And above all, the Kremlin still has useful tools to try and damp the rising dissent: it can use the security forces to intimidate opponents, or buy them off with better pensions and welfare programs.
Yet neither sticks nor carrots will bring shine back to Russia’s fading tsar. What he really needs to do, rather, is modernize the economy and liberalize politics. Failing this, he may not yet fall from his throne - but he will become increasingly vulnerable.