Lucian Kim

The Putin Paradox

When I was the business editor of The Moscow Times in 2005, retired U.S. Senator Bob Dole met with the local American business community during a visit to Russia. A few days before the meeting, Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, had been sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud and tax evasion. The western press was filled with headlines on the crackdown against the billionaire oilman who had dared to cross Vladimir Putin.

Local representatives of the big names in U.S. industry and finance filled a conference room in the Marriott Grand Hotel. One after the other, they served up glowing testimonials on doing business in Russia: profits were growing at staggering rates as Russia enjoyed its sixth year of an unprecedented oil boom. The advice to Dole was unanimous: ignore media reports that Putin is bad for business. To the foreign business community, it was an open secret that Putin’s Russia was more a land of unlimited opportunity than a heavy-handed police state.

“Putin is neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he’s still more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population.” 

Surprisingly enough, Khodorkovsky himself subscribed to this view even after his imprisonment. During his pre-trial detention, Khodorkovsky published an article in which he argued that Putin had prevented radical forces from coming to power. “Probably Putin is neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he’s still more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population,” the jailed billionaire wrote in Vedomosti newspaper in March 2004.

The Putin Paradox holds that the former KGB agent who became Russia’s supreme leader 12 years ago is the best leader the country could hope for during its difficult transition from communism to democracy. For all his mistakes and flaws, Putin has pushed the ugliest and most retrograde forces off the political stage, just as many dictators in the Arab world have kept a lid on Islamic extremists. Moreover, despite Putin’s sinking approval ratings, there is no politician who presents a realistic alternative to him.

The Putin Paradox holds that the former KGB agent is the best leader the country could hope for during the transition from communism to democracy.

Of course the Putin Paradox is premised on the paternalistic idea that Russians aren’t quite ready for democracy. And obviously the absence of a serious challenger is a result of impossibly stringent election rules and state control of national TV. But the Putin Paradox doesn’t have to be seen as a cynical justification of Putin’s continued rule. It’s also a description of the country’s political reality.

* * *

I met Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the liberal Solidarity movement, on Tuesday afternoon. Together with anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and a dozen other activists, Yashin had been jailed for 15 days after calling on demonstrators to march to the Central Election Commission the day after the disputed December 4 parliamentary elections. Yashin has been leading protests against Putin for years, and it wasn’t the first time he was thrown in jail for it. At 28, he was the youngest speaker at the December 24 anti-government rally, Moscow’s largest protest in two decades.

I waited for him in the Ketama Bar on a popular pedestrian street, as he was running late because of a meeting in parliament. A sign on the door said “No Hipsters” and had a red line through the silhouette of a fedora and a pair of gigantic glasses. Yashin was wearing neither when he arrived. He was dressed smartly and gave me a firm handshake.

I asked Yashin about the Putin Paradox.

“Only honest elections can prove or disprove it,” he said. “I’m convinced that democratic parties would get the majority.” Putin’s intransigent attitude toward the “non-system” opposition had forced liberals to cooperate with radicals in the burgeoning protest movement, Yashin said. Now that they were already talking, it would be easier to reach compromises in a future, democratically elected Duma.

I was skeptical. Isn’t there a nationalist threat?

“I’m convinced that democratic parties would get the majority in honest elections.”

Yashin said he didn’t see a big problem with the nationalists. A poll conducted by the Levada Center at the Saturday rally found that only 6 percent of participants identified themselves as “national patriots,” while 77 percent classified themselves as “liberal,” “democrat” or “green.” Organizers were criticized for giving the stage to nationalists like Vladimir Tor. Yashin defended the idea to let moderates speak, because it had caused a split in the nationalists’ ranks. (“Moderate nationalists” don’t call for violence and merely want to limit illegal immigration, Yashin explained.) That’s the reason why radical nationalists unsuccessfully tried to storm the stage toward the end of the rally.

I was still skeptical. I knew that Yashin and Navalny went back a long way to the days when they were both members of the liberal Yabloko party – and that Navalny had been kicked out because of his nationalistic views. Wasn’t Navalny a nationalist?

Yashin said he and Navalny had been friends for a long time. When Navalny was expelled, Yashin was the only member of the Yabloko leadership who voted to keep him in the party.

“I can’t say we’re like-minded. Navalny is a ‘national democrat,’” Yashin said. “But he is playing a very useful role in politics.” Thanks to Navalny’s popularity, the internet community came out onto the street, Yashin said.

This defense of Navalny wasn’t new to me. I returned to Navalny’s speech on Saturday, by far the most forceful of the rally. Wasn’t it inflammatory to make threats about storming the Kremlin?

“Alexei Navalny is a ‘national democrat,’ but he is playing a very useful role in politics.” 

“I wouldn’t grade it as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” Yashin said diplomatically. “But I consciously lowered the level of aggressiveness in my own speech.”

The situation has changed from the days when he helped lead protests of a few hundred activists, he said. Now is the time for constructive dialogue.

Before my interview, Yashin had been in the parliament meeting with Robert Shlegel, a 27-year-old Duma deputy from Putin’s United Russia party and a former spokesman of the pro-Kremlin youth group “Nashi” (Ours).

* * *

When I bumped into Ilya Ponomaryov last week, I also pestered him about the Putin Paradox. Ponomaryov operates in two worlds, representing the social democratic Fair Russia party in parliament while helping organize the protests against vote-rigging. (Demonstrators booed him when he spoke at the Saturday rally, shouting that he should have rejected his seat in the new Duma.) Ponomaryov was at Navalny’s side when the blogger was released from detention at a police station in southern Moscow last week.

Lucian Kim

Ponomaryov, 36, said he was sure that if Russia had completely free media, all four Duma parties, including his, would disappear and be replaced by grassroots political movements. I asked him if that also meant the possibility of a “red-brown,” i.e. communist-fascist, government.

Ponomaryov laughed. Nationalists have a backing of no more than a quarter of the population, he said, and they also have very high disapproval ratings. A rough distribution of votes would be 20-25 percent for nationalists, 20 percent for conservatives, 15 percent for liberals and 30 percent for European-style leftists, Ponomaryov said.

The problem with the four parties in parliament now is that they don’t represent Russia’s full political spectrum. The ruling United Russia is an empty vessel that has been filled with Putin’s ideological needs of the day. The Communists attract old people and young protest voters; the Liberal Democrats draws on the colorful (but harmless) antics of nationalist clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and Fair Russia, originally a Kremlin project to weaken the Communists, largely collects political careerists with nowhere else to go.

Strict registration rules – which President Dmitry Medvedev has hastily promised to loosen – mean that no new parties have appeared that could give a voice to the constituencies of entrepreneurs, liberals and nationalists.

Lucian Kim

Since the newly elected parliament is discredited by fraud accusations and significant portions of the population have no political representation, the need for a creative way out of the current political stand-off has become obvious. Russia is shutting down for a 10-day New Year’s holiday, but when the country returns to work in mid-January, the opposition is determined to return to the streets before the March 4 presidential election, in which Putin is the clear favorite.

The risk for Putin isn’t that he would lose a bid for a third term in office, but that his inevitable victory could spark even bigger protests.

While the government has been very active in the last week, Russians are not convinced. After all, the whole Medvedev presidency has turned out to be a simulation of “modernization.” Promises of election reform and decentralization now seem to be yet more distractions. A reshuffle among top officials is literally that: no new faces have appeared; the same people have just taken different job titles. The other day Putin mocked the protesters for having no unified platform and no leaders with a concrete program.

It’s dangerous to replace Putin with Navalny, a bad czar with a good one. If Navalny gets too much power, Putin could end up looking like a democrat.”

Pessimists – and there is no shortage of them in Russia – fear that a small war or some other threat would be a convenient way for Putin to unify the country.

Nikolai Petrov
, my favorite political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, discounted the threat of war. He told me the biggest danger now was that Putin himself would play the nationalist card to win decisively in the first round of the presidential elections and snuff out the protest movement, still largely the domain of Russia’s liberal urban elite.

At the same time Putin would steal back the nationalist initiative from emerging leaders like Navalny. “The idea is very dangerous to replace Putin with Navalny, a bad czar with a good one,” said Petrov. “If Navalny gets too much power, Putin could end up looking like a democrat.”

* * *

Yashin doesn’t believe that the government will have time to organize Petrov’s feared “negative mobilization.” He sees two possible scenarios now: the Belarusian scenario or the Polish scenario.

The first scenario would follow the script of Alexander Lukashenko, the eternal president of Russia’s western neighbor Belarus: violent repression and persecution of the opposition. Unlike Lukashenko, however, Putin and his ruling elite are closely integrated into the global economy and can’t just close the borders, Yashin said. “It would end in blood and civil war.”

The second scenario refers to the Communists’ peaceful surrender of their political monopoly in Poland following roundtable discussions with the democratic opposition in 1989. Yashin welcomed the appearance of Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister and Putin friend, as a potential mediator. A first step to a negotiated settlement in Russia would be the dissolution of the newly elected Duma, Yashin said. Its only function should be to pass a new election law and delay the presidential election until the spring or summer, he said.

Putin has already made clear that cancelling the December 4 Duma elections is out of the question. The protest movement is discussing a next big demonstration in February. And the Putin Paradox has held for yet another year.

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