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The Gathering Storm


An opposition supporter during a protest rally against Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov on September 12.

An opposition supporter during a protest rally against Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov on September 12.

In my last post before going on vacation, I argued that Russian civil society came of age to a degree this past tumultuous August and that the situation among the elite and in society is beginning to resemble that of the early perestroika period. There is a general consensus that reforms are necessary, the elite is badly divided over the nature and extent of the changes that are required, and the public is getting increasingly assertive and demanding.

Dmitry Gorenberg of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University had a thoughtful comment on that post, which also appeared on his "Russian Military Reform" blog:

I am sympathetic to Brian’s analysis, but we should remember one crucial factor that allowed the early perestroika activism to turn into something more -- the willingness of the authorities to allow it to develop and to grow. I’m pessimistic about the current authorities’ willingness to do the same. More likely, any efforts to expand protests will be met with force by the government.

Perestroika was only in part a popular protest movement. Popular protest developed and grew because Gorbachev wanted to use it to break the back of the conservative CPSU bureaucracy. I see no parallels in the current environment to this aspect of perestroika, and therefore it seems to me that protest will remain relatively small scale for the foreseeable future and will not threaten the Putin/Medvedev regime.

I think this is correct to a degree. Although it is hard not to notice that the regime has become -- if not more tolerant -- at least a bit more schizophrenic about how to deal with public protests than it was a few years ago.

This schizophrenia, I believe, reflects deep schisms that have been opening up in the ruling elite ever since the financial and economic crisis hit in late 2008, shaking the regime's confidence and emboldening those on the inside who favor some form of political reform. And these schisms, combined with a newly assertive civil society, are creating a very fluid and unpredictable situation.

The parallels with early perestroika are there, to be sure. But that is no guarantee that the script will play out as it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, it probably won't. History, to paraphrase Mark Twain, doesn't always repeat itself. But it often rhymes.

In an article this week for politkom.ru, Tatyana Stanovaya, director of the Center for Political Technology, makes a compelling argument that the struggle over whether or not to remove Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is presenting Russia's ruling tandem of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev with their most serious political test to date.

Police grab an opposition protester during a September 12 rally in Moscow.
A key component of Stanovaya's argument is that the very nature of conflict within the elite has changed over the past couple years.

Clan warfare, of course, has always been present in Putin's power vertical. There was the battle between Rosneft and Gazprom for Yukos's assets in the middle of the past decade, there was the vicious "siloviki war" in late 2007, and there was the rivalry between the pro-Kremlin parties United Russia and A Just Russia.

But, as Stanovaya notes, those conflicts were contained because "the political regime was built on a 'vertical' and operated according to strict rules of the game for the main players," all of whom -- like under Leonid Brezhnev's "stability of cadres" approach -- were accorded a degree of protection.

"Any conflicts within the system, if they arose, were between 'its own,'" Stanovaya writes. "Conflicts were possible within the Putin elite, but not outside its limits. For everybody else, political immunity was minimized, which also reduced the conflict potential."

Today, the neo-Brezhnevian "stability of cadres" approach that reigned under Putin appears to be history. Just ask Yury Luzhkov, who is fighting like an alley cat to keep his job -- or Mintimer Shaimiyev, or Murtaza Rakhimov, who have already lost theirs. The elite no longer has immunity.

And the public, as evidenced by everything from the Khimki forest protesters to Noize MC to the "blue bucket" protests, no longer seems to be afraid to challenge their rulers.

So there is now an increasingly insecure and divided political elite, a more assertive and engaged public, and a high-stakes political season on the horizon with local elections scheduled for next month, parliamentary elections in December 2011 (which, incidentally, is the 20th anniversary of the breakup of the USSR) and a presidential election in March 2012.

As Stanovaya notes, this is a potentially combustible combination:

The set of political and socio-economic risks is now growing, because of the post-crisis phenomena, the unequivocal nature of the electoral consequences after the unprecedentedly serious fires on Russian territory, the disagreements between various interest groups, and the lessening of the dependence of the ruling regime on the will of one single 'national leader.' It is also not completely clear right now what the potential is of the new forms of protest that have appeared in the last two years: the mass actions of the union of motorists, the blue bucket brigades, etc.

The rhymes of history are becoming audible. We just don't know yet what the final verse will end up sounding like this time.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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