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The Loneliness Of The Autocratic Ruler

President Vladimir Putin at a reception at the Kremlin on June 28 in honor of military-academy and university graduates.

President Vladimir Putin at a reception at the Kremlin on June 28 in honor of military-academy and university graduates.

If President Vladimir Putin's legislative intentions toward Russia's fledgling civil society are not clear by now, it's not for lack of trying on his part.

New legislation is reportedly in the works that would create a register of websites with illegal content -- and require providers to block such sites. The legislation's original stated purpose was to combat child pornography and pedophilia. But as reports, quoting members of the ruling United Russia party, it will also be used to battle "extremism" -- the Kremlin's favorite euphemism for any opposition activity.

The legislation, currently being considered by the State Duma, comes as lawmakers are also set to debate a bill requiring any NGO receiving funding from abroad to register as a "foreign agent." And, of course, it comes on the heels of a recently passed law imposing draconian fines on participants in unsanctioned demonstrations.

Likewise, it is also becoming clear that Putin doesn't plan to show much mercy for disloyal former friends and allies.

Just ask Federation Council deputy Lyudmila Narusova, the mother of socialite-turned-social activist Ksenia Sobchak and widow of the man who launched Putin's political career -- the late former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

Prosecutors are reportedly poring over a television interview Narusova gave, looking for evidence of extremism. Additionally, the ruling United Russia party is seeking to expel Narusova from the upper chamber of parliament.

Part of the assault on Narusova can surely be traced to the Kremlin's increased irritation with her daughter's opposition activities. And part of it was likely sparked by her vocal opposition to the law imposing harsh penalties on anti-regime demonstrations.

Narusova would not be the first Putin ally to fall from grace. Sergei Mironov lost his perch as Federation Council speaker when he was too vocal in his support for a second term for Dmitry Medvedev and too critical of United Russia. State Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov saw his taxes investigated and his security company eviscerated when he became a vocal critic of the regime.

The ramping up of the pressure on civil society and the retribution against perceived turncoats suggest that the ruling elite -- or at least the part of the elite that currently has Putin's ear -- is spooked by the longevity and intensity of the opposition to the Kremlin since December.

In a thoughtful piece published on, Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion-page editor at the daily "Vedomosti" wrote that ever since popular uprisings in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, "Putin's main concern has been to avoid revolution," but his actions might paradoxically lead to one:

Despite all their efforts, it is the country's current rulers that have created the conditions for revolution. By rewriting Russia's electoral legislation (the last few years have seen amendments to 55 laws relating to electoral processes), the Kremlin's political managers have made elections controllable. Businesses have been intimidated by expropriation, their owners prevented from financing undesirable political activity. The development of a civil society has been strangled by restrictions on the not-for-profit sector. The entire thrust of Putin's policies has been to eliminate everything natural and unpredictable.

The result has been that all genuine, not imitation, political activity has been excluded from the political arena. The Kremlin's apparatchiks spent years working out how to restrict the opposition's legal room to maneuver, and they succeeded: they destroyed the conditions necessary for the development of a political mainstream. And by doing so, they created a powder keg.

Trudolyubov isn't the first respectable commentator to suggest that Russia is on the brink of serious upheaval. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of the country's leading sociologists; the Center for Strategic Research, a top think tank; and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin have come to the same conclusion.

It is not just that Putin is creating a powder keg. With his pressure on civil society and his moves against former supporters, he is also isolating himself and his increasingly shrinking inner circle.

And with potential economic storm clouds on the horizon -- either from volatile commodities prices, or contagion from Europe, or both -- isolated is not where he needs to be. If the crisis comes, Putin will own it -- and he'll be mostly all alone.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: The Power Vertical blog and podcast will take a small break due to the extended July 4 holiday weekend. The blog will be back on July 9 and the next podcast will come out on July 13

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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