On the other hand, the authorities are cracking down sternly, even brutally, on even insignificant manifestations of opposition, from small demonstrations to individual articles in regional newspapers. "Of course, the current authorities are nervous, as we can see," former Prime Minister and opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov said this week. "And this is expressed in the uncertainty of various actions, including the reaction to protest actions that take place."
The administration of President Vladimir Putin seems genuinely anxious to have total control -- not merely near-total control -- over the current political transition. Western observers have commented that the Kremlin's actions verge on paranoia. Is the seemingly all-powerful Russian administration really afraid of something?
Stability, Security Above All
Several factors motivate the authorities' increasingly harsh reactions to any dissent. First, in the absence of any ideology or issues, the Kremlin has centered its campaign on the issue of stability vs. instability. In subtle and overt ways over the last year, the authorities have sown the idea that the current administration is the only bulwark against a flood of internal and external enemies bent on destroying Russia. Although from afar many of these efforts seem almost comical, they have considerable political traction with both the left and right wings of Russia's political spectrum, appealing to everyone from World War II veterans and Soviet nostalgists to right-wing youth and monarchists.
It is a natural tendency for any incumbent administration to equate a change of course with impending disaster, and the effect of this tendency is magnified in Russia's political culture, in which so many actual disasters have occurred within living memory. A large segment of the electorate -- including many who might vote for the Communist Party or the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia -- believe decisive action against unsanctioned initiative is an attractive sign of strength and resolve.
Another key factor in the Kremlin's apparently overblown reaction to dissent is the basic mentality of the siloviki -- people connected with the military, law enforcement, and security organs -- who dominate the Putin-era power elite. There is a saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and this applies to Russia today.
To take just one key example, six of the seven presidential envoys to the federal districts, the men who form the direct link between the Kremlin and regional authorities, are career siloviki. By long years of training and habit, these people are conditioned to view every initiative as a threat and to demand decisive, forceful action, especially when time is short and the stakes are high. Even some members of the Kremlin-friendly Central Election Commission have complained that police across the country have seized the initiative in the current election campaign, cracking down on opposition activity even before local election officials have time to call them.
In addition, the current election campaign is the first real, national-scale test of the vaunted "vertical of power" created by the Putin administration over the last seven years. One of the key elements of this new structure was the elimination of the direct election of regional leaders and the replacement of that system by one under which they are appointed by Putin, on the advice of his envoys to the federal districts. Since this reform took effect in 2005, virtually all Russia's regional leaders have undergone a presidential test of confidence and most of the formerly independent ones have either fallen in line or been replaced. Local administrations are now oriented toward pleasing the presidential administration rather than toward appeasing (or appearing to appease) local residents.
Pension Protests Shocked Kremlin
However, underlying all these factors, there is a real element of anxiety within the Kremlin that cannot be ignored. The political environment that has emerged in the Putin years leaves only a narrow and ever-narrowing corridor for any form of independent public expression. State control of the media, the political process, and civil society is virtually complete, while control over other avenues of self-realization from the arts to business to religion is growing constantly. The threat of pressure building up behind that structure has been mollified by the country's favorable economic circumstances, but it has not disappeared.
Kremlin political analysts know that popularity in this managed political system is an illusion. For instance, Viktor Zubkov was virtually unknown to the Russian public when he was named prime minister in September. However, a poll taken just six days after his appointment found him Russia's second-most-popular politician, with 40 percent of Russians saying they expected him to become the next president. Putin's own popularity ratings, although they are consistently in the 60-70 percent range, must be viewed within this context.
Pro-Kremlin politicians and spokespeople have been saying for months that there will be no "Orange Revolution" in Russia, referring to the events in Ukraine in late 2004. But it is important to remember that the events in Ukraine -- which were a shocking wake-up call for the Kremlin -- were followed by a national wave of protests in Russia itself in early 2005. At that time, the government passed a controversial bill that eliminated in-kind social benefits such as free transportation and replaced them with cash payments. The deeply unpopular measure brought pensioners and others out onto the streets in the thousands in an apparently spontaneous wave of popular unrest.
The 2005 demonstrations, which eventually involved some 500,000 people in dozens of cities, rocked the just-forming political system and demonstrated to the Kremlin the need for total control. The administration was shocked when demonstrators blamed the crisis on Putin personally and called on him to resign. Posters appeared comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler and, in general, the climate around the country contrasted sharply with the apparently universal adoration the president enjoys now. At the time, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky observed that the Kremlin and Unified Russia had staked too much on public apathy.
During that crisis, the presidential administration also found itself facing opposition from unexpected quarters. Deputies from the Rodina (Motherland) faction in the Duma, who previously had been regarded as loyal to the Kremlin, carried out a hunger strike within the Duma building. Regional leaders -- including loyalists like St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko -- met with demonstrators and made concessions that undermined the law.
In fact, liberal economist Mikhail Delyagin said at the time that regional administrations were partially responsible for stoking the demonstrations, since they stood to lose revenues from the reform. "Since they are afraid to confront Moscow openly, they pretend that the protests are only the voice of the people and are in no hurry to silence it," Delyagin said. Even Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II spoke out against the Kremlin's reform.
At the time, opposition politicians said the protests demonstrated that the new political system, in which Unified Russia dominated the Duma and refused to discuss legislation or make compromises with other parties, was untenable. The Kremlin's takeaway, apparently, was different. Police cracked down on demonstrators, particularly after Yabloko and the Communist Party began joining and organizing them. Riot police generally left the pensioners alone, but targeted young people and organizers, who were widely labeled "provocateurs." "The law enforcement organs have videotapes of all those younger-than-pension-aged people who are traveling back and forth from city to city, inciting the population to block streets and engage in other violations of the law," the acting governor of Moscow Oblast said in January 2005.
It has been less than three years since those events, which rocked the nascent Putin-era political system and led to its substantial revamping. This fall, when the prices of many basic foodstuffs jumped unexpectedly, the Kremlin was quick to act, with Putin personally ordering an immediate hike in pensions that the Duma passed with near-record speed. At the same time, political parties that tried to build support on that issue found themselves under savage attack.
Now, this improved system is being called to implement a delicate political transition on a national scale. Clearly the Kremlin believes that the steps it plans for the postelection period, which will likely include major constitutional changes including the elimination of the direct election of the president, require the appearance of a nearly unanimous popular mandate from the Russian people. And that is what the vertical of power will deliver.
For more on Russia's parliamentary vote, see Will These Elections Be Russia's Last? and Securing An Outcome: The How-To's Of Vote-Rigging