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Why The Kremlin Is Losing

Protesters gather with balloons and placards during an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow on February 4.
Protesters gather with balloons and placards during an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow on February 4.
Remember when something called "the Family" dominated Russian politics and Boris Berezovsky looked invincible?

It wasn't that long ago. Just over a decade back.

In late 1999, I was having dinner in a Moscow restaurant with some colleagues and we noticed Berezovsky and some hangers-on a few tables away.

One colleague gestured to the uber-oligarch's entourage, which was flanked by the usual phalanx of bodyguards, and said: "Wouldn't you love to just approach him and ask: 'Boris Abramovich, what exact scheme are you working on right now?'"

It was conventional wisdom at the time that Berezovsky was the master of Russia's political universe. As the informal leader of the so-called "Family," the shadowy collection of tycoons, cronies, and bureaucrats surrounding the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, he had the Kremlin wired and was orchestrating the rise of Vladimir Putin -- who the media called "the Family's candidate." We assumed Berezovsky would keep Putin on a tight leash, too.

We, of course, were dead wrong.

As the new millennium approached, Berezovsky and "the Family" may have looked omnipotent, but the tectonic plates supporting the political order were shifting. A new political era was on the way -- and "the Family" was on the way out (although some of its members, Roman Abramovich for example, found a place in the new order).

Inflection points like the one at the end of the 1990s can sneak up on you and there is often an analytical bias in favor of expecting the status quo to continue indefinitely. One of the tricks for Russia watchers is to know when the paradigm is about to shift, when the meta-narrative is truly changing.

Are we at such an inflection point again? I don't know for sure, of course, but I do suspect we are approaching one.

Putin still has the full weight of the Russian state at his disposal. He can use obedient courts to imprison his opponents and deploy administrative methods to rig elections. His cronies control the traditional media, the energy sector, and much of the country's heavy industry.

But regimes like Putin's don't survive on repression alone. To be stable and successful, they also need, for lack of a better term, soft power.

And on this score, 100 days into Putin's third term, it has become clear that the Kremlin has lost much of its mojo on this score. Team Putin isn't controlling the national conversation anymore. They've lost the support -- and even the passive acquiescence -- of important segments of the population. They are bickering among themselves and deeply divided. And a savvy new generation of opposition figures is on the rise.

Swindlers, Thieves, And Foreign Agents

There was a time when Putin could say something -- Мочить в сортире, or "wipe 'em out in the latrine," for example -- and it would be repeated endlessly and become part of the political lexicon.

It was entertaining for much of the public and burnished the president's pop culture image as an action-hero tough guy. But more importantly, Putin's colorful use of the Russian language helped establish a powerful national narrative: Russia has a strong, cool, and decisive leader and is rising up from its knees; Putin's opponents are feckless and doomed; the troubled '90s are over; we won't be pushed around anymore.

Putin's Kremlin once excelled at this kind of thing. They don't anymore. The narratives they try to push -- like blaming mass demonstrations on foreign agitators -- appear worn and dated, and Putin's scatological slang just isn't that funny anymore.

Now it is the opposition that is succeeding in getting its one-liners into the country's collective consciousness. With message discipline and tech-savvy that would make a political consultant proud, anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny has managed to turn phrases like партия жуликов и воров (Party of Swindlers and Thieves) and Иностранный агент Бастрыкин (Foreign Agent Bastrykin) into powerful cultural markers.

This may seem trivial, but it's not. It is helping to establish a new counternarrative that the current ruling elite is corrupt and incompetent -- and have overstayed its welcome. According to the Levada Center, some 42 percent of Russians now agree with the statement that United Russia is a "party of swindlers and thieves."

We Exist

For an opposition narrative to take hold, it needs a receptive audience. Does anybody remember the chants of "We Need Another Russia!" from anti-Kremlin rallies, attended by a dozen or so brave souls, back in 2006 or 2007? I didn't think so.

In those days, most people didn't want another Russia. Most were fine with the one they had and it was easier for the Kremlin to marginalize, trivialize, and ridicule its opponents. It's not so easy today.

Never mind the tens of thousands who can be counted on to regularly show up at opposition protests in Moscow. The broader public opinion poll numbers tell an even starker story.

Putin's raw approval rating is somewhere between the mid-50s and low 60s, depending on the poll. But as political analyst Kirill Rogov pointed out in a much-discussed article last month, it isn't as solid as it appears at first glance.

"This would be an excellent result for the president of any democratic country, but it is unacceptable for a ‘tsar’ – an unassailable and all-powerful leader with an unshakeable mandate. Putin has, in effect, lost his mandate," Rogov wrote.

According to the Levada Center data that Rogov cites, Putin's hardcore supporters number between 15-20 percent, while his soft and conditional support is between 40-45 percent. But most of these people, the data show, do not want him to rule in the same manner he did between 2000-08. These soft-core supporters want another Putin, and they aren't getting one -- which means they can flip to the other side at any time.

Putin's hard-core opponents, meanwhile, number about 15 percent, while another 15-20 percent "share the anti-Putin mood to some extent."

One of the most powerful slogans to emerge over the past eight months actually wasn't produced by Navalny. I'm not sure where it came from, but It showed up on numerous placards at protests and was part of the refrain in one of Pussy Riot's (pre-Christ the Savior Cathedral) performances.

It was simply: "We Exist."

A powerful constituency for change does, indeed, exist now. It grew out of the increasingly confident middle class that emerged during Putin's rule. It is powered and networked by increased Internet penetration and the explosion of social networks. And it's not going away anytime soon.

The Next Generation

Yeah, but there isn't any real alternative to Putin and his team. The opposition is a hodgepodge of nationalists, leftists, and liberals and has no viable leaders.

These are common refrains, repeated by Kremlin-friendly spinmeisters since mass antigovernment demonstrations broke out in December.

And there is a degree of truth to this. At each period of change in recent Russian history, there has been a leader-in-waiting ready to take charge.

As the Soviet Union imploded, it was, of course, Yeltsin. And as Yeltsin's chaotic, turbulent, and corruption-tainted presidency wound down, there was the anointed successor Putin, whose style of rule reminded no one of Yeltsin.

Now there is...nobody.

But the flaw with this line of thinking is the assumption that just because change is in the air, the regime's fall is imminent. I don't think it is.

What I think is happening is that Team Putin has lost the initiative and lost it decisively. They have no rationale for their continued rule other than, well, they want their rule to continue. They could still be in power for awhile. But the hyperconfident Kremlin we saw during Putin's first two terms is a thing of the past.

And meanwhile, the opposition -- that hodgepodge of liberals, leftists, and nationalists -- is gearing up for a long endgame.

In the autumn, they will hold online primaries to choose a 45-member council that will be tasked with making key decisions, like which candidates will run in local elections, which initiatives to support, and when to hold demonstrations.

"The problem of the opposition's legitimacy needs to be decided through elections, [especially] if we are going to accuse the authorities of lacking legitimacy," Navalny said in a video explaining the primaries on his blog this week.


The primaries won't quite produce a shadow government. But they'll be a start.

The Deep State Deep-Sixed?

When the history of this period is written, one date will likely loom large as the beginning of the end for the current ruling elite: September 24, 2011.

That was the day when it was announced at the United Russia congress that Putin would return to the presidency and Dmitry Medvedev would become prime minister.

It was also the day when what I like to call Russia's "deep state," a permanent super-elite that rules outside the confines of constitutional law, came to the surface -- and in the process lost a large degree of its legitimacy.

As New York University's Mark Galeotti pointed out in an earlier edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," for a deep state to work, "it has to remain deep."

In other words, everyone knows it is there but everyone pretends that it's not.

As Mark explained, Putin made the mistake of "dragging the deep state into public view" -- a move that broke the spell, inflamed public opinion, and created crippling divisions within the elite itself.

"The deep state worked when everyone was aware that it existed...but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians," he said. "Putin made the presence of the deep state so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."

-- 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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