Staunton, March 29 – Despite all the claims about the 86 percent of Russians who support Vladimir Putin, Sergey Shelin says, the Kremlin has now “found out that the masses do not like or respect the authorities, and the latter are now faced with the task of finding a way to do without the one or the other.
Sunday’s protests sent a message to the Putin elite that “not only the intelligentsia but the broad strata of its subjects in all parts of the country have lost respect for it,” the Rosbalt commentator says. That won’t lead to resignation but rather to considering how to “live without love” from now on (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2017/03/28/1602731.html).
The experience of Poland between 1956 when Warsaw moved toward great autonomy from Moscow and 1989 when the communist regime collapsed is instructive, Shelin suggests. Over the course of that period, he points out, Warsaw’s “relations with its people passed through several stages.” Russia’s elite may now pass through some of the same.
At first, “the Polish regime had the visage of an advanced, liberal and popular one.” Intellectuals were inspired, and the government even allowed opposition figures in the parliament. Then, as clashes within the elite intensified, the state cracked down on youth marches, destroyed the opposition, and launched a xenophobic campaign.
That was sufficient to destroy the intellectuals as a political force, but then “a little later, the regime clashed with a new opposition, the workers.” To quiet them, Warsaw borrowed money furiously, but when the funds ran out and things got worse, “the worker oppositionists and the intellectual oppositionists joined forces to fight injustice, unfreedom and corruption.”
That forced Warsaw to do away with ceremony and “introduce military rule,” Shelin points out. “For a certain time, the people were suppressed but that eventually ceased to work. The bankruptcy of the old regime became complete and generally recognized.” And the old regime had to hand over power to a new one.
In Russia today, the Rosbalt commentator says, “the authoritarian and systemically corrupt regime even knowing that the people view it as it is, can survive for quite a long time by operating in part by using repression and in part by providing material improvements.”
To be effective in this, however, the regime must avoid limiting its options by any ideological constraints. “Love and respect for it have been lost without any chance of return, but before our power material remains something like a corridor of loyalty within which it can maneuver.”
But any violation of the limits of that corridor, even on secondary issues, can provoke an outburst of protests “of unpredictable size,” Shelin says, citing the Persian proverb that “it isn’t so important where a rock falls into a pond because regardless of where that is, circles of waves will spread out from it.” That is clearly where Russia is now.
The Kremlin’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church as “the highest organ of ideological supervision and control,” its promotion of “archaic values in schools and universities,” is support of “paranoid” propaganda is likely to continue because “it is difficult to imagine even the partial turning away from this.”
“For the promotion of the archaic and bans has been put in place a powerful infrastructure” which enjoys the support of the Kremlin, Shelin says, and the Kremlin and its allies know only how to tighten the screws rather than to loosen them. But perhaps looking at what happened in Belarus with the vagrants tax, Moscow will avoid some steps in that direction.
“However,” Shelin says, in this area, “there are no limits to inventiveness;” and there will be those who will suggest various ways of tightening the screws because that is what they have always done and what has always worked in the past.
According to the commentator, “the Putin system” faced opposition only from the intelligentsia five years ago. Now, it faces “an all-people” one: “Two wars, the fight with the West, the exchange of sanctions” have all had their effect.” And any “political dividends from this have been lo
That means that the Putin regime must make choices about what to do “in conditions significantly less favorable for it” than was the case in 2012. According to Shelin, there are three “variants” it can choose among.
First, it can try “another spectacle of the renaissance of great powerness” by launching another attack. But this is “very expensive, very risky and not very likely to work.” However, he says, “it cannot be excluded.”
Second, it can try to promote growth by tightening the belts of Russians still further. But it is unclear how Russians will react to a program that will lead to the further impoverishment of most of them – and the further unprecedented concentration of corrupt wealth at the top.
Or third – and Shelin says this is “the most realistic” – those in power can finally understand that “the best days of the regime are behind them and to maintain themselves by acting only within the corridor of today’s possibilities,” that is, to pursue “a policy of stagnation.”
“Love has gone and will not return,” the Rosbalt commentator says, “but the final phase of the existence of our current system only in that case can turn out to be quite long indeed.”