Staunton, August 12 – For the last month, Muscovites have been taking part in growing protests against the illegal actions of the authorities to prevent opposition candidates from being registered. This rising tide of demonstrations in the Russian capital, Lilya Shevtsova says, has undermined” the Kremlin’s self-defense mechanisms.
In a 3500-word interview with Znak journalist Yevgeny Senshin, the Russian political analyst says that the Kremlin is scrambling to find a new means of maintaining power in the face of this challenge, while the opposition considers what steps it needs to take (znak.com/2019-08-12/mesyac_s_nachala_protestnyh_akciy_v_moskve_chto_budet_dalshe_intervyu).
What matters, Shevtsova says, is not the growing size of the protests but the fact that people are so angry that they are willing to come out even in the face of increasing repression. “Each action today confirms the new quality of the protests,” ones with more younger people and more from the regions taking part.
According to the Russian analyst, “the Moscow city council elections were never important.” The authorities didn’t want the opposition to gain a victory and the Kremlin will never allow Navalny and his immediate entourage to gain a foothold in legislative structures. But in opposing the population, she says, “the Moscow authorities committed a systemic error.”
They would have been far better off with a few opposition figures in a legislative body that doesn’t matter than with what they have provoked – “a massive political conflict” – one that highlights the fact that “the autocracy has already for a long time already been in a state of agony.”
“The collapse of the USSR,” Shevtsova continues, “in peace time and in the absence of threats confirms that this system does not have any prospects. But the agony of such constructions can extend for decades. Now there are already signs not of a crisis of the system but of its degradation and rotting.”
“Up until now,” she says, “the Kremlin has balanced the interests of the siloviki and other oligarch corporations.” It is unlikely that the former have passed out of its control: the problem of the siloviki is in who controls them and how they are used. Fighting against them is “the best present for those who want an escalation of state terror.”
“The authorities are moving toward a dictatorship, possibly not a personal but a group one. The Kremlin has been preparing itself for existence in a situation of limited resources and a rising tide of dissatisfaction. We are seeing the consolidation of a system which restructured itself after the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of Western sanctions.”
The regime is turning to force because its other means are “running out” and because the ruling class cannot continue to exist if it remains within the boundaries of the law. “All this changes the former mechanism of survival which included imitation and personal integration of the ruling class ‘in the West.’”
The Kremlin doesn’t want any repetition of any of Gorbachev’s reforms. Instead, it “is attempting to use ‘the summer of protest’ to form a new defense mechanism,” one that is based on increased repression justified by suggestions that those protesting against it are foreign agents, an echo of accusations about Russian interference in elections in the West.
It is extremely difficult for the Putin regime to acknowledge that “people have gone into the streets on their own because they are dissatisfied. This must never be admitted. It is necessary to find an external enemy who has tempted our simple-minded citizens! In short, we see an effort to replace ‘Crimea is Ours’ with a new mobilization mechanism.”
The Putin regime is doing this, Shevtsova continues, “because in Russia there is no chance either for a lengthy mass terror like Stalin’s or for a stable dictatorship. There are no ideas which would justify force of that kind and the dictatorial authority of the leader.” Neither elites nor the siloviki will support that.
“We already live in a different country,” and so the Kremlin is seeking yet again another way to legitimize itself and retain power. But here is the crux of the current problem: “the system is falling apart more rapidly than an alternative is taking shape,” a pattern that allows the regime to remain in place and prevents the opposition from moving to replace it.
The result of this conflict “will depend on two factors: the presence in society of an organized alternative and the readiness of part of the elite for dialogue with the opposition in the name of national salvation,” Shevtsova argues. The absence of clarity is sparking fear and concern among many.
But one thing is certain: the preservation of the autocracy unchanged and forever is impossible. The system must be changed. There must be an end to the super-presidentialist system in which the incumbent has “greater powers than did the general secretaries of the communist party of the Soviet Union.”
“But as Ukraine shows, escaping from an authoritarian-oligarchic system is much more difficult than doing the same thing from communism.” How to break the ties between power and property and how to restore confidence in institutions are questions for which no one currently has an answer.
Unfortunately, the West isn’t helping. It has its own problems. According to Shevtsova, it “could influence Russia only by one means, the cleaning out of its own stables and the blocking of the export of corruption from counties like Russia.” At present, there is little interest among Western elites in taking those steps.
And in conclusion, Shevtsova makes one final point. “Concentrating on the fate of Vladimir Putin and ‘the Putinization’ of the conversation and of our politics prevents the discussion of more important problems connected with the logic of a system which already does not depend on the leader alone.”
All the babble “about ‘transition,’” she says, “represents a failure to talk about current challenges and how people should respond to them.”