Staunton, September 6 – The recent protests in Moscow are not the cause of a change in the atmosphere in Russia, as some appear t believe, but rather a reflection of a fundamental shift that has already taken place and that in fact is responsible for the protests, Rosbalt commentator Sergey Shelin says.
This confusion of cause and effect, he continues, is behind many of the debates among Russian commentators, “almost all of whom start from the idea that the election ritual is extraordinarily important for the regime” and that the way in which the population responds will drive what the regime will do (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2019/09/06/1801035.html).
That exaggerates the importance of elections for the regime, Shelin suggests, and the way it will read any further expressions of popular dissatisfaction about what the authorities are doing. In fact, he argues, for the powers that be, the elections and the protests are “only an entertaining business game.” The real business lies elsewhere.
The powers that be don’t need protests or election results to see that the current system isn’t working and that the population is unhappy. It is clear to all of them that in this situation, they have “a simple choice” – either to continue to “retreat for fifteen years” or decide to “close ranks and stop pretending” to be democrats rather than committed authoritarians.
And the regime has this choice, Shelin says, because local protests notwithstanding, it still is strong enough to “dictate to the country its scenario of change, at the very least for the immediate future.” According to the commentator, there are currently two possible scenarios the regime can choose from, a “soft” one and a “hard” one.
Under the terms of the “soft” variant, the regime would recognize that its commitment to verticalization is only weakening the powers that be and that the authorities would be far better off by at least a partial return to the system of nominally competitive elections that existed 15 years ago lest things become explosive.
It isn’t clear that this would represent “a transition to democracy.” Instead, it would likely mean that those in power would work hard to manipulate the elections to ensure that their preferred candidates win at least most of the time, something they were able to do under the older system.
But the “hard” variant is certainly a more natural choice for the Russian regime. “Supercentralism” is the direction the regime has been moving in for three decades, and although it is “utopian,” it is something that a vast number of people among the powers that be are invested in.
Moreover, it is a Russian tradition of long standing, that when the population tries to put pressure on the powers that be, the powers that be close ranks in order to defend themselves by showing the population who is the boss. The authorities have never shown any “talent for dialogue” and are unlikely to in the future.
The “instinctive” response of the powers is to “flex their muscles, to disperse crowds, beat protesters, and put people in prison.” “If elections have become a constant headache, then it is possible to ‘perfect’ them. In Soviet times, there were elections, but there weren’t any hassles about them.”
For the Russian powers, being loved is not as important as being feared. “It is possible to rule without the love of the people,” Shelin continues. But there is another problem: moves in this direction will not necessarily prevent the ultimate collapse of the system. Indeed, they may accelerate it.
This fact will likely lead to a “zigzag” course of development, with the authorities appearing to make concessions but in fact working hard to ensure that these are meaningless. “Strategically,” he says, “the system in the 21st century has not retreated a single time.” And thus, it is unlikely to do so now, even as it “experiments” to maintain power.
How long will the regime be able to tack back and forth? The answer, Shelin suggests, depends on when it is not only the nomenklatura that is capable of closing ranks.