Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Putin has Lost Face Not Power, Shelin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 25 – “The chief secret of the Putin system,” Sergey Shelin says, “has been the consonance of its utopia with the aspirations of the people.” But the pension reform debacle reflected in the party of power’s defeats in the September 9 elections show that “this no longer exists” and the Kremlin will be forced to rule without that resource.

            According to the Rosbalt commentator, “the system of rule which Vladimir Putin so long worked to put in place and almost achieved is the latest variation of a bureaucratic centralizing utopia which from time to time arises in Russia.” Its chief advantage is that for a time, the population falls under its spell (

                Putin’s regime has done in most cases precisely what ordinary people would like to have done or at least managed to act as if it has, Shelin continues. “Even the crisis of 2011-2012 … did not shake this deep and warm feeling” of the population for the ruler. Only a tiny and isolated minority of the capital intelligentsia became disaffected at that time.

            What did Russians want 20 years ago? The commentator asks rhetorically: the restoration of order, sufficiency without lines of the Soviet kind, and super power status.  And the Putin regime worked hard to achieve all these things. The population didn’t care about self-rule; and Putin oblige, restricting elections and restoring appointments from the center.

            But “our regime did not want to look like a dictatorship … and so elections were restored, but in their Soviet variant, albeit with a pluralist cover: That is, there were now more than one participant but the winner was defined in advance.” All this won Putin even more support for a time and convinced him that this could go on forever.

            “This was a typical dizziness from success, but it ignored to facts: that any utopia has limits, and that the coincidence of the desires of those at the bottom and those on top may last a long time but will not be eternal,” Shelin argues.

            But economic problems and then the pension reform plan had the effect of dispelling this utopia. “The Sovietized political system” Putin has been using “bored the people much more quickly than it did the last time,” and “the illusions that the masses would accept everything that the bosses proposed” were shown to be just that, illusions rather than a permanent reality.

            The pension reform had “a domino effect,” leading the population first to object to that and then to object to the rulers who thought they could ignore the desires of the population entirely. Russians have begun to view the regime as the problem and not just the particular policy. And they voted against it on September 9. 

            The Putin regime has compounded its problems in this regard, Shelin continues, by overdoing things. Its restoration of order no longer pleases people but makes them angry. And as a result, the regime has “also lost a monopoly on the dreams of the people.”  And they voted against it, not for any opposition but against the regime.

            To be sure, the party of power won out in most places, but it lost in four and it suffered declining support almost everywhere, regardless of whether it offered young technocrats or old cadres. 

            What follows from this, the commentator says, is “hardly the flourishing of freedoms.” The political field is a scorched earth. Opposition figures within the regime are distinguished from the mainstream “only by the roles they play but in no way by the principles” that inform them.  And the regime can always lock up the leader of the opposition.

            But despite that, “in just a few months, the system has ceased to look effective” as the realization of popular utopian fantasies.  “for the first time in two decades, it has lost face. Now, it is simply powerful” but without that resource. As a result, it can force people to do what it wants but it isn’t capable of leading them.

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