The faces of a post-Putin future?


“Russia has no future.” Last autumn you heard this repeated like a mantra in Moscow. “We have no future.” Putin’s capital talked this way because everyone interested in politics had done the same thing on September 24th 2011. The day of the United Russia party congress that the “national leader” announced he would return to the Kremlin. Everyone interested in politics had calculated how old they would be in 2024. The year that constitutionally Putin would have to leave the President’s post. That moment etched itself into the memory of a generation. It seemed only to mean one thing – Putin had a monopoly on the future.

Then the unexpected occurred. The Moscow protest movement suddenly flared and even if it did not break, or really dent, Putin’s grip over the Duma, the bureaucracy, the oil, the gas or the FSB, it cost him that monopoly on tomorrow. It exposed that he was not in control of events, that his popularity was crashing and the elite consensus he had built cracking. All of a sudden Russia has a future again. Or rather several “futures.” A discussion has started up in which many politicians have come to symbolise possible exits from Putinism. The recent mysterious sickness of the “national leader” has fuelled this further. For the moment, if you find yourself discussing politics in Moscow late at night, these are the names that come up.

Alexey Kudrin and Mikhail Prokhorov - The Regime Neo-Liberal Reformists

The power elite is supporting of Putin, but it is not quite united and far from cohesive. It has many poles. One of the strongest that has emerged is a new “liberal” tendency. This stands for saving the Putin system through reform. It aims to make the elite once again the champions of the new middle-class like it was in the 1990s and the early 2000s. This would involve holding somewhat freer elections, pushing to make the bureaucracy more efficient, tackling petty corruption, handing out fewer subsidies to the poor, the army and the industrial working class. The vision is to try to bring onboard as many of the dissatisfied as possible. The idea is a change of tone: fewer appeals to the Orthodox Church and Soviet nostalgia and more PR about converging with the West and living like Europeans. It involves taking protest slogans and making them the elite’s own. Some like to call all this “Medvedevism without Medvedev.” This reflects the sections of the establishment drawn it. The underlying assumption is that the Moscow middle is not angry with an oligarch dominated “managed democracy” per se, but only the way it has evolved and decayed in the past few years.

The men that represent this are the former finance minister and Putin ally Alexey Kudrin and the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who ran as a tamed candidate to catch liberal and middle class votes. Alexey Kudrin spoke at a protest rally and has set up the “Citizens Initiative,” a fund and think-tank, as his platform. He is behind the reports issued by the influential Center for Strategic Research that publishes ominous focus group surveys on the national mood. These two men are not a party. For the moment they are neither allies nor enemies. What they have in common are disputes with Medvedev and a desire to dislodge him.    

“I am not a Kremlin project but a Bolotnaya project,” said Prokhorov during his presidential campaign, a reference to the name of the square where the protest movement began. He has been rallying regional elites and some members of the government into a vague faction. Both men are playing a very careful game. For now both want to be Putin’s Prime Minister.  Prokhorov has ambitions to be Mayor of Moscow.  Yet they are well aware that at some point in the future a link up with the Navalny-led liberal opposition may be useful to them. There have been contacts, but nothing has come of them to date. This is because both Kudrin and Prokhorov believe that should the economy suddenly weaken then Putin will need them. This is likely: the Russian budget only balances with oil at over $110 a barrel (almost half the budget is funded by oil alone). If the oil price collapsed to 70% of its current value and stayed there for eighteen months Putin would have to do austerity, and this why Kudrin and Prokhorov are playing waiting games. 


Alexey Navalny - The Opposition Anti-Statist Nationalist

The pre-eminent leader of the opposition, Alexey Navalny, represents a growing trend: economic liberals, who reject a big state and the cult of the Russian state (“our heroic spies, our heroic destiny, our heroic national train monopoly”). They look at the traditional veneration of the Kremlin in all its forms - from peasants a century ago dropping to their knees when they reached Red Square, to the elderly sniveling outside the Lenin Mausoleum or the cult of the FSB - as pathetic, “Asian” throwbacks.

This is blended with a nationalist trend, but one very different to classical Russian nationalism. They reject the whole imperial project. They loathe mass migration and subsiding “imperial” regions like the North Caucasus. They don’t want a great big Russian empire ruling over millions of Muslims in Central Asia and the Caucasus again but a smaller, whiter, Russia. They want a nation state.

This vision for Russia’s future can be summed in its visa policy. They want to close to the border to Asia, erecting a visa wall to all Muslim ex-Soviet states, and open it to Europe, making compromises to get a visa-free agreement with the EU. They have a slogan –  “Stop Feeding the Caucasus.” They want to cut funding to territories within Russia that are getting treatment in the name of “empire” (eg Chechnya). If needs be they are willing to let the Muslim North Caucasus go. Russia has no more “civilising mission” down there and if it needs to be the Russian “Gaza Strip” then so be it.  

Navalny is sometimes seen as a “street” leader in the West. He is nothing of the sort. The man is at his most popular not in Soviet housing estates or in Siberia but amongst Moscow’s globalised, liberal elites. The section of society that is enthused about him are the new middle class, not the underclass. His biggest fans are the star editors and economists of the liberal press, not the nationalists. Navalny is in reality a creature of Moscow’s chic bars and clubs – and simply the most “street” out of this set. He is starting to be mocked as the “Tsar of Jan-Jak,” the iconic faux French restaurant where the opposition and media types retire to drink and be seen at weekends.

But this is not a bad support base. It is worth remembering it was the rock-solid support of this set that helped kept Yeltsin in power in the darkest years of the 1990s. Also, this world runs literally alongside power and if it ever came to a real crisis, or an election, then being the darling of the media matters enormously. The calculating in this demi-monde dreams about a Navalny-Kudrin link up, but think the former finance minister has to lose hope of being Putin’s Prime Minister first. There have been contacts, but so far nothing else.

Dmitry Rogozin - The Regime Superpower Nationalist

Dmitry Rogozin is the cherub faced populist and minister for the military industrial complex.  He made his name as tub thumbing nationalist venerating the glories of the Russian army, state, and security-services, and deriding the West. “Time to clean up the garbage,” once ran a campaign video of his over images of Muslim migrants in Moscow. He never misses an opportunity to make a grandstanding appeal – be it for a Russian moon base or tweeting he would punch an American negotiating partner in the face. Rogozin is popular. In fact the Kremlin was once worried he was getting so popular he was exiled to be Russian Ambassador to NATO, where his office housed a Stalinist poster. He was brought back to Moscow to boost government support after the protests and is now managing one of the biggest financial flows of all. He is successfully grabbing TV time visiting factories and “fighting corruption” in his huge domain.

He is seen as a possible future as he is the only member of the government who could easily win a competitive election. He is an emergency populist that could campaign the regime out of trouble in a democratic vote. The power elite might need to do this as the Putin system is not really a party or a man, but a huge system of assets and financial holdings that multiple circles used Putin to amass. Desperate to keep them if something ever goes wrong, Rogozin could be the only man who could accomplish the job. He is also distant enough from Putin, not part of the old St Petersburg clan, and seen as his own man. In many ways he is the exact opposite of Navalny. He represents continuity with the Russian tradition that rejects the West and believes the country needs a huge, well-armed state running chunks of the economy. He trumpets the old cult of the state and the holy Kremlin. His vision for Russia is a more extreme, nationalistic, aggressive version of Putin’s: the empire strikes back, with added state corporations.

Even if this election is not the last with Putin, the old leaders of the tamed parties in the Duma that millions vote for and have huge chunks of the vote are on the way out. Rogozin is seen as the contender to take the 11 percent of the vote that in December 2011 went to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the 66 year old leader of the nationalist “Liberal Democratic Party.” Rogozin is the sum of liberal fears. He is the one regime candidate they think could win without vote riggings.


Sobyanin - The Regime Bureaucrats Incorporated

The current mayor of Moscow is said to be dreaming of the Presidency. This job is the one that launched Boris Yeltsin to the Kremlin, and in a country as dominated by its capital as France is by Paris it is seen as one of the best springboards to power. Sobyanin has been a loyal Putin servant and a loyal member of the elite. He is not seen as representing a new ideological tendency but the idea that nation’s bureaucracy, sitting on top of vast resources, will want their own man to fight their corner. His very greyness is an asset, added to the fact he comes from over the Urals and could at a stretch appeal to the masses. Those in the know say he is positioning himself as a “technical” compromise candidate or even as the “real Medvedev” should Putin actually want to retire at some point the future. He is not very popular though: but then Putin only had a 1 percent approval rating when Yeltsin picked him un 1999 from obscurity.


Sergey Udaltsov - The Opposition Neo-Socialist Left

Unlike the others Udaltsov is not seen as a potential President but symbolic of a gathering force – the rebirth of the Russian romantic left. Udaltsov is the descendant of a Bolshevik hero-general who wants to close the stock exchange, nationalise the banks and hand all power back to the workers. A street fighter, in and out of jail, with a shaved head and dark sunglasses, he is seen as genuinely “fighting the power.” Even those that think his policies are mad see him as genuine. His achievement is to have made Soviet revolutionary themes chic again. It used to be believed the Russian left was a dying demographic of only those nostalgic for the USSR. He has changed that - so much so that along the train tracks from central Moscow to the airport you can see graffiti left by his Left Front faction like “All Power To The Soviet” and “1917 – 2017 Revolution Coming Soon!” 

Just as the huge slab of the vote controlled by Zhirinovsky is up for grabs, so too will be the huge chunk controlled by the tamed Russian Communist Party. Over a quarter of the Russian population can be described as leftist according to surveys and it won just under 20 percent of the vote in the December 2011 election. This is a huge party and infrastructure and the 68 year old Gennady Zyuganov will not rule it forever (in a country where male life expectancy is only 59). The young members of the party’s youth league in the regions dream of the day that Udaltsov will take over and turn their party into a real machine to fight Putin’s OMON riot police. This is a complete, ready-made constituency. In hundreds of offices across Russia it is now very hard to work out where Communist youth ends and Udaltsov radicals begin.

This skinhead is a hero to the Russian left, but seen as too extreme, too inexperienced, too hot headed to be a leftist President. For now. It is worth remembering that in politics, those that win trust as hardliners first often don’t find it so hard to modernise into the mainstream. Udaltsov has one crucial asset: the general public sees him (perhaps incorrectly) as an “honest man”, unlike the others on this list. 


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