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Why Russia’s Post-Putin Future May Not Be Democratic

Vladimir Putin, rather suddenly, is shifting from Good Czar to Bad Czar in the minds of the Russian people. A telltale sign—even more startling than growing street demonstrations against his rule—was the jeers that greeted his appearance at a recent martial-arts fight in Moscow. Putin, as his image makers have incessantly reminded since their man scaled the Kremlin heights eleven years ago, is an ardent sportsman with a black belt in judo. The mostly-male throng at the “no rules” fight was supposed to be his kind of he-man crowd—and until now, it has been.

The possible downfall of the autocratic Putin—now prime minister, with plans to return to the presidency in elections in March—might look like an opening for the forces of liberalism in Russia. Putin, after all, is their bête noire—and it is the liberals, more than any other faction in Russia, who have steadfastly and courageously, at cost to their lives, pointed out the endemic corruption and the abuses of power at the core of his rotten regime. The crowds now chanting “Putin is a thief!” are echoing a staple liberal refrain.

But a post-Putin era is unlikely to be a liberal one. Russian liberalism—which identifies itself with Western-style democracy—has a tepid mass following, its ranks consistently overestimated over the last twenty years by ever-hopeful Western governments, analysts, and journalists. And the current groundswell of protest, while promising on the surface, looks more like a popular rejection of a strongman who has overstayed his welcome—not like a rejection of the model of strongman rule.

IN THE MOST RECENT parliamentary elections, in which Putin’s United Russia party snagged a woeful (though still largest) share of about half the vote, the liberal Yabloko party just managed to crack 3 percent. (The Communists, in second place, got about 19 percent.) Yes, the election was something less than “free and fair” and yes, Team Putin, since 2000, has routinely stigmatized Yabloko as a foreign, anti-Russian presence. But even at the peak of its influence, in the early 1990s, just after the crack-up of the Soviet Union, Yabloko never got more than 8 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, the ascendant force in Russia is a decidedly illiberal nationalism—uglier, in fact, than anything Putin himself has offered. The most popular political slogan in the nation is the noxious “Russia for the Russians”—backed by some 60 percent of citizens in opinion polls. The resentment behind that slogan is directed at non-ethnic Russians from the Caucasus region of Russia and at dark-skinned immigrants from former Soviet Republics, particularly in Central Asia. Such peoples are blamed for crime, for breeding too fast (relative to ethnic Russians), for much that ails a stagnant, unhappy society.

There are many reasons why liberalism is weak in Russia. One is that Western-oriented Russian liberals have a tortured relationship with the country’s “ordinary” people. This is an old story with a lineage dating to pre-Soviet, Czarist times. The main idea, from the liberals’ (always exasperated) point of view, is that the typical Russian, a bumpkin, is unable to grasp the blessings of progress and a progressive society.

“It is common knowledge that the Russian people are irrational by nature,” the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote in 2002 in the Los Angeles Times. “The majority of them do not require candidates running for offices to provide clear-cut economic programs. In fact, the people are even slightly irritated, as opinion polls show, when a candidate is too intelligent—or at least more intelligent than the mass. At the same time, Russian people love macho—they love brutality, demonstrations of strong-handed policies and tough moves made for show.”

This is the same journalist, an impeccable liberal who hated Putin and Putin’s war in Chechnya with a passion and was not afraid to say so, who was murdered in Moscow in 2006 on October 7, the day of Putin’s birthday—a crime that Putin’s critics blame on his regime.

The ordinary Russian is sufficiently astute to apprehend liberal condescension. Mistrust of Western-style liberalism is fed, too, by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has traditionally viewed autocracy as necessary to keep order in Mother Russia. The result tends to be parallel worlds in which the liberal elite and “the people” fail to connect. Liberals hunker down in “civilized” Moscow and St. Petersburg and, as in past times, many choose to emigrate to the democratic West. In the recent parliamentary elections, Yabloko got the largest share of the vote among Russian expatriate citizens voting in the U.S., France, and the U.K. (41 percent in Britain, about four times the number recorded for Putin’s party).

At the same time, Russian liberalism has failed to produce convincing leaders. Even supporters tend to view Yabloko’s longtime leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, as flawed by a Hamlet-like indecisive streak. Boris Yeltsin? A former Communist Party boss, he did not spring from the soil of Russian liberalism. And while he did jerk Russia into the possibility of a democratic future with his heroic insistence on the break-up of the Soviet Union, his presidency devolved into the rule of a Czar Boris who imperiously changed prime ministers on a whim and made corrupt bargains with grasping oligarchs to keep his grip on power.

A liberal hope of today’s would-be Russian Spring, meanwhile, is the high-profile blogger, Alexei Navalny, a 35-year-old commercial lawyer who has intrepidly chronicled the corruption of the Putin regime. It was Navalny, showing a talent for politics, who coined Putin’s United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves”—and who after last week’s parliamentary vote called on readers of his blog to join a Moscow street protest against the “stolen elections.” He was himself arrested and sent to jail for supposedly disobeying police at a post-election protest—an action that has only helped to authenticate his anti-regime credentials.

But it is not clear, in fact, what Navalny’s ideology is—beyond what appears to be a genuine outrage against state graft. Before the vote, he attended a march in Moscow put on by the “Russian for the Russians” flock, who called on Putin’s Kremlin to stop “feeding” the war-ravaged North Caucasus with economic development projects.

As for familiar liberal faces such as Boris Nemtsov and the chess champion Gary Kasparov—there is little sign of a mass following. Part of the problem is that many Russians still associate the disastrous Yeltsin period of free-market economics with Western-style liberal democracy.

ANY POST-PUTIN FUTURE, then, is likely to be less than democratic. The yearning on the streets seems to be for a leader more responsive to nationalistic grievances than Putin has been—and committed (at least in word) to cleaning out the fouled stables of the Putin era. (It may sound like an ideal scenario for an army dictator but Russia, unlike, say, a Turkey or a Chile, generally doesn’t take its autocrats from the military.)

Of course, Putin is far from gone—much now depends on the turn of events in the streets and his own tactical efforts to deflect attacks on his rule. He has tried, desperately, to shift blame to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for inciting unrest with her call for an investigation of fraud in the parliamentary elections. And don’t be surprised if he dumps his plan to make the current president, the hapless Dmitri Medvedev, the new prime minister, after the March election.

But if Putin does fall, there may well be a period of chaos, as foreign investors pull their money out of the country (some are already considering that step, I’m told by a reliable source in the Moscow financial community) and the economic and political power decks get reshuffled. The political winner could turn out to be someone as unknown now to the public as Putin was when tapped by the Yeltsin circle to take the reins of power. Indeed, it could be almost anyone—except a liberal.

Paul Starobin, a former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week, is the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.