Vladimir Putin's repossession of the presidency has been met with widespread derision both at home and abroad. But the autocrat's return to the Kremlin could be Russia's best hope to escape stagnation.
Putin has shown open contempt for Russian society,
which has been exemplified by his mocking response to widespread
demonstrations. It has also been exemplified by his arrogance, readiness
to stifle dissent and his fear of competition. Putin has
singlehandedly quashed the long-held myth that he himself propagated —
that personalized power can modernize the country while preserving
To be sure, Putin's Kremlin and his corrupt
cohorts still call the shots. While his decision to return
to the presidency has vexed the most dynamic elements
of Russia's urban population, the rest of the country's citizens
remain unhappy but quiescent. Likewise, Russia's demoralized intellectuals
and political class, on whom the population relies
to advocate change, neglect to act. The endemic fear
of change, the lack of a viable alternative and reliance
on state handouts are keeping Russia in a state of inertia.
Moreover, Putin's Kremlin has used the West, which
is eager to "reset" relations with Russia, to legitimize
its authoritarian rule and to provide opportunities for its venal
cronies' integration into Western society. Indeed, by using
the West to launder their dirty money, Putin and his cohorts
have, in a way, avenged the Soviet Union's collapse
by undermining the West's principles and discrediting liberal
democracy in the eyes of many Russians.
But cracks are forming in Russian society,
threatening the status quo. It is not the opposition or popular
rebellion that are destabilizing Putin's regime but the very forces that
have helped to keep it afloat.
After waiting 12 years for change from the top,
Russians finally understand that their political system can be transformed only
from the bottom — through popular revolution. In the absence
of institutional channels for expression of their grievances
over the corrupt concessions that have preserved the ruling elite's
power, they must take to the streets.
But this time will Russia escape its traditional final
act, in which the new regime turns out to be more predatory than
the previous one? Or will Russians find a way to pursue peaceful
Today, the Kremlin is contributing to its own
violent demise, intentionally demoralizing Russian society. It discredits
liberalism by employing liberal rhetoric and appointing liberal
leaders to administer its authoritarian rule, leaving political opposition
to leftist parties and nationalists.
Putin's return to the Stalinist practice
of sending police to search opponents' homes, combined with his
attempts to ignite hostility between social groups — for example,
between provincial Russia and the urban middle class — is deepening
antagonism and distrust among citizens. In this way, Putin's regime
intensifies political dissenters' longing for retaliation, thereby
hindering peaceful change.
Already, long-standing tensions have begun to boil
over. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets
since Putin's 2011 announcement that he would reclaim the presidency. His
return to the Kremlin has incited some of the largest protests that
Moscow has seen since the 1990s. While popular demonstrations have
diminished — largely as a result of draconian new anti-protest laws —
the more conflict that accumulates beneath the surface, the more
devastating the eventual explosion will be.
By censoring the media, discrediting
the moderate opposition and provoking popular discontent, Putin is
playing with fire. It is impossible to predict when Russia will detonate,
but the system's undeniable fissures are growing.
The Kremlin, far from being able
to control the situation, does not fully grasp what is happening.
Russia is moving toward a large, ominous precipice. Massive capital flight
and efforts by Kremlin cronies to engineer a safe landing
for themselves in the West show that even in the eyes
of Putin's cohorts, the end of his era is approaching.
Yet Putin's Kremlin continues to work tirelessly
to prevent the formation of a strong opposition, thus increasing
the risk that the regime will collapse without a viable
alternative. The longer Putin remains in power, the more
devastating his regime's final act will be.
Both Russia and the West must start planning ahead.
Regrettably, Russia's awakening corresponds with the beginning of the
West's seeming decline. Nonetheless, rather than remaining complicit
in Putin's corrupt regime, the West must help Russians in their
search for a new destiny.
Russians should not give up hope. Putin's return
to the Kremlin, although painful, could end up curtailing their agony
by triggering the regime's destruction. When the choice is
between an outdated system's implosion or its slow degradation,
a swift, clean break typically offers better prospects for a new start.
**Lilia Shevtsova is senior associate of the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. © Project