Commentary Magazine


Topic: anti-Putin protests

What Happened to Russia’s Grand Bargain?

In 1999, with Boris Yeltsin’s health failing and his need to produce a smooth succession the following year, Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin Russia’s prime minister and gave Putin an unprecedented free hand in making policy. From the beginning, Putin’s attitude toward his own stewardship of the Russian Federation was a grand bargain: Putin was to be unchallenged in the political sphere, and in return the Russian people would have security, stability, and non-political liberty.

To demonstrate this, Putin led a furious military effort to suppress Chechen separatism, earning briefly the nickname the “iron chancellor.” Putin biographer Richard Sakwa quotes Yeltsin’s explanation for Putin’s rising popularity: “Putin got rid of Russia’s fear. And Russia repaid him with profound gratitude.” Yet since December, Moscow has seen massive protests, and Russians were even galvanized by a hunger strike in the provinces. And this week, two studies indicate Russians’ gratitude toward Putin is broadly on the wane, and their desire for democratic institutions is rising. The reason is not because Russians are reneging on their half of the grand bargain. It’s because the grand bargain was always impossible.

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In 1999, with Boris Yeltsin’s health failing and his need to produce a smooth succession the following year, Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin Russia’s prime minister and gave Putin an unprecedented free hand in making policy. From the beginning, Putin’s attitude toward his own stewardship of the Russian Federation was a grand bargain: Putin was to be unchallenged in the political sphere, and in return the Russian people would have security, stability, and non-political liberty.

To demonstrate this, Putin led a furious military effort to suppress Chechen separatism, earning briefly the nickname the “iron chancellor.” Putin biographer Richard Sakwa quotes Yeltsin’s explanation for Putin’s rising popularity: “Putin got rid of Russia’s fear. And Russia repaid him with profound gratitude.” Yet since December, Moscow has seen massive protests, and Russians were even galvanized by a hunger strike in the provinces. And this week, two studies indicate Russians’ gratitude toward Putin is broadly on the wane, and their desire for democratic institutions is rising. The reason is not because Russians are reneging on their half of the grand bargain. It’s because the grand bargain was always impossible.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported on a Pew poll based on 1,000 in-person interviews in Russia. They found that while the word “democracy” still doesn’t score so high, the descriptions of democratic institutions do:

For instance, 71 percent of those polled said a fair judiciary is very important — and just 17 percent said Russia has one. Lesser but still significant differences showed up in respondents’ views on honest elections, uncensored media, a civilian-controlled military, free speech and religious freedom.

Then yesterday, the Wall Street Journal carried a story on a respected Russian think tank’s report that support for Putin is dropping–possibly quite far–and that while they don’t see broad yearnings for the kind of democracy the protesters have been asking for, they did find frustration with the status quo:

At the same time, the prodemocracy agenda of the Moscow demonstrators doesn’t find broad support in the rest of the country. There, demands are more pragmatic, focused on better government services such as health care, education, law enforcement and infrastructure. But the government has for years failed to deliver on promises of improvements in these areas.

Part of this can probably be chalked up the paradox of progress—when you provide security and thus enable people to worry about other things, they will do so. But much of this has to do with the inherent falsehood of the grand bargain: You cannot separate political liberty from other forms of liberty. If Putin is to remain unchallenged politically, he needs a court system that will levy trumped-up charges and stiff, arbitrary prison terms to his rivals, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And a court system empowered to seize a company and send its executives away to Siberian prison for chirping at Putin cannot and will not work properly for the rest of the country. It is a thoroughly corrupted institution, and thus we see more than 7-in-10 Russians express their desire for a free and fair judiciary.

The same goes for law enforcement. Putin has given the FSB more power and less accountability than its predecessor, the KGB. The FSB answers only to Putin, and its scope has been widened to maximize its ability to take all necessary actions to protect Putin and his inner circle. Can you imagine trying to convince someone that an FSB so empowered will surely not tread on his civil liberties? Good luck with that. And wrapped up between the security services and the judiciary are the Russian police, who fall prey to the same pressures and temptations as the FSB and the courts.

Other areas get ensnared in the same trap. An education system, for example, in a country with Putin as its ruler will need to propagate the cult of personality and nationalism necessary to maintain Putin’s public image. That also applies to Russian broadcast media.

Between the polls and protests, there’s enough evidence Putin simply doesn’t have the support he once enjoyed. But it’s because of the inherent deception of Putinism, not an unwarranted lack of gratitude on the part of the Russian public.

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