Putin is on a collision course with change

December 29, 2011

By Jason Bush
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

For 12 years, Vladimir Putin has presided over a Potemkin democracy. And everyone, especially Putin himself, seemed strangely convinced that he could keep up the charade indefinitely. But in 2011, Russians’ patience with Potemkin politics unexpectedly snapped. In 2012, the big question will be how Putin responds.

The recent mass protests against election-rigging reflect a deep yearning for change. Young Russians, and the growing middle class, are especially disgusted with the absurd parody of politics and the system’s flagrant corruption. The fledgling movement is still too immature to prevent Putin winning presidential elections in March 2012, in which he will probably run as the only credible candidate. The more salient question is whether Russia’s strong man will be able to reinvent himself in response to society’s demands for democratic reform.

No one should hold their breath. The next government, which is expected to be headed by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, may well have a more reformist flavour. But it’s hard to believe that this reconfiguration of the same old “tandem” heralds any breakthroughs. The changes will be superficial and disappointing – just as they were after previous Russian elections.

Old autocrats seldom learn new tricks. And Putin has already wasted too many years, during which he could have built a modern political system. If anything, his methods of manipulation and control have become more crude and desperate. The Russian prime minister’s first, Pavlovian reaction to popular protests was to blame the West.

Faced with rising popular discontent, the Russian government will react not with outright repression, but with its usual tactics of legal chicanery, political manoeuvres and disinformation. But these Soviet-style methods are rapidly losing their power in the face of 21st Century technology. The rapidly-spreading internet has provided the opposition with a potent tool for bypassing the state’s smothering control of information.

Having exposed electoral fraud to such devastating effect, it will turn its attention to the corruption of the ruling elite. Putin’s third term will be punctuated by scandals that will create a vicious circle of mounting public anger, declining investor confidence, and stagnating economic growth. Only with Putin’s departure will real modernisation in Russia become possible.

Predictions: Breakingviews is publishing a series of articles over the holiday that look ahead to 2012. The pieces will be collected together in the annual ’Predictions Book’, produced in print and electronic form early in the New Year.

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