Repeated presidential terms present opportunities but freezing society’s advance is not one of them.
Political speculations are burdened by a widespread but also vain attempt. It is to move to the wastebasket that news about Russia that does not fit contradictory, before-the-fact conceptions. The results suffer from two prejudices. One is that everything Russian –regardless of her system- is a threat. The other is that whatever comes from there is justified and positive. Such extremes are seldom right. The cited rule is, in this case and the moment, quite fitting.
In the course of the last centuries Russia’s internal decisions serve as decisive components of world affairs. Currently, no party that intends to conquer the world and to force its ways on us rules Russia. This is a negative praise. Even if correct, it leaves open wide vistas of relationships and future alternatives. Not all of these are positive.
A Russia shaped by Putin’s will is a fact of our time. The decisions of this regime will co-determine much of our common future. By implication, this assessment assumes that not the dictate of the facts alone, but also the person determine what will be allowed to happen and what will be opposed. The question is an old one. Does history determine events, or do personalities shape them? Arguably, Russian history has been molded by the perceptions of her leaders –regardless of their title or alleged worldview.
The question this leaves us with is, whether Putinism will, after a rapprochement with the West, accomplish one of two things. Will a stabilized Russia proceed from her regained internal balance join fully the modern world beyond serving as its supplier of natural resources? Second, will Russia return to a system that maintains its might by opposing modernity in the political, economic, and intellectual realms.
Here it is of interest to consider what the self-definition of the regime is, in its officially projected version. A recent article about the opposition in the Isvestiya –the Kremlin’s officially official paper- sheds light on what might not only be an apology but also a presentation of how the system sees itself.
On the surface, the tone is -unlike the police in the streets- restrained and even reasonable. Putin’s is not a dictatorship that admits to the fact. As a democrat the President opines that the opposition will become effective once its “proposals are attractive and the voters can believe them”. Note that a potentially constructive future opposition is not denied. Putin also went on the record that he counts on the opposition to become consequential –even if the implication excludes the present. Regarding the present, his view is that it is the “discordant” that dominate the opposition and its gatherings. Apparently, it is that characteristic term that makes him claim that no undue violence has been used against the demonstrators. The police even “protected journalists from the infuriated” crowd.
Working with the opposition is a way of dealing with it. Consultations with some of its representatives are claimed. Cooperation is not to be limited to the leading exponents of the movement. Prokhorov can, so Putin, even have a government post if he wants it.
Those that analyze contents for hidden messages might find the turn of the monologue to Moscow’s traffic problems of use. Discussing bottlenecks, Putting referred to the need to have leading functionaries reach their “work” stations on time. In the interest of that, they must not be stuck in the traffic. Escorts that cut through traffic jams are, therefore, a necessity. As a gesture to the average Ivan, the President made a concessionary promise. The escorted passages and the “blinker” use, by which the bosses get preferential corridors to serve the public, will be cut reduced.
There is an analogy of which one hopes that events will prove it inappropriate. Nicholas has once been presented with a proposal about which the last Czar was told that it will make the people trust him. That made him respond, “The question is not whether they trust me but whether I trust the people”. Acton has been right that power corrupts. Equally valid is that power creates the impression that its mandate is forever.
Now, let us leave the past and its analogies and cast our eyes on the future.
A good argument can be made that too much freedom given to the unprepared can lead to a system that will totally negate liberty. If this is true then guided democracy, provided it lives up to its claim, is useful and justified. The problem inherent in a tyranny that educates for emancipation is that the goal becomes a slogan while the method of tutelage degenerates into a permanency. Moscow’s instinctive sympathy for dictatorships –such as Assad’s- reveals an instinct that is bad news for Russia’s orderly transformation to match her evolving maturity.
Putin cannot prevent the stirrings of an opposition even if he is capable to decapitate it. Actions, ranging from ignoring it, to harassment ending in persecution will keep the opposition down but cannot prevent it from recovering. Modernization, which is, given Putin’s will to make Russia count in world politics a means to that end, has social implications. The development demanded by power politics give rise to the class that dominates successful societies. This middle class holds power within the systems that set the tone of global affairs and it is a byproduct of modernization. China’s evolving case supports the allegation. Cuba’s leaders perceive of the dangers. At the outset, this class might be content to “become wealthy” as a 19th century authoritarian told it to do. In time, however, material fulfillment devoid of political participation is outgrown like a child’s perfectly preserved Sunday-best shoes.
Putin’s power has built-in limits expressed by a trend. Crucial is that Putin can determine what kind of an opposition he will have. The less his policies point to a gradual inclusion of new elements, the more extensive will be a maturing society’s restlessness. In Putin’s case, the dilemma faced might be psychological. He likes to be the flash in the world’s admiring eyes. Biking, dashing in the hockey rink, diving, and slapping people around on the mat are, while impressive, an expression of an inner need for a virile image. Given that appetite, the humility implied in fading voluntarily from power is hard to implement.
While nothing is pre-determined, history remains a process and the terms’ meaning includes motion. Putin might lead this movement or he might delay it. The only option he does not have is to cancel it.