A lot has been made of the recent public unrest in Russia and the brutality with which the authorities have responded. If you haven't seen the videos yet, there are plenty on youtube, including this one and this one. My fellow blogger Brian Whitmore has written that the protests are sign that the tacit deal -- the social bribe -- between Vladimir Putin and the Russian people is coming unraveled under the pressure of the financial crisis.
Outside observers often marvel at how "popular" Putin is among Russians, but inside the Kremlin they are aware of how thin that popularity is and that troubles them. Even back in the good old days of 2007, the Kremlin tolerated no dissent and went to seemingly ridiculous lengths to hold down opposition from people like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, even though they had no chance of attracting significant support. A year ago, I wrote this:
"Popularity" in Russia is something the Kremlin gives and takes away. Six days after the largely unknown Viktor Zubkov was named prime minister in September, a poll found that 40 percent of Russians thought he'd be the next president of Russia. Because Putin is the only political figure with any significant stature in Russia, he attracts personal credit for everything that happens in the country, all of which is positively spun in the state-controlled media. However, the presidential administration understands how quickly setbacks can erode even Putin's support, as it learned in 2001 when Putin was lambasted for failing to show sympathy for the trapped crew of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine and in 2005 when pensioners took to the streets in the thousands calling for Putin's resignation because of a controversial social-benefits reform. Putin's popularity ratings are a bubble that exists within a political vacuum, a bubble that nonetheless needs to be continuously pumped up with injections of hot air from state television.
Now, as tensions rise, there are increasing hints of dissent even within the ranks of the establishment that further demonstrate how thin the support for Putinism in Russia may be.
Robert Amsterdam's blog has performed a great service by capturing and translating a unique document of dissent before it was flushed down the memory hole. They found a posting on a forum of the Russian Interior Ministry's website that was apparently written by a disaffected police officer, a professional who is tired of being used for political ends.
The power knows that actions of people's protest are possible, and that the consequences could be unpredictable. A question. On whom is the power relying? Who can save it from the people's wrath? Who will help hold on to what has been pillaged? That would be you and me, colleagues. The Russian police. We are going to disperse the protesters, like we did on 1 May of 1993 and in October of that same year, like we dispersed the Russian March in 2008. So, in everything that has taken place with our Motherland since the year 1993, there is our guilt.... A question. Are we going to be the dogs-on-a-chain of this regime?
As might have been expected, that posting has been removed from the website and the URL merely has an ironic message apologizing for the "inconvenience."
And we shouldn't neglect the tale of Joe the Roofer, the former juror in the trial of the alleged killers of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya who exposed the lie that jurors had requested the trial be closed to the public out of fear for their safety. He was "rewarded" for coming forward by being kicked off the jury.
This train of thought also leads us back to May, when the deputy chairwoman of the Supreme Arbitration Court, Yelena Valyavina, shocked observers when she testified in open court about how a presidential-administration official named Valery Boyev systematically pressured judges and, in particular, pressured her to issue a Kremlin-friendly ruling about the privatization of a company in Tolyatti. I wrote about the story here.
Ironically, Valyavina was testifying in a defamation case filed by Boyev against broadcast journalist Vladimir Solovyov for saying on air: "There are no independent judges in Russia, only judges dependent on Boyev." The trial was expected to bring about further juicy revelations because three other high-ranking judges had been called by the defense to testify. But the day after Valyavina's appearance, Boyev apparently decided he was man enough to take a little heat in the press and withdrew his complaint against Solovyov. The unspoken testimony of the other judges is still hanging in the air.
One would think that Boyev would be an embarrassment to the boy reformer Dmitry Medvedev, but as far as I can tell he continues to be the shadowy administration front man on legal issues.
Following the Tolyatti thread leads us to the case of former Samara Oblast Arbitration Court Judge Nadezhda Kostyuchenko. Kostyuchenko claims she was removed from the bench after she refused to adopt the Kremlin's stances regarding the same privatization case that Valyvina testified about. She says the chairman of the Samara court threatened her and her children. This summer the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear her complaint. "Vremya novostei" quoted A Just Russia Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov as commenting that "the number of honest, uncorrupted judges in Russia is being reduced."
Reading about the Tolyatti "business dispute," the pressure on the courts, and the purported role of the presidential administration reminded me of the scandalous interview that formerly Kremlin-connected fund manager Oleg Shvartsman gave to "Kommersant" in November 2007 in which he cast some light on the "voluntary-compulsory" measures that Putin insiders (he named especially First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin) in order to implement a "velvet reprivatization." A month later, after losing all his insider contracts and finding himself on the wrong end of several legal actions, Shvartsman backed off of his assertions, saying his words had been "distorted."
The Shvartsman case, in turn, reminded me of an interview RFE/RL did in August with Dmitry Travin, deputy editor in chief of the St. Petersburg business weekly "Delo." Travin said that while there is a thin layer of oligarchs who are making out like bandits in Putin's Russia, the rest of the business community is pretty sick of "non-market" interference ruining their business models. He went so far as to say that a lot of businesspeople in Russia "hate the regime" and are just waiting to "stick a knife in its back":
Business's support for the government is a very strange thing. After the case of [former Yukos owner Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, everyone became obedient. They are constantly swearing their loyalty to the authorities. But when you start speaking to people privately, it is hard to find anyone who doesn't hate this regime and the position in which it has placed Russian business. I don't think anything is going to change in this regard. If the regime is weakened, business will be the first segment of society to stick a knife in its back. But until the regime is weakened politically, business has to play by the rules of the of the game that were laid down in October 2003 during the Khodorkovsky case.... The stability of the authorities rests on oil, gas, economic growth, and the expectations of the public, which are more or less satisfied at present. But if economic growth disappears and real incomes cease to grow, or if public expectations become so great that even oil and gas cannot satisfy them, then affection for the authorities will wane.
In short, the protests in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and other cities are far from the only indication that the often-cited 70 percent favorable rating for Putin is as much of an illusion -- a shadow show of lights and mirrors -- as the rest of the democratic facade in Russia (elections, parties, etc.).
Putin knows better than anyone that it is lonely at the top.
Cross-posted from RFE/RL's The Power Vertical.