There is a glaring paradox about the crackdown Vladimir Putin has launched since being elected president for a third term. If Putin commands majority support – a recent poll found that more than 33% want Putin to stay beyond 2018 for a fourth term – and if the opposition that filled the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg almost a year ago is by its own admission unable to present an alternative, why is Putin resorting to methods of repression unseen since Soviet days?
Methods such as this: an activist who had fled to Kiev to seek political asylum was kidnapped, maltreated for two days and told that if he did not sign a confession implicating fellow leaders of the socialist Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov and Konstantin Lebedev, his children would be killed. Udaltsov and Lebedev are being investigated for “plotting mass unrest” and face up to 10 years in prison. Other more Machiavellian methods are used. The prison sentences meted out to the feminist punk band Pussy Riot amounted to such an operation. At first there seemed to be little logic to it: the general prosecutor took no action when one of the jailed women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, took part in the group orgy in Moscow’s natural history museum in 2008. And yet when the same woman performed an anti-Putin song in a near-empty Moscow cathedral late at night, hell’s fury was unleashed.
Someone in Putin’s inner circle sensed an opportunity to turn the tables on a protest movement fired up by rigged parliamentary elections last year. A conflict which had until then pitted the young, urban middle class against an ageing, corrupt and super-rich bureaucracy, was diverted into the challenge of a fringe group against a self-defined moral majority. Of Russians recently polled by the Levada Centre, fully 79% described themselves as orthodox believers. Part of the church that had started to air unease about Putin suddenly turned against the protest movement and Pussy Riot became a gift for him. Putin also weakened the opposition by appearing to give it what it wanted: allowing parties to be formed without artificially high registration hurdles. The result was to swamp recent regional elections in spoiler parties which splintered opposition support. The incumbent governors were re-elected in each of the five regions in which they were held.
The conflicts Putin has generated since his re-election – youth versus the orthodox church, liberals versus conservatives, westerners versus nationalists – all stoke the motor of anti-Americanism. America is officially a partner. Putin says so both publicly, and privately to Barack Obama when they last met at Los Cabos in Mexico. Those are words, but as far as deeds are concerned, the US representatives in Russia are treated like the enemy within, their motives suspect, their aid agency closed, their diplomats subject to intrusive surveillance.
These are tactics, and Putin is a tactician, not a master strategist. But none of them answer the real question: why go to these lengths? Why shut down the internet when the opposition were inviting votes for a body intended to serve as a collective leadership, its Co-ordination Council? The process garnered fewer than 100,000 votes nationwide. Why not take such an embryonic movement in its stride? Putin’s crackdown has Russia watchers scratching their heads. There are conflicting theories: he is vindictive; he is bored, disengaged and out of touch; he is more insecure than he seems.
The last thesis bears scrutiny. It goes like this: the real struggle being played out is not the visible war against activists in the courts, but the invisible internecine tussle between rival groups of advisers in his circle. As the stability Putin managed to achieve in his first two terms turns to stagnation in his third, his authority is being challenged from within. A crackdown, selectively applied, skilfully manipulated, is Putin’s temporary and tactical answer. But it will do nothing to tackle the source of his problems – a corrupt, inflexible, unreformable system of government to which his name and fate are inextricably attached.