“If not Putin, then who?” That is quite a unique question. It is regularly asked both by supporters and opponents of the system. The former ask it as a sort of challenge, demanding that Kremlin detractors suggest a better alternative than the wise, if not recently elusive dear leader. Opponents usually ask it in desperation, being fully aware that Russia has no coherent opposition movement which could build genuine political institutions after Putin and his political circus goes. Whether or not they openly admit it, both are essentially implying the same thing. Everyone is aware that Russia lacks functioning political institutions, that it is basically all built around one man and his personal friends, and that in his absence, chaos will necessarily ensue as various actors come out of the darkness to scramble over Russia’s wealth. Worse still, Putin could be replaced by a leader who is fanatical, replacing Russia’s “managed democracy” or light dictatorship with a hard-line regime more akin to that of Syria or Baathist Iraq.
The fear of Putin being replaced by a fanatical nationalist dictator straight out of Call of Duty reaches far outside Russia’s borders. Putin only muses about the Russian empire, while he has cultivated legions of fanatics who really do dream of driving their tanks to Kyiv and beyond. His position requires him to maintain some attachment to reality, however thin those threads might be these days. By contrast, his “actors” that call for open war with the West are not so constrained.
I too used to play the who-if-not-Putin card, as an opponent of course. I played it as part of my personal opinion that the world leader most analogous to Vladimir Putin was in fact Mobutu Sese Seko. Over the years it became clear that Russia’s party politics are a joke. The main “opposition” candidates, Gennady Zyuganov of the “Communists” and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the horrendously inappropriately-named Liberal Democratic Party, are not candidates at all. Zyuganov participates in elections knowing full well he has no more chance of becoming president of Russia than I do. Likewise Zhirinovsky. What role, then, do these loyal opposition candidates play?
Obviously the first reason these parties exist is to conceal the dictatorial nature of the Russian state. If you had only one party or no parties(Yes, that’s a thing), the charade wouldn’t last very long. The “Communist Party of the Russian Federation” uses the title Communist and Soviet imagery to wrangle Russia’s older population, the types who reminisce about how simple and easy life was when bread cost only a few kopeks, children watched Cheburashka, and all the Soviet nationalities got along in harmony because those dirty Central Asians and Caucasians knew their place and stayed there! Of course when these people actually lived in the USSR, many of them were engaged in some activity that ultimately undermined the system, from black market activities to absenteeism from work. As one commentator put it, they forget about having to stand in line for hours just to buy sausage, but they always remember the low price. As for Zhirinovksy and his LDPR party, I have to confess that after all these years, I never did figure out exactly who his demographic target is. I’ve never met a Zhirinovsky supporter in my life. All I can guess is that his constituency probably correlates with the consumers of Vinogradniy Den.
What about all those nationalist leaders, like Sablin, Dugin, Fedorov, Strelkov, or “The Surgeon?” Is it realistic to imagine any of them wielding real power in Russia? I highly doubt it. Russia is still a country ruled by oligarchs, men who love luxury. They have no use for anyone who seriously believes in all that bullshit about “spiritual values.” Likewise, they are not going to put their fortunes at risk for some self-taught “geopolitical” expert who dreams of building empires. These billionaires have already paid enough for Putin’s publicity stunts in 2014.
Getting back to the original question, I think in the past my take on the question of alternatives to Putin was driven largely by the misconception that Putin really was a pragmatic realist. There were of course good reasons for this. Just a few years ago, Russia appeared to be welcoming closer cooperation with the EU and it was integrating into the global economy. Putin and Medvedev seemed to be putting business first, like most capitalist leaders. Sadly, at some point in 2013 he began to depart from reality, and most likely started believing his own propaganda. The idea conjures up the classic image of Al Pacino as Tony Montana at the end of Scarface, sitting slumped in his chair behind a pile of cocaine, his face dusted with the precious substance. Now that Putin has crossed the Rubicon, we can no longer pretend that he’s the realistic moderate who can keep the nationalists in line.
In hindsight, it appears that Putin’s moderate, pragmatist role was in fact an illusion. When necessary, various phony opposition figures or members of his own party would start railing, calling for this or that thing to be banned. Typically, real opponents of the regime would start panicking. Then Putin would weigh in on the issue, telling the fanatics to calm down and back off. Everyone got the message- Putin is the voice of reason. It’s not as bad as the opposition says. If Putin weren’t in power, some nutjob in the Duma would have banned Apple products, Hollywood movies, or the internet. In the most recent example of this morality play, nationalist filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov proposed a tax on internet usage. After much speculation, the Kremlin sent the signal- no. Now all the “creative class” types can breathe easy, the leader won’t tax their precious internet. One wonders what would have happened had the legislation not attracted so much attention and negative feedback.
Perhaps it is time to start calling Putin’s bluff, at least rhetorically. For years he has played his games, blackmailing his own people and the rest of the world by saying, “If not me, someone worse might take my place.” And yet the whole time, those worse people have been steadily gaining more and more influence. Putin’s charade requires the assumption that all these nationalist, imperialist, theocratic fanatics he’s allegedly keeping at bay are organic movements as opposed to something his regime cultivated and encouraged. In a myriad of ways the Kremlin, its media, and its internet trolls have seeded, nurtured, and often materially supported nationalist, imperialist, and theocratic organizations or movements. If not that, they have at least given them far more leeway than they ever have to small, marginalized liberal opposition groups. It really sounds like some kind of fairy tale- A group of con men dress up like monsters and terrorize a village. The next day, one of the con men rides into the village the next day, and tells the frightened peasants that he is an experienced monster hunter. For a fair price, he’ll happily hunt down and exterminate any monsters that happen to be plaguing the village. Assume villagers fall for this same trick again and again for several years, and you’ve got a perfect analogy for the Kremlin regime and its relationship with the outside world.
Would the end of Putin’s regime be as bad as his propagandists and opponents claim? Answering that adequately requires us to ask two additional questions. First, if this system has no alternative to Putin, we must ask whose fault is that? Any rational person can agree that early in his career, Putin did some positive things, or they can at least agree that he had few alternatives to the decisions he made early in his career as president. The problem, however, is that at some point long ago, he stood at a crossroads and took the wrong path. Russia needed order in the late 90’s, but having achieved some semblance of stability, it was Putin’s responsibility to take advantage of high oil prices and a rising economy so as to redistribute wealth, strengthen the rule of law, and allow the creation of democratic institutions. For whatever reason, he decided not to do this. The wild capitalism of the 90’s was replaced with his bizarre, semi-feudal capitalist model which actually managed to exceed the 90’s level of wealth inequality. All the while, he deliberately suppressed organic political movements and civil society, while presiding over a political circus which has been likened to a sort of reality show. Therefore, if we admit that this system will experience severe problems once Putin is no longer at the head of it, we must also admit that this is less an argument to Putin’s virtue as it is another serious charge against him. In other words, when people point to Russia’s bankrupt political system as a reason for supporting or at least tolerating Putin, it’s as if they’re bragging that the captain jettisoned all the lifeboats so now we must support him, whatever course he takes.
The second question we need to ask is “So what?” Indeed, Putin has created this rickety, corrupt political system and his absence will lead to an inevitable scramble for the spoils. Yes, this will not bode well for much of Russia’s population, but again, there’s nobody to blame but Putin and his supporters, the people who were in on the con. But beyond that, so what? Putin isn’t immortal. He will leave one way or the other. Suppose he died in a rather spectacular manner, such as a plane crash. What will the critics, the supporters, and the concern trolls say then? He’s gone, and Russia must move on.
While Putin’s recent 10-day disappearance caused fear and anxiety, his reappearance should bring disappointment. Post-Putin Russia may be in for rough times, but the sooner the blow comes, the better the chances for recovery. The longer his system remains, the muddier the political waters become, and the genuine political players dwindle in number. Russia could survive the le déluge après Putin if it came this year or maybe even the next, but five or ten more years of this post-modernist, bizarro-world unreality show will render the country incapable of governance. It’s time to stop buying into Putin’s con. Neither Russia nor the world needs him. We need him to go, and for Russia’s sake, soon.