If not Putin…

“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.

11 thoughts on “If not Putin…

  1. Bandersnatch

    So, I am kind of embarrassed to say this but whenever I encountered that nonsense of ‘if not Putin then who’ I never knew what to say really other than, ‘anyone’. It never occurred to me to reply, ‘and whose fault is that? and more than that, and to whose benefit?’. This makes some very solid, incisive and poignant points that Russians need to wake up to.

    Your last point is the best though. People need to realize that the sooner this night mare vanishes the faster reality will sink in and recovery can begin to happen.

  2. John

    I want to add here though that ultimately all of this is really quite irrelevant if we consider the big picture, that being Russia’s (the people) misapprehension of what democracy is and means. And what that means is that regardless of how wise your leader is perceived to be they must eventually leave office and one must accept the fact that incompetent leadership may be forthcoming. However, they too will be forced to move on and make way for new leadership. Whether Bush was a terrible leader or whether Obama is an improvement is irrelevant to the question of how long they should be allowed to remain in power. That number is fixed. Too many people, and more than Russians, fail to grasp this compromise in democratic systems.

    1. Estragon

      Re: democracy. Both Russian and foreign Putinists like to point to Putin’s high approval ratings as proving that Russia is “more democratic” than Western countries. What they don’t seem to get is that democracy isn’t just about popularity but about having certain reliable procedures and institutions in place – i.e. something that’s bigger than the One Guy in Charge.

      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Yeah the nice thing about American democracy, flawed as it is, is that everyone feels free enough to express such open disapproval of the president and congress that you can see those low numbers Bush and Obama used to get. You can be upset at Obama for stuff he isn’t even doing, and have a public rally about it. You don’t need to support a president you hate, regardless of the reason, just because you’re afraid that chaos will follow their departure.

  3. Estragon

    On Zhirinovsky, I found an old Russia Profile article which goes some way toward answering the question of who supports him. Quote:

    ‘According to Makarkin from the Center for Political Technologies, Zhirinovsky is only playing to his audience. “Zhirinovsky’s voters are irritated marginals who are equally disgusted by all other politicians,” he says. “Zhirinovsky uses their stereotypes and phobias, such as the fear of the West, insulted pride and the desire to live in a strong, powerful state. He is also the political choice of provincial youth, who think that the LDPR leader is the coolest and funniest guy out there.”’

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      The last part I can believe, but the first part of the description could fit almost any mainstream party here.

      If you bought into the anti-Communism of the 90’s, complete with the theocracy, monarchism, and the idea that the revolution was bad, there are organizations like hilariously inappropriately named “National Liberation Movement,” or United Russia party(which has a lot of anti-Bolshevik types). If you see the USSR as the incarnation of a new Russian empire, there’s KPRF.

      You just can’t be a genuine liberal, social democrat, or socialist.

  4. Russian Avos

    The first time I ever met a Zhirinovsky supporter was outside a rundown apartment in Rechnoy Vokzal where i lived in my early days. A drunk named Zhenya, whose mom made bank in the 90s, was dating the daughter of an FSB colonel. At first I thought it was all bullshit, he never even had money for cheap beer and wore the same windbreaker every day, but one day he took me to his girlfriend’s place, her enormous, million dollar place, that her dad had bought her. He, all the while, rented a room in the flat below me while 6 cowered Ukrainians lived in the opposite room and slept in shifts.

    Anyways, one day Zhenya brought the leader of a neo-nazi gang to my door, and the horrific drinking sessions that followed over the next several months (until i managed to get out of that hell hole) brought me in touch with my first Zhirinovsky supporter. She was a 300 pound woman to be exact. The nazis brought Zhirik up, and the woman, perched on the stoop like a bullfrog, said ‘Жириновский, он правильно человек.’ Zhenya said something she didn’t like (I can’t remember what) and the bullfrog let up and started smacking the shit out of his lanky, 6’2, buck 50 frame. And for bringing those nazis into my life, i have the upmost respect for the first zhirinovsky supporter i ever met and the beatdown she laid on Zhenya that night. God rest her soul!

  5. Russian Avos

    *правильный. Hard to imagine, but it was true. He could also design websites. I’ve never seen a man walk the line between college dropout and gopnik more deftly than him in my life.

    1. Jim Ferby

      “walk the line between college dropout and gopnik” – nothing strange about this, I am sure many gopniks drop out of колледж


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