In the post-Soviet region, several political leaders have been overthrown by popular protests, for instance during the so-called color revolutions. In Russia, Putin has been in power for almost 20 years. Why haven’t protests been a significant obstacle for his regime?
Graeme Robertson: Successful revolutions all have one thing in common – a divided ruling class. This was also true of modern revolutions, like the overthrow of authoritarian leaders in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (in 2004 and 2014), Kyrgyzstan (2010) and Armenia (2018). Without elite divisions, the power of the state is too much of an obstacle for popular protests to overcome, especially in a country with a large and powerful state, like Russia. This first requirement of revolution has never been fulfilled in Russia since Putin assumed power in 2000. Consequently, the most basic reason for Putin’s success in fending off revolution has been keeping the elite united behind him as the best hope for defending their power and privileges.
Without elite divisions, the power of the state is too much of an obstacle for popular protests to overcome, especially in a country with a large and powerful state, like Russia.
This answer, of course, raises the question of why Putin has been successful in holding together the ruling elite, while other leaders elsewhere have failed. Here the answer is a little more complicated, but can be boiled down to three elements.
First, and probably foremost, Putin has been able to control access to wealth and privilege in the Russian system. This has been made easier both by the fact that most wealth in Russia derives from petro-chemical resources that are relatively easily controlled from Moscow, and by the fact that Putin has used access to wealth to strengthen his existing ties to the various elements of the security forces. This makes even self-made billionaires ultimately dependent on Putin for holding on to their wealth.
Second, Russia, unlike Ukraine, is largely dominated by one national identity while all the rival identities are either small and mostly local and or internally divided. This has made the task of preventing a serious alternative appearing from the regions much easier and has allowed Putin to gather broad support by appealing to nationalism when his ratings have weakened.
Third, President Putin has been both lucky and skillful in exploiting his domination of the media. This has allowed him to marginalize potential opposition and to create strong support for his rule within society. This popular support was originally based on the economic “miracle” that Putin more or less lucked into in his first two terms as president.
The Kremlin cannot control the one thing that is potentially most dangerous of all – the ideas and creativity of Russian society.
Together, these elements have helped to hold together his coalition even in the face of economic difficulties and quite serious challenges. However, the success of this strategy is not inevitable or pre-ordained, but has to be fought for every day. Certainly, President Putin enjoys a grossly unfair advantage in this fight – control of television, the political parties, large enterprises, the banks etc. etc. – but the Kremlin cannot control the one thing that is potentially most dangerous of all – the ideas and creativity of Russian society.
I would place a somewhat stronger emphasis on the regime’s repressive reactions to past and current protests.
For protest-driven regime changes, two types of conditions must be met. The first is known among scholars of social movements as WUNC (worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment) – in other words, a continuity of large-scale coalition-based mobilization among the regime’s rivals, who share an anti-regime identity and are ready to fight against the political status-quo. The second necessary factor, as Graeme pointed out, is a deep division among the ruling elite.
As of yet, Russia has not demonstrated any of these conditions: The scope of protests in post-Soviet Russia never even came close to the necessary threshold for ousting political leaders, including Putin. Even the strongest wave of protests of 2011-2012 was relatively small in the number of protesters, displayed a very loose common identity, was short-lived, timewise, and was therefore easily coerced by the regime, who pursued a consistent, hardline response of repression.
At the same time, even if some segments of elites may disagree with the regime, they never raised their voice against the Kremlin because of the risks of being punished for their disloyalty. A case in point is the behavior of the “systemic” opposition parties, most notably the LDPR and Just Russia, but essentially also the KPRF, who may express their discontent with certain policies of the regime but do not challenge the regime as such. If one compares these conditions with those present in Ukraine (both during the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan of 2013-2014) or Armenia (2018), it will be easy to figure out how Russia is different in this respect.
To contain challenges from both elites and the public, the Russian regime put great efforts into maintaining loyalty, and successfully combined co-optation and coercion in handling both the elites and the citizenry at large. In particular, after 2012, repressions against the real and potential opposition in Russia became much more harsh and systematic, and the increasing risks of repressions hinders the rise of protests. As a result, protests were usually limited to a small number of local and/or not directly political issues (ranging from the environment to preserving cultural heritage), while their politicization was systematically persecuted by the Kremlin in one way or another.
Vladimir Putin will have to abandon the presidential office in the foreseeable future. There is a theory that it is precisely at these moments that street protests become especially dangerous to the regime. In your opinion, is it possible that power will change hands in Russia in the next few years under pressure from the street?
Vladimir Gel’man: That scenario is possible, but is, so far, not very likely. This is because Putin, even if he does abandon the office of the president, will probably not stop running the country. All the options discussed in the media – possible changes to the Russian constitution, or that Putin will switch to the post of prime minister (analogous to the period from 2008-2012), or form a union government with Belarus. All this already assumes that Putin will remain in power in the country when his current term of presidential authority expires. This is why, in Russia, we do not see segments of the elite giving up their loyalty Putin on the threshold of the coming election. Instead we see purely technical discussions about the head of state’s “successor”.
At the same time, it is quite likely that we will see (and already have seen) eruptions of street protests in Russia over the next few years, but once Putin’s presidential authority expires, this process will no longer be directly connected to that. It is clear that mass dissatisfaction and street protests would most likely be an unfavorable backdrop for Putin retaining power after 2024, but there is no basis for thinking that the choice of one or another mechanism for keeping Putin in power will in any way influence the protest dynamics.
There is no basis for thinking that the choice of one or another mechanism for keeping Putin in power will in any way influence the protest dynamics.
Graeme Robertson: I agree with Vladimir that the likelihood of a change in power in Russia as a direct result of pressure from the streets is small, even in the medium term. A Ukrainian scenario in which the President loses the protection of the security forces and flees, as Yanukovych did in 2014, is pretty much unthinkable in Russia.
Public pressure from the streets could be a factor that inhibits the ability of the leadership to manage everything according to their wishes
However, this does not mean that protest is necessarily going to be irrelevant to the process of succession. The goal of the incumbent elite is to keep succession politics behind closed doors and arrange one or other scenario that allows Putin to retain real power whatever the formal institutional arrangements. However, public pressure from the streets, especially if the protesters are able to generate sympathy from the broader public, could be a factor that inhibits the ability of the leadership to manage everything according to their wishes:
Finding a new constitutional arrangement for a Putin damaged by mishandled street protests, for example, is quite a different task from finding one for a Putin that is successful, popular and widely loved. This is particularly true if the new arrangements are to be ratified – as they have in the past – by some sort of electoral process, be it a referendum or a presidential election for a new placeholder.