Vienna, March 11 – Anti-government demonstrators in Vladivostok in January held up signs saying “Putler kaput!” a dramatic and mediagenic indication that some Russians are beginning to think about their country “after Putin” -- an exploration that so far, in the words of one commentator, is more “a symptom” of current problems than “a scenario” for the future.
Prosecutors in Primorsky kray, Moscow’s “Kommersant” reported today, are considering a request from the administration there that charges be brought against those carrying such slogans during a January 31 demonstration for threatening the Russian prime minister with violence (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1136161&NodesID=7).
But some organizers of the protest said perhaps implausibly that “Putler” was not a conflation of the names of the Nazi leader and the former Russian president but rather the name of a resident of the Russian Far East whose automobile dealership had collapsed after Putin introduced import tariffs on foreign cars.
And others involved in that demonstration, including Pavel Ashikhman, a member of the KPRF kray committee, acknowledged the obvious, saying that the slogan was intended to have an element of “humor” and that efforts to “evaluate it from a legal point of view are beyond the bounds of reason.”
However that may be, the willingness of some people to march under that slogan reflects a notable shift in Russian public opinion. While Putin’s standing in the polls remains high, it is not as high as it was, a reflection of both the country’s economic problems and the political “tandem” he created with President Dmitry Medvedev but does not now totally control.
More and more articles in the Moscow media are raising the issue as to whether Medvedev or Putin will leave office first or whether given what is happening both should be forced out. And these discussions have legitimized the question few would have asked only a few months ago: What will Russia be like after Putin?
That question was posed most starkly by Aleksandr Osovtsov two weeks ago in an article in “Yezhednevny zhurnal” (ej.ru//?a=note&id=8842), an essay whose significance for Russian political life was underscored by Denis Dragunsky in an article in the same newspaper yesterday (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=8869).
In his article, entitled “Russia after Putin,” Osovtsov argued that if the economic crisis continues longer than 18 months, as many expect, Moscow will run out of the reserves it would need to continue without serious changes in state policies -- and because Putin is so closely associated with those programs in the office of prime minister as well.
One possibility, he said, would be for “a transition from an authoritarian-police regime to a terrorist dictatorship.” But that is unlikely because President Dmitry Medvedev clearly understands that he would be the first to lose his position and recognizes that he has the constitutional authority to fire the prime minister before Putin could organize such a coup.
A second possibility, almost too horrible to contemplate, Osovtsov suggested, would be “chaos, either in the form of collapse, civil war, or something like that” And a third would be a February 1917-style move to some kind of provisional government consisting either of non-party professionals or a roundtable of all existing parties to deal with the crisis.
In his commentary on Osovtsov’s article, Dragunsky argues that this “conversation is extraordinarily important – but not as a scenario but rather as a symptom” of where Russia is now, obsessively and almost “monarchically” concerned with Putin and his regime rather than with more fundamental difficulties that country faces now as in the past.
There is an assumption behind Osovtsov’s analysis just as there was behind the actions of those who overthrew Nicholas II that the elimination of one man would be sufficient to “solve” Russia’s problems. But as subsequent events showed, the oppressive “paternalism” that had informed the tsars continued unabated or even worse under the Soviets.
“In place of the tsar came Lenin,” Dragunsky points out, and to extend the analogy, “if V.V. Putin suddenly were to leave his post and become a private person, just about nothing in the structure and functioning of the regime would change,” however much those who talk about his departure believe it would usher in the promised land.
Why should Russians expect, he asks rhetorically, that “the departure of one man would mean such radical and invariably positive changes” – especially since even with his exit there would “remains hundreds if not thousands of people from his command who would continue to occupy key positions in the center and in the regions, in politics and in business?
In democratic countries, the call for replacing one president with another means, Dragunsky points out, that “we will hold elections and vote for a more acceptable person.” But those in Russia who shout “Down with Putin!” are in fact saying something with an entirely different meaning.
What they want, he suggests, is the dismissal of the prime minister “first” and only after that happens, the holding of “genuinely free elections [and] the reform of the entire state administration, the entire economy, politics and culture. And then we [Russians] shall begin to live.”
But Dragunsky continues, the only possible guarantor of such transformations could be the Lord God. And in this way, he says, “political messianism before our eyes is being converted into the entirely ordinary kind,” a reflection of the difficulties the opposition has in thinking about Russia or the government as separate things.
“Let the Russia of the future be conceived however you like – imperial or national, federal or unitary, post-industrial or information, even nano-technology. But just not prime ministerial or presidential,” Dragunsky insists. “It is time at long last to think about the leadership separately from the society as a whole” and thus move beyond “messianic fantasies.”
Dragunsky’s point is important but perhaps in a way that he does not entirely recognize: the reality that many Russians have not yet made that distinction between the state and the country likely guarantees that future changes will involve the kind of radical discontinuities that the country has experienced rather than the more evolutionary change many have hoped for.