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But something could happen

Sonja Margolina reports on the advantages of "controlled instability" to Putin's regime

During the demonstrations of the collective opposition movement "The other Russia," the centres of Moscow and St Petersburg were surrounded by special security units whose numbers greatly exceeded those of the participants. What Russians can't be allowed to see in the politically conform media is not to be missed by Western audiences: the peaceful demonstrators and onlookers, among them elderly people, were bludgeoned to the ground and kicked.

Anyone who's witnessed this has to ask the question: what is the Kremlin afraid of? Putin's Russia is doing fantastically. Investments nearly doubled in the last year. The country is experiencing a consumption craze, Putins's standing remains high, many voters are even ready to elect any old "cat in the bag" in 2008 or, as bitter journalists joke, Putin's doggie Conny, should he name her as his successor.

Politically, the Kremlin has succeeded in shutting all the weak opposition parties out of the election process or to corrupt them. Only through a monstrous hall of mirrors could one see in the handful of opposition members without resources and support, anything approaching "orange revolutionaries" or Western-influenced conspirators.

The paranoid fear of a rudimentary protest movement is a symptom of the political crisis that seems to be gripping the Putinesque vertical at the nadir of its un-challenged power. The crisis originates in an old problem of legitimate power change, which represents an incalculable risk for secret service agents. They have privatised the state and secured the majority of the wealth for themselves. The successor could lead to a loss in power for rival groups and to the benefit of others – with uncertain consequences for their influence and possibly their immunity.

It would be easy to change the constitution and allow the population to re-elect Putin. This suggestion is coming not only from the regional nomenklatura, who fear for their benefits, but also from the common people, who trust no institution other than Putin and see in him a guarantee of otherwise fragile stability. Moreover, the departure of Putin could lead to a de-legitimisation of his regime because his person is the embodiment of legitimacy, the epitome of the ruling order. Among political analysts, there is a consensus that the "controlled instability" of the Kremlin administration is being intentionally nurtured to force Putin to remain in power.

But the fight for benefits manifest in the political crises is only the tip of the iceberg. The regime's quickly-spreading paranoia is more an expression of the inability to modernise and govern the country. The Kremlin has weakened or corrupted virtually all state institutions. There is no constitutional state. A system has been created whose only purpose is to manipulate elections to Putin's advantage. In exchange, Moscow would allow regional barons and landowners to help themselves in their areas and to dismiss their constituents at their discretion. The national projects into which millions of dollars flow, thanks to abundant oil revenues, fail with the avarice of bureaucrats or poor planning. This explains why the modernisation of the excavation pits in Kusnezk lead to the largest methane explosion in the history of the region.

The modernisation of the health system destroyed the old system and the new one doesn't work yet. The program of social housing projects and mortgages had lead to increases in real estate prices which don't have to be paid by the middle class. The introduction of an electronic market in alcohol products resulted in a collapse in the market in spirits. The fight against alcohol surrogates was accompanied by an increase in alcohol poisoning.

Social institutions such as homes for the elderly and handicapped are decaying or going up in flames. Heating pipes explode in the winter. Reports of similar disasters are multiplying, because the financing of social programs has been handed over to the regions – while they pay their taxes to Moscow. The profits are being shamelessly privatised by the bureaucracy, the losses shared by the whole.

According to Andrei Illarionov, Putin's former financial advisor, the level of security has sunken to the level of the 1990s, violence among the people has doubled. He considers this situation, which has a lot to do with growing social inequality and the increasing income of a few, to be extremely worrying.

In the spirit of traditional political culture, the post-Soviet elites view their subjects with disdain. The basis of Putin's regime is the bureaucracy, which serves its overlords with unconditional loyalty rather than competence. Bureaucrats need take no responsibility for the needs of the collective because that depends on the people. For the Kremlin bosses and their politicos, the people are 'vegetables' that are fed stories in the media about Western spies and 'extremist' members of the opposition. They think the people will believe the fairy-tale of the evil foreigners again and again. At the same time, the fear of an ungovernable people which seeks to ruin the elite's dolce vita is expressed in the form of "preventative violence." When a policeman is asked why it's necessary to beat up a demonstrator when nothing is happening, he says, "but something could happen."

The regime seems to want to make an "orange revolution" - for which there is supposedly no need in Russia - indeed possible.


Sonja Margolina was born in Moscow in 1951. She studied biology and ecology. She has been living in Berlin as a freelance journalist since 1986.

The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on April 18, 2007.

Translation: nb - let's talk european