Is Russia heading for dictatorship? Some would think it is already there, but even today there are still some remnants of a civil society and constitutionalism. It is harder to believe they will last for long though.
For a long time, Vladimir Putin’s regime was something of a post-modern authoritarianism that in the main relied not so much on fear and force as control of the narrative and occasional, measured applications of prophylactic repression.
Back in the 2000s and even 2010s the elections were rigged, but the real trick was to allow opposition parties and candidates who were, in the main, so personally unsavoury and politically unattractive that while the scale of Putin’s victories was exaggerated, they were not wholly fictitious.
Meanwhile, there was a strikingly vibrant grassroots civil society that was allowed to campaign, so long as it focused on local and specific issues rather than national politics, and even a lively and critical media.
For most, the system was at once receptive enough not to arouse their anger, yet distant and dangerous enough not to encourage them into politics. Machiavelli memorably affirmed that it was best for a prince to be both loved and feared, but if he could not manage both, then he would be better off feared. A post-modern authoritarianism, though, knows that while love can be fickle and fear destructive, apathy is better than both.
For a long time this worked. People lived well, the ambitious could prosper, the well-meaning could organise, the cynical could enrich themselves, the discontented could leave. This all started to go wrong after Putin’s return to power in 2012, when he was greeted by protests that he convinced himself were stirred up by the CIA. Then the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine seemed, in his conspiratorial and paranoid worldview, further evidence that the West was coming for him, systematically toppling his allies in preparation.
Increasingly, he began to conflate opposition with treason, just at a time when the economy was worsening, exacerbated by sanctions. People were beginning to feel that the Kremlin was failing to keep up its side of the implicit social contract: political quiescence in return for an improving quality of life.
In many ways, 2020 marked the crucial tipping point. Protests in neighbouring Belarus against dictator Alexander Lukashenko seemed to have convinced Putin that a western move against him was imminent and inevitable. In August, he made the fateful decision to have opposition leader Alexei Navalny poisoned with Novichok, apparently certain that, knowingly or not, he was a western ‘Trojan horse.’
When he survived and defiantly returned to Russia in January 2021, the die was cast. He was duly arrested at the airport, and when his movement began to hold mass protests, these spread beyond the usual metropolitan set and attracted a ‘coalition of the fed-up’ across the country. The Kremlin felt it had no option but to crack down, hard. This is did, with particular abandon, and Navalny’s movement was broken.
But why stop there? A collection of hawkish senior security figures seem to have convinced Putin that it was time to sweep the board clean, especially before parliamentary elections in September. Methodically, critical voices have been silenced and the remnants of the free press labelled ‘foreign agents’ and muzzled or else driven out business or the country. The scope for civil society has been progressively shrunk, and social media policed.
The Ukraine war has simply triggered the final phase, with the threat of prison time for calling an invasion anything other than a ‘special military operation,’ and police in every square in Moscow – which had at one time come to feel like a liberal, cosmopolitan western capital.
Yet while Putin may be seeking to drag Russia back into the dark, grey days of the late 1970s Soviet police state, this is a different country. However constrained, the internet still provides a powerful channel for inconvenient truths and a way for dissidents to connect. Russians themselves are more willing to challenge the state and its lies, something that has even made it on to national TV, something no Soviet commissar would countenance.
While there is certainly a new and understandable new fear in the air in Russia, Putin’s police state will – like everything he sets his hand to – be nowhere near as effective and powerful as he might hope.