Putin Is Replaceable
Published: August 20, 2014 (Issue # 1825)
Will Russia plunge into chaos and darkness after President Vladimir Putin leaves? While it’s understandable that propaganda-brainwashed Russians might truly think so, it comes as a surprise when U.S. analysts repeat the same idea.
“Knowing the weakness of the liberal opposition and the strength of Putin’s security apparatus, it’s hard not to fear that his replacement will make us long for the days of his thuggishly predictable unpredictability,” warns Julia Ioffe on The New Republic. “If the U.S. gets rid of Putin they will have no ability to control what happens next,” threatens Mark Adomanis on Forbes.
Such pessimistic estimates, however, are hardly well grounded. Russia’s 140 million citizens should be capable of replacing their president with someone who isn’t living “in another world,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said of Putin.
The analysts who are scared of post-Putin Russia usually raise the following points: 1) Putin ruined all independent institutions and made himself the only arbiter of power. This will lead to chaos once he leaves the Kremlin. 2) Putin is the only constraint on Russia’s highly motivated and organized nationalists, who will transform the country into a fascist regime once he leaves. 3) Personalistic regimes are rarely followed by democratic systems, so what’s the point of replacing apples with apples?
Let’s consider those arguments step by step.
First, it’s true that Putin has successfully set up an autocratic political system over the last 15 years. By destroying opposition parties, putting their leaders under arrest and blocking popular mobilization, the Kremlin has succeeded in limiting the Russian population’s interest in politics. The resulting void between the authorities and the people has led to complete alienation between the elites and the masses.
But Russia would not be lost to chaos if Putin disappeared. Instead, it would empower one of the more politically successful segments in Russian society today: the liberal white-collar opposition movement. No other social group in the last 20 years has been remotely able to mobilize 100,000 to 200,000 protest participants (as they managed in 2011-12 protests), or the 630,000 Muscovites who voted for opposition candidate Alexei Navalny during last year’s election for Moscow mayor.
The very demobilization of most of Russian society is also a guarantee against the emergence of nationalistic groups. Many Russians might repeat certain ideas they hear on the television, but they won’t stand up for those ideas. The swings in Russian’s public opinion on the major issues prove that point. For example, the support for military invasion in Ukraine dropped 20 percent from February to June following the softening of the media propaganda discourse.
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