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Russian Elections: Why the ‘Putin Narrative’ is Wrong

I’ve long been one of those Russia-watchers who is cautious, perhaps overly so, when it comes to criticism of Vladimir Putin. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m a great fan of Russia’s Prime Minister. It’s more that I’ve never bought into the sort of knee-jerk anti-Putinism which emphasises the ‘ex-KGB spy’ background, implies that he’s personally responsible for every bad thing to have happened in Russia since 2000, and gives him no credit for those achievements which have made him so popular with many Russians.

Things are always more nuanced than such simple narratives suggest.

Which is why I’m annoyed with myself for giving too much credibility to the simple Putin narrative in the past. The Putin narrative, as I set out in my forthcoming Political Studies article, has been predicated on the notion that what Russia needed after the 1990s was stability, in order to build an effective democracy and market economy. Instead of the winner-takes-all chaos and criminality of the 1990s, Putin talked of reining in the excesses, restoring the economy, bringing a sense of national pride and stability, and then slowly, slowly democratising on the basis of a law-governed state.

Putin used to quote the late, anti-Bolshevik philosopher Ivan Il’in (1883-1954) a lot. Il’in wrote, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, about what would be required by Russia’s leaders after what he saw as the inevitable fall of communism. Il’in argued what would be required was the generation of leaders who came after that fall to prepare the ground for the next generation of leaders who were untainted by involvement with Communism.

This is what Putin appeared to be doing in 2008, when he stepped aside from the Presidency in favour of Dmitrii Medvedev. Medvedev in turn talked about slowly, slowly democratising. In fact, for a young president his caution was remarkable. He emphasised repeatedly the deep-rooted problems of Russia and the many years which would be required before the country could embed democracy and legal consciousness – another favourite Il’in trope – throughout its system.

Nonetheless, although progress was painfully slow, you could still construct the argument that the Putin narrative was doing what it said it would. Medvedev was the post-Soviet generation, he seemed a little more liberal than Putin, he reformed the police, he got rid of some old political figures who were seen as corrupt. It was far from the freeing up of politics I would have liked to see, but you could at least argue that it shuffled in that direction.

Which brings me to Putin getting it wrong.

Last summer I was a member of a panel at a Russia studies conference, with two of the country’s leading Russia-watching academics. We were asked to predict who would win the 2012 presidential election. We all agreed that the question could be paraphrased as ‘who will Vladimir Putin decide should be president in 2012?’ Two of us then plumped for Medvedev, whereas Dr David White of the University of Birmingham got it right and said Putin.

Now, Dr White is a good friend of mine and I respect his analysis. Nonetheless, and this may be sour grapes of course, I can’t help thinking that it’s not so much David White who got it right, but Vladimir Putin who got it wrong.

Putin has made a big mistake in standing for the presidency again and, what’s more, it’s an uncharacteristic mistake. Having set out his narrative of power on the day he became acting president after the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, Putin had consistently followed the narrative that he established. He strengthened the Russian state, centralised the institutions, oversaw economic growth, restored Russia’s status internationally, and then, in keeping with a stated commitment to the Russian Constitution, stepped aside after his allotted two consecutive terms in power in favour of a young and apparently more liberal successor.

Putin’s decision to stand again for the presidency on the first Sunday of March 2012 has delivered a massive, and unwelcome, plot twist to the narrative of the Putin years. If Putinism were a fictional story and I was a literary critic, I would slam this plot twist as unconvincing. It doesn’t fit with what we thought we knew about the character. He wouldn’t act like that. Not only does it not fit with the consistency of action which we’ve seen so far, but also there’s no good motivation for it. After all, as Prime Minister Putin has pretty much been in power, with President Medvedev the de facto if not de jure junior partner.

Unfortunately, Putinism is not fiction. To re-craft a phrase from the Soviet years, what Putinism is, is an ‘actually existing Russian democracy’. Perhaps for Putin, this is as good as it gets. The plot development has stopped.

I know that I’m not alone amongst analysts who have broadly shared my views on Russia in being very disappointed at Putin’s decision to stand again. And it’s not just analysts. Far more importantly, there are influential figures in Russia who bought into the story of Medvedev as the next step in the liberalising and democratising of Russia who likewise feel disappointed.

Two final points about the Putin narrative seem clear as we approach the presidential elections.

The first is that an effective public political narrative hangs together well. Like it or not, most of what happened in Russia in the past decade or so fitted into this narrative of stability and unity with the promise of gradual democratisation. Putin’s return begins to unravel the narrative thread. People increasingly think they’ve been told a tall story, credibility declines, some take to the streets, some simply passively withdraw their support.

The final point on this theme is that Putin himself is not offering a convincing or captivating story to explain his planned return to the presidency. In 2000, when he first became president, he genuinely put into words the feelings of many Russians about what was wrong and what needed to be done. There’s far less sense of this today. OK, there’s probably still enough left for him to be the most popular from a relatively uninspiring field of candidates.  But for many who readily bought into the Putin line in 2000 and 2004, there’s the sense that this is a sequel too far, cashing in – perhaps literally – on what used to go down much better than it now does with the Russian people.

Edwin Bacon, Reader in Comparative Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London

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  2. I have some sympathy for what you say. Putin’s support for Syria was simply cynical self-interest though. Syria has long been an ally of Russia, a major buyer of weapons and Russia has a naval base there. Putin has about as much interest in the fate of the Syrian people as he has for that of the Ukrainian and Russian people.

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