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  Is it time to imagine a Russia without Putin? (1)

Viktor Denisenko
2016 03 29

No dictator rules forever. A poster that someone ordered to put up in one of Moscow's public transport stations serves as a reminder of this truth to Russians. It features Joseph Stalin and the text: “That one died, this one will die as well”. The poster was put up on the 5th of March, the date being no coincidence as it is the anniversary of Stalin's death. It is no secret who “this one” mentioned in the poster is. It is indubitably the current head of Kremlin.

One must agree that Vladimir Putin and his surroundings have formed an authoritarian regime that has features of totalitarianism. The Russian government itself is prone to calling this system a “sovereign democracy” or a “vertical of power”. Truth to be told, today these definitions are mentioned less frequently, because they served a purpose of cloaking the birth of a new authoritarianism in Russia and convincing the West that Russia is still walking the path of democracy, albeit a different, “sovereign” one. Such cloaking techniques have become obsolete after the Russian aggression in Ukraine. This is why Putin's rule can be understood as a certain time period of Russia's political life, which allows us to inquire when and how his rule might end and what sort of government structure might come next.

The topic of a post-Putin Russia has been touched before, but it gained more traction recently. A stronger conflict of Russia and the West, a drop in oil prices and the sanctions against Russia have a clearly negative impact on the economy, so one might expect that sooner or later citizens will understand that the current government is to blame for the worsening living standards. This might form a strong premise for the change of the current regime, because authoritarian rule leaves no hope for change via the traditional democratic route (elections). One can expect that a regime change in Russia will come with a political or societal shock (a “color revolution” feared by Kremlin, a coup d'etat or Putin's death).

Talking about modern Russia, we must mention several important points directly connected to a regime change. First of all, even during an economic slump Kremlin does not cut the budget spendings for military and information (propaganda) purposes. The current regime will definitely try to conserve power by all means, using the means of carrot (propaganda) and stick (power structures).

There are allegations that the President of Ukraine at that time Viktor Yanukovich was told to suppress the Maidan protest by shedding blood by advisors from Russian security structures, who arrived to save Putin's henchman. If these allegations are true, then a scenario of a “color revolution” in Moscow was rehearsed in the streets of Kiev. Gladly, Yanukovich did not have the courage to push it all the way. There is not doubt that Kremlin came to such conclusions: in the face of danger one must act faster, firmer and harder.

Another nuance is the question of to what extent do Russian politics depend on Putin. Several possible versions exist. One of them paints Putin as a classical authoritarian ruler, which means that Russian politics are formed based upon only his personal decisions. In other words, Putin is the regime, and the regime is Putin. In this case the role of the Russian president is crucial and all possible and potential changes depend on him, which means that Putin's regime will crumble, when he leaves the political arena.

According to another version, although Putin is visible and important, his role is not major. This version talks about a “Putin collective”, which includes the surroundings of the current president. In this case the political regime is potentially stronger due to inner flexibility. If this assumption is true, Putin's withdrawal from the political scene will not result in substantial changes in the current Russian regime, because a “Putin collective” would follow the charted course and function without Putin.

It is impossible to tell, which version is real, however, it does not mean that it is useless to talk about a post-Putin Russia. Members of Russia's non-systemic opposition discussed the future of Russia after a change in the regime during the Free Russia Forum in Vilnius.

Although the discussion did not result in a vision of a stable post-Putin Russia, several important points were discussed. The participants of the discussion agreed that it is not that relevant when Putin loses his power. It is much more important to agree upon actions and decisions that need to be implemented when it happens. During this discussion members of the liberal opposition managed to formulate the main principles, which would allow bringing Russia back to the path of Western democracy after the failure of Putin's regime.

It was agreed upon that lustration needs to be implemented during the transitional period. Of course, members of different opposition groups suggested different principles of implementation. The recently emigrated Evroset founder and ex-owner Jevgeny Chichvarkin suggested to limit lustration only to “people closest to Putin”. He also suggested not to touch assets of those officials, who may have acquired them not completely legally, but did not participate in crimes against humanity (according to Chichvarkin's suggestion, such people could legalize their capital in a reformed Russia after paying a certain fee). Ex-parliamentarian and politician Ilya Ponomariov defends a different position. According to him, a lustration without any exceptions will be a must.

The participants of the discussion also agreed that a “post-Putin Russia” requires a clear reform plan that should be presented to the public. An agreement was not achieved on whether such a plan needs to be political or economical.

There was no doubt that the political system of the Russian Federation must be fundamentally reformed as well.

It is worth mentioning the radical suggestions that were discussed during the discussion. For example, known member of the opposition Gary Kasparov suggested abstaining from elections during the transitional period, because they are possible only when a democratic system has been established. He also suggested that people responsible for the political reforms of the system should be banned from the first elections (which would by itself safeguard from a concentration of power).

Another oppositionist politician, ex-vice-PM Alfred Koch noted that during the reforms Russia would be better off forfeiting some of its sovereignty and handing certain political functions (for example, organization of elections, functions of the Constitutional Court) to international organizations. Here one might see an allusion to reform paths that were taken by Germany and Japan after their defeat in WWII.

One of the most significant conclusions of the discussion was that Russia might soon face a revolutionary situation, when the ruling regime would lose power, and those who are ready would take it from them.

Of course, there is no guarantee that after Putin the power would go to the so-called liberal opposition, and even if this happens it does not mean that it would lead to the precise democratic reform announced during the Free Russia Forum (let us not forget that another well-known oppositionist Michail Chodorkovsky suggested guaranteeing immunity to Putin and his allies). It is understandable that such a picture of a “post-Putin Russia” is still blurry, but it is definitely already time to talk about it and consider various scenarios.


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