A Short Post on the Long Game in Russia

While the recent trial, conviction, and incarceration of Pussy Riot have refocused Western attention on the sham that is “managed democracy” in Russia, the long game rumbles on. Two recent developments warrant some attention as portents of political change on a time scale the 24/7 press rarely discusses.

First, the opposition continues to get organized. On the eve of the Pussy Riot frenzy, an assemblage of opposition groups announced plans for an online election this October. If all goes according to plan, voters will choose a Coordination Council that will try to hash out some of the differences among Russia’s fractious opposition groups and lead a more effective campaign against the “power vertical.” To enhance its validity and heighten the contrast with politics as usual, the intra-opposition election will be publicly audited by experienced observer groups.

Second, Putin’s popularity continues to decline. According to a recent survey by the highly respected Levada Center, the president’s approval rating has slipped to 63 percent, about where it stood in the wake of December 2011’s scandalous elections. More telling, though, were the answers to a question about who respondents would like to see in the president’s post six years from now. On that score, only 22 percent named Putin, while 49 percent said they would like to see a new face as head of state.

In contrast to Joshua Foust, I’m not convinced that the elevation of Pussy Riot to Western cause célèbre is a bad thing. The group’s plight certainly isn’t novel, and some of the reactions of their case have been misguided or downright laughable, but the spectacle of the trial and the absurdity of the trio’s sentences may have helped sharpen many outsiders’ understanding of just how authoritarian the Russian regime really is.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that the Pussy Riot frenzy has basically been a distraction from the long game on which democratization in Russia really depends. This episode is to Russian politics what the scandal of the week is to the American presidential race: a momentary digression from a process that actually turns on deeper, slower-moving processes which are harder to see and less exciting to talk about.

The fact is, international outcry and diplomatic squeezes will not end Putinism. This regime will not come undone without serious pressure from its own citizenry. Of course, it’s hard to generate this kind of pressure—and, more important, even harder to sustain it—against a president who’s widely liked with an opposition that’s disorganized. Those two variables still tilt in Putin’s favor for now, but the developments highlighted above suggest they are trending against him.

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