Staunton, January 8 – Polls show that the divide between Russians prepared to support Vladimir Putin and his course and those opposed to him has remained remarkably stable, an indication that the Internet has not played the role in undermining government media that many expected, commentator Dmitry Oreshkin says.
But this “surprisingly stable structuring of society,” one in which the Kremlin can count on winning elections even without falsification, not only may be deceptive and short-lived, is not something those at the top of the system are counting on lasting forever, he says. Instead, their actions suggest they are worried it could change quickly (ej.ru/?a=note&id=35743).
And because they believe that the Soviet system survived as long as it did because of repression and total control of propaganda and failed only when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed glasnost and showed himself unwilling to drown challenges to the system in blood, Putin and his entourage do not intend to make the same mistakes.
On the one hand, they have adopted ever more restrictive media policies; and on the other, they have shown themselves willing to engage in a level of repressive actions far greater than anyone thought possible or that in fact the state of Russian society would appear to require, Oreshkin says.
But the regime has good reasons for worrying, he continues. While the overwhelming majority supports it or at least doesn’t oppose it, there are still 15 to 20 million “Europe-oriented voters,” a number that hasn’t increased significantly in recent years but is far larger than any Soviet leader had to face.
That means that the Putin regime has cause to worry, at least over the longer term. And its actions, including its increasingly repressive media policies and Putin’s lashing out at any form of dissent strongly suggests that many in the elite fear even if they do not yet sense that changes are “on the way” that will cost them their power.
When they consider the Soviet period, these people must recognize that the “heavy lifting” of imposing total control happened during the Civil War and mass collectivization. Repression in the late 1930s only affected a relatively small portion of the population because its obvious opponents had been killed, fled abroad, or been intimidated into supporting the regime.
Where the Soviet regime went wrong if it wanted to remain in power forever was to make concessions to the population after the death of Stalin that led to the rise of a new generation that took the place of those who had been killed, exiled or intimidated and against which Moscow was no longer prepared to use massive terror.
When the Kremlin allowed people to gain information from sources it did not control, that along with foreign failures, the collapse of oil prices, and the exhaustion of domestic sources for development led to the collapse of the USSR, the political scientist argues. Now, the Putin regime faces something similar.
So far, the Internet has not played the perestroika-style role that many expected; but the impact of the government media is falling and the Kremlin recognizes the danger in this. That is why the Kremlin is increasingly turning to repression, even though it is far from clear whether it is prepared to go far enough in that direction to achieve its goals or even survive.
While they are still a minority, the opposition is sizeable and killing it off, imprisoning it or even forcing it to move abroad would be extremely expensive and difficult. It would require a far larger effort than Stalin engaged in in the late 1930s – and it is almost certainly beyond Putin’s capacity now.
As a result, tectonic shifts are at work in Russia. They haven’t come as rapidly as many have hoped; but there are ever fewer indications that the regime can prevent them from having the effect many in the opposition want and many in the Putin regime increasingly fear, the Russian political scientist concludes.
Window on Eurasia — New Series