Russian Presidential Election: Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns

On Sunday, by all accounts, Vladimir Putin will be elected President of the Russian Federation for a six year term with the option of running again in 2018. The polls don’t lie. The last Levada Center poll, places Putin at 66 percent with Gennady Ziuganov at a distant 15 percent, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 8 percent, Mikhail Prokhorov, 6 percent, and Sergei Mironov, 5 percent. The second round possibility is now a fantasy. Even without rigging the polls, Putin is slated to win with 50+1 for a first round victory. It’s too soon to speculate if Putin will indeed remain in power until 2024. A lot can happen in six years. If recent events are any indication, a lot can happen in three months. For even though Putin will be victorious, that victory has happened in unfamiliar conditions.

Indeed, the Russian presidential election has been anything but ordinary. Sure, the official cast of characters remains virtually identical to past contests, save a few additions. Communist Party stalwart, Gennady Ziuganov still plays the role of “loyal opposition in-chief,” the aging face of a Communist Party that has the organizational resources to actually present a political alternative to Putin, but lacks the so-called “Leninist will” to adapt to present political conditions. Part of that adaption, however, would require dumping Ziuganov and forsake its aging electorate, something the KPRF mandarins and rank and file are still unwilling to do. Opposite Ziuganov is Vladimir Zhironovsky, another perennial “loyal oppositionist.” Zhirik plays the harlequin in this grand performance, adding outrageous, comic relief to a show already thin on drama. In a way, Zhirinovsky reflects the whole process itself, a clown for a clownish spectacle. Then there is Mikhail Prokhorov, the new addition to the cast. Prokhorov serves as a kind of Khodorkovsky-lite (since the real Khodorkovsky is less pliable and, well, in jail for the foreseeable future). An oligarch who “made” the bulk of his wealth in the “loans for shares” scheme that saved Boris Yeltsin from defeat in the 1996 Presidential election, Prokhorov, unlike Khodorkovsky, not only understood the rules of the game, but also played them correctly. But the biggest question that has dogged Prokhorov is not his past, but whether he’s a Kremlin project or not. I suspect that he’s a mixture. One thing is clear to me after reading Julia Ioffe’s profile of him in the New Yorker is that Prokhorov’s biggest obstacle is that he’s a sleazeball. Bringing up the rear is Just Russia’s candidate, Sergei Mironov. His candidacy only inspires one question: Who’s he?

Then there is Putin. Yes Putin. Not much to say about the man except perhaps, as the star of the show, we’ve seen his ability to play multiple personalities. During this campaign, we’ve seen Putin as the defender of stability, Putin the xenophobe, Putin the strongman, Putin the liberal, and Putin the populist. If there is anything Masha Gessen got right in her new book on the man, it’s the title. Putin is indeed a man without a face, and it’s this facelessness that has made him so effective. Given the choices on the ballot, Putin ironically serves as the political moderate. But Putin’s chameleon-like abilities also make him a perfect totem for his supporters and detractors alike. He serves as both good and evil, corrupt and uncorruptible, hero and villain. Indeed, Putin is a man of contradiction. He rebuilt the Russian state, but in doing so has contributed to its ossification. He has rebuilt the Russian economy, but in doing so made it too inflexible. Putin facilitated the creation of the middle class, but in doing so created his most challenging opposition. Putin vanquished oligarch patronage, and in doing so helped create new patrons. Unfortunately, in resurrecting Russia from the smuta of the 1990s, Putin has had to restore some of the worse historical aspects of Russian statecraft: centralization, personalization, and patrimonialism. In such a system, Putin is the most indispensable and dispensable figure. Indispensable because as the center of the Russian political system, he prevents the whole thing from collapsing. But as that center, Putin also ensures the system a slow and decrepit march to suspension. Given that Putin will be sticking around for at least six more years, it can be assured that so will the contradictions.

The Rise of the Bandar-log

This presidential election also has a new addition to the cast: the Bolotnaya protesters. They weren’t officially hired to play a role, that is unless you believe all the conspiracy theories that they are paid US agents. It’s more like they’ve pushed themselves on to the stage, a motley Greek chorus whose disparate voices have been cauterized into a collective cry for “fair elections.” Liberals, nationalists, communists, anarchists, and their fellow-travelers make up their political palate. The movement, if it can be called that, was conceived on September 24 when Putin announced he was running for election, born during the parliamentary elections on December 4 with outrage against electoral fraud as its first cry, and since has matured into a political force, and if not then at least political irritant to Putin’s re-election bid.

The Bandar-log have captured the political imagination of those at home and abroad, as evidence in the showering of comparisons to the Arab Spring, the colored revolutions in the mid-2000s, the handmaidens of a new Perestroika, and even the American Civil Rights Movement.  Comparisons, especially historical ones, are always tricky because they suggest a large measure of similitude. Thus for the protests to be akin to the Arab Spring, Putin must be a Mubarak and Russia, Egypt. Hardly. For the colored revolutions, there must be an opposition candidate strong enough to make the elections contestable. He or she doesn’t exist. For a new Perestroika to be on the horizon, today’s Russia must resemble the Soviet Union. There’s no need to exaggerate. As for the Civil Rights Movement . . . huh?

This not to say that events in Russia are isolated from the global uprisings of 2011. They are not. Revolutionary upheavals are never contained. We’ve seen this too many times–1789, 1848, 1917, 1968, 1989–to discount their contagiousness. While Russia looks nothing like North Africa, it is hardly immune to the infectiousness of its enthusiasm and symbolic power. Indeed, the uprisings in Russia are part of global reconfiguration of mass politics into a more ideologically amorphous, leaderless, network based, social media driven phenomena. In them inhabit revolutionary echoes of the past, which are reconfigured, for better or for worse, toward an undetermined future. What is striking about many of these uprisings, and here Russia is included, is that there is no future program of utopian or technocratic nature. Their platforms are mostly ethically laden calls for dignity and recognition. The rest is made up as they move forward.

This is certainly the case in Russia. The repeated protester mantra that “We want reforms, not revolution” is not just a tactic to keep contradictory forces together, a trauma of past revolutionary experiments, or indicative of its class makeup. Rather the mantra is born out of an ideological moment in Russia where nothing beyond reform is imaginable. In this sense, Russia is already a liberal society.

But what kind of liberalism? That is the question. Will it be the liberalism of Putin that allows for the ravages of economic globalization to eat away at the social and economic fabric of Russian society all the while funneling the benefits into the few oligarchic hands? Or will it be the liberalism of Bandar-log, who if they ever gain a measure of influence will abandon their left and nationalist allies, for a less crooked, but no less neoliberal capitalism? Thus when it comes down to the standoff between Bolotnaya and Putin, the disagreements are about the rules, not the game.

That said, the protests in Russia have unleashed more than a middle class yearning for power. In a fascinating essay, Maria Chekhonadskikh and Alexei Penzin detail the more molecular political explosion that has occurred since December 4. Under the slogan “You can’t even imagine/represent us!” (Vy nas dazhe ne predstavlyaete!), a number of smaller radical initiatives have grown that have mostly flown under the media’s radar:

The protestors’ distrust of liberal oppositional leaders has provoked the mass self-organization of people who wanted speak about their issues and make different suggestions on the tactics of struggle. For example, at the Sakharovsky Prospect rally on December 24th, there were alternative platforms of students, teachers, cultural workers and traditional civil movements. For example, during the meeting there was an open people`s mic and workshop “Making your slogans”, organized by Union for Cultural Workers and Occupy Moscow Movement. Every day, new alternative committees, platforms and activist initiatives have emerged since January 2012. This “constitutive power” of the people is growing and is more aware of the stalemate of representative politics of any sort. The recent rallies and actions on February 4th and 26th demonstrated exactly this – the joyful creativity of a network-organized multitude of protesters and their distrust of any forms of traditional and authoritarian political leadership.

One cannot predict now how and at what moment the growing protest will reach its peak, nor when it will be able to dismantle the regime of so-called “managed democracy” dominating Russia for the last 10 years. Probably, the protests will be so strong that, after March 4th, the situation will drastically change again. At the same time, many activists are thinking about long-term struggle and putting their hopes in the democratic elaboration of a more socially and economically attuned political agenda, dealing with topics of the global crisis of neoliberalism and the question of social justice. But something irreversible has already happened –mass politicization and a rising political consciousness cannot be stopped and trapped in banal mantras of representative democracy. This situation of openness and uncertainty itself is an achievement of the movement, which indeed was unthinkable only three moths ago in the midst of the despair of imagining Putin’s uncanny “stability” for the next 6 to 12 years.

There are many echoes here, mostly of Italian Autonomist Marxism, particularly that of Antonio Negri with the references to joy, creativity, network, and multitude. It is here, hopefully, in the formation of a constitutive power that abandons the yoke of liberal hesitancy that Russia’s brightest political future dwells. There can be no real democracy without social justice, and on this last point the liberals of Bolotnaya are virtually silent.

In the meantime, the liberals of the Bandar-log remain the force in play, and its injection on to the political scene has completely transformed the Russian presidential election.  After all, who is Putin running against? It certainly isn’t Ziuganov, Zhirinovsky, Prokhorov, or Mironov. The vast majority of Putin’s memorable comments, warnings, and threats have been directed to the Bolotnaya crowd. The utilization of the counter-protest by Putin’s camp has turned the struggle into an almost schoolyard battle, perhaps not unlike Putin’s childhood fisticuffs. Each side endeavors to tell the other: “I have more friends than you do.” It appears that at least in the short term, post-election Russia will feature more protest tit-for-tats of similar ilk.

The Road Forward

As that great philosopher Donald Rumsfield said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”  We know Putin, but which Putin Russia will get is unknown. We know the opposition, but whether it can sustain and build is unknown. We know the Russian people, at least some of us like to imagine we do, but they remain the biggest unknown of all. The question, as the former Defense Secretary put it, is about the unknown unknowns. A heavy canopy of unknown unknowns hangs over the Russian political landscape. This, I think, is best encapsulated by the ratcheting up of rhetoric in the last week producing an eerie specter of violence. There is suspicion from both sides that the other will try spark something. The language of provocation is at its height. Blood figures too often in commentary. For example, I was personally struck by the amount of times Viktor Shenderovich mentioned “the spilling of blood” as a possibility in an interview on Ekho Moskvy. Each side may say that violence is a “lose-lose,” but the necessity of making that conscious articulation suggests that the haunting presence of violence is there. And if violence realized, by intent or accident, it would lead Russia into the greatest unknown unknown of all.