Why Putin Fears Civil Society

The discipline that prevented skirmishes during Putin's first stint in the Kremlin is giving way to a free-for-all in which nobody is untouchable.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a meeting of the Federal Security Service board in Moscow, on February 14, 2012. (Reuters)

You can learn a lot about a regime from the fights it picks. And lately, the Kremlin and its proxies have been picking a lot of fights -- both with civil society and with each other.

Take, for example, the peculiar public feud that erupted last week between Pavel Gusev, editor in chief of the mass circulation tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets and Andrei Isayev, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party.

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After Gusev's newspaper published an article accusing several female members of United Russia of "political prostitution" for switching their positions depending on the Kremlin's needs, Isayev went ballistic. On his Twitter feed, the lawmaker threatened "severe retaliation" for what he deemed a "mean and dirty attack on three female Duma deputies."

Gusev responded by calling on the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor-General's Office to open a criminal case against Isayev for threatening journalists.

What was most striking about the spat was that it didn't fit the normal template of the regime pressuring independent media.

Moskovsky Komsomolets can hardly be deemed an opposition newspaper, and Gusev, who heads the Moscow Journalists' Union and the media committee of the Public Chamber, is a consummate insider.

​​And while Isayev's United Russia is still nominally the ruling party, its clout, to put it mildly, ain't what it used to be as it reels from a series of corruption scandals and with the Kremlin demonstrably keeping it at arm's length.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the president "knows about" the dispute but would not intervene.

"It is clear that this conflict erupted within the existing political system. And amid growing pressure on the nonsystemic opposition, such internal conflicts are becoming the trend of the season in Russia," Gazeta.ru opined in a recent editorial.

The Moskovsky Komsomolets scandal broke out amid a very real campaign by the authorities to rein in independent media outlets.

Gazeta.ru's editor in chief, Mikhail Kotov,resigned earlier this month, reportedly following Kremlin pressure, as did the editor of Kommersant FM radio, Mikhail Vorobyev.

In February, the website OpenSpace.ru, which often published commentaries critical of the authorities, was closed down. And earlier this year, the government announced that it would no longer grant subsidies to the online television channel Dozhd TV.

These blunt attempts to neuter critical media and the insider spat pitting Gusev against Isayev are two sides of the same coin. Both are, in one way or another, indicative of deep anxiety and insecurity within the ruling class.

Like the police raids against scores of NGOs across Russia, the campaign to rein in independent media illustrates an abiding fear on the part of the hard-liners dominating Vladimir Putin's Kremlin of a rapidly changing and increasingly sophisticated civil society.

Unable to co-opt or even understand this emerging phenomenon, their instinct is to try to crush it and turn the clock back to 2007.

Insider fights like the Moskovsky Komsomolets scandal are also indicative of disquiet inside the ruling elite.

As the security of the old Putin consensus comes unglued, the discipline that prevented intramural skirmishes during Putin's first stint in the Kremlin is giving way to a free-for-all in which nobody is untouchable. This is evident in small-bore spats like Gusev vs. Isayev, as well as in heavyweight showdowns like the struggle between Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich for control of the energy sector.

Both phenomena are indications that the Putin consensus -- the implicit set of understandings the Kremlin leader had with society and the elite -- is coming further unglued.

The old deal with society -- prosperity and stability in exchange for giving up political freedoms -- is in tatters.

Materially secure, a growing critical mass is now demanding more than economic security and prosperity. They want dignity. They want their rights.

And Putin's deal with the elite -- a license to enrich themselves in exchange for loyalty -- is increasingly untenable in an era of shrinking resources.

"Society cannot service the appetites of the president's friends and his friends' friends at their current level, and the economy is incapable of cushioning their blatant incompetence," political commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote this week in the daily Vedomosti.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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