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By Dividing Society, Putin Has Unintentionally Opened Up Russia’s Politics – OpEd


Vladimir Putin during his first two terms in office sought to unify Russians around him; but in his third, he divided them by attacking what he calls “the fifth column,” thus unwittingly creating two communities within Russia, opening up the country’s political space, and making competition for power possible, Gleb Pavlovsky says.

While Putin still has the resources to dominate Russian political life, the Russian commentator says, he is no reacting to developments rather than structuring them in order to make sure that no one either within the elite or beyond its limits will become the leader of this opposition waiting to be born (

Until 2012, Pavlovsky argues, “politics in Russia was the politics of consensus: he who is not against us is with us.” But that consensus was broken down by the Kremlin’s “war with certain forces of evil” – “first Pussy Riot, then liberals and then ‘the fifth column’ [and] beyond that pedophiles, homosexuals, and color revolutionaries.”

All this led to the rise of “a new politics, a politics of division.” And because there was a real division, there was the danger that someone could harness the opposition as small as it may have been and thus challenge the powers that be.

The politics of consensus was based on the Putin-Medvedev tandem; the new politics arose, Pavlovsky continues, when Putin decided to take all power into his own hands. “And what happened was what happened.” Conflicts became possible, and there was thus the danger of unification of the opposition, “public mobilization.”

“But social structures had been destroyed,” and most potential leaders of it had been forced aside. Only a few remained, most prominently Boris Nemtsov. And that is why he had to be eliminated and was. His murder – and Pavlovsky insists it wasn’t ordered by the Kremlin – did quiet things for a time — but only for a time.

“Recall,” the commentator says, “that after Nemtsov’s murder, the president did not appear in public for two weeks. And then he spoke about how we in the future will heroically overcome the difficulties which we ourselves have created. This was a public rebuke [to those who had killed Nemtsov]: you perhaps had state goals but you didn’t please me.”

Right then, Pavlovsky argues, “it became clear that the system was not completely under control.” And the number of such indications has only grown since that time. The activities of Aleksey Navalny this past year to call attention to the problems of corruption are only the latest indication of the same thing.

Many think that the Kremlin has successfully dealt with his challenge but blocking him from running for president. But they are wrong: there has not been a decline in his influence but a broadening of it. Navalny’s ideas are the ones people are talking about, and “the Kremlin in general has dropped out of the game.”


“The system has begun to thaw and this is already an irreversible process. In 2017, Navalny represented the driver; but others have emerged as well – and despite what many assume, these multiple candidacies do not work for the powers that be but rather over time against them.

That is because it has become obvious to all that the Kremlin is not acting but reacting to others, and reaction to others, Pavlovsky says, is “for a leader a losing position.” It means that other actors are attracting support, however small it may be, and the Kremlin is only playing against them rather than playing for itself.

That doesn’t mean that the Kremlin will lose to the current crowd of challenges, he says. Instead, it means that the Kremlin be won’t be able to stop the emergence of other challengers however hard it works and however repressive it is prepared to be. Others will see an opening in the Kremlin’s reactive approach.

Pavlovsky cites with approval the argument of Moscow political analystYekaterina Schulmann who says that Russians are now dealing with “a frozen constitutional state: all the institutions exist but they simply do not work. Why don’t they work?” Because around a president who can’t be replaced is a narrow elite that benefits from his not being replaced.

They tell Putin what he wants to hear thus isolating him further from society because he does not know what is going on, but within this group of people perhaps 50 in number are some who are already looking beyond Putin’s next term and making plans for themselves, possibly involving harnessing the power of those opposed to the incumbent president.

Because of the nature of the system, Putin can’t choose a successor. It was hard for Yeltsin in 1999; it is infinitely harder now because the Kremlin does not have as many allies now as it did then and because the possibilities of the successor are much narrow than they were for the man Yeltsin chose.

Putin might have been able to designate Medvedev as his successor in 2007, but he can’t do so now. Members of the elite around him doesn’t have their own reputations; not one of them can go out and say: trust me with your money. They need Putin’s reputation … [but] the country isn’t being run governed” and that’s needed to protect their money.

As a result, in a halting and indirect way, “the politicization” of Russia over the last year has led the country to “the bring of normal politics,” one in which there will be real competition among people not afraid to mobilize groups within the population and really attempt to govern rather than just rule.

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Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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