By Paul Goble
At first glance, Dimitry Savvin says, “the events which have taken place in the Russian Federation in the first half of 2019 don’t inspire particular optimism;” but a deeper examination of them suggests that “the neo-Soviet Russian Federation is on the brink of a neo-Soviet Perestroika.”
The editor of the Riga-based conservative Harbin Russian nationalist site argues that the same forces which drove the Soviet Union toward perestroika are again at work in the Russian Federation because it is in fact “the organic continuation of the Soviet system” however many the superficial differences (harbin.lv/znameniya-neizbezhnykh-peremen).
In the last six months, Savvin continues, protest activity has increased but not to the level that it represents a threat or even a serious problem for the regime, Putin’s rating is falling but it is far from the bottom, sanctions are in place but not murderous in their impact, economic and infrastructure problems exist but not more than usual, and political repressions are growing.
It might seem that nothing was going to change, exactly as people evaluated the Soviet Union in 1983 or 1984; but it is at precisely such times, the analyst says, that certain banners of looming and even inevitable changes appeared, the latest turn of the wheel of the cyclical history of Russia.
That now is a similar time, Savvin insists, he is certain both because of “objective patterns which make this more or less inevitable” and, what is more, because there are “certain characteristic social-political phenomena and shifts which in and of themselves testify to the approach of an era of change.”
He outlines three of them. First, he says, “everyone is expecting change.” Putin is no longer the dynamic new leader; he is an aging despot; and Russians can see that he won’t be in power forever. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that the generation that came of age at the end of Soviet times is giving way to one that was formed in the first post-Soviet decade.
Up to now, the Putin regime “has tried to solve this problem by blocking social lifts and recruiting administrators exclusively from the reliable nomenklatura-chekist milieu – in essence by a dynastic principle. But even such a system is not a guarantee against generational shifts.” Each generation is different from its predecessor.
While most Russians remain loyal to Putin personally and the state as such, they are increasingly unhappy with “’the situation.’” They may not have reached the point of feeling that “’we must not live like this’” as was the case in 1984, but Russians today ever more often feel that “’a lot needs to be changed.’”
“This is a very important sign that Perestroika 2.0 is already at the door.”
One needs to remember, Savvin points out, that “Perestroika No. 1 was carried out not by dissident anticommunists or anti-Soviet underground organizations. Its moving forces were on the one hand a new generation of party leaders” who believed change was needed to save their jobs “and by a multitude of completely Soviet people” without any interest in the demise of socialism or the USSR.
“In an analogous way,” he continues, “the main driver of Perestroika 2.0 could be certain groups in the leading stratum of the Russian Federation and the comparatively moderate and even formally apolitical movements which are directed not at a struggle with the powers that be but at the solution of particular problems.”
The second indication that change is ahead involves the environmental and urban activists who like their predecessors are nominally apolitical but in fact are proving to be seedbeds of activism that is on its way to becoming political when the times allow for that development.
As in the early 1980s, “when political repressions are intensifying literally from day to day, the protest energy growing in society is concentrating in formally non-political spheres,” a trend that both the powers that be and society as a whole consider “relatively permissible” because it isn’t addressed “against the political system as a whole.”
But both the authorities and much of society do understand that “in reality, environmental and urban defense protests are a kind of place des armes where at present are concentrating the forces of the still weak but ever more civil society.” The regime has no good answer: it can either increase repression or make compromises but both are losing strategies for much of the elite.
It is thus extremely likely that “events will develop according to a simpler and logical schema for the regime: repressive attacks will alternative with attempts to find some kind of consensus with ‘the more adequate’ and ‘constructive’ people in society. That is approximately what happened in the USSR in 1986 to 1991.”
The third sign is the clearest, Savvin suggests. It involves the way which the resolution of the Golunov case involved an appeal by part of the elite to civil society. “For the first time in the battle of various regime groups, one of them considered it possible to appeal to civil society” rather than continuing to decide among its own ranks and then imposing the decision on others.
This shift has “enormous importance” because “it creates a precedent extremely undesirable for the Putin neo-Soviet regime” and because it “boldly testifies that divisions in the higher echelons of power are growing” and that those divisions are only going to intensify over the next five years.
Clearly, Savvin concludes, “Perestroika 2.0” is about to happen. The question is what should it involve and where should it lead. That is what Russians should be focusing on rather than on whether change is in fact possible. It is already in train.