Russia's political landscape has been relatively calm and consolidated for the past decade under former President and current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. However, recent months have seen instability rise sharply, with a purge in the government, a shift in parliamentary election results and large protests in the streets. None of these is new to Russia, but these and other factors are converging and creating changes in Russia's political landscape.
When Putin came to power in 1999, he ruled a country that was in utter political disarray, economically broken and threatened by internal and external forces. He aggressively consolidated the country politically, economically and socially and quashed the security threats. The country rallied around him as Russia's "savior," a sentiment that in recent years evolved into a cult based on the belief that Putin is the sole heartbeat of the country.
But Russia cannot survive indefinitely under one ruler; historically, internal dissent has risen and fallen inside the inherently unstable country. Such dissent had been under control for the last decade, allowing the country to strengthen. But now dissent is on the rise again, both outside the Kremlin and within Putin's circles of power. All of this comes as Russia is facing economic instability and national security concerns, and Russia's next presidential election -- in which Putin is running -- is a mere month away.
Kremlin Turmoil and Outside Pressure
The first shift in Russia's political landscape occurred because Putin's complex network of clans inside the Kremlin has utterly collapsed. When he came to power, Putin understood that he needed to set up a group of powerful loyalists to help with the aggressive consolidation needed to rebuild a strong Russia while planning a strategy for the future that involved many more liberal policies -- two seemingly contradictory goals. This led to the creation of two clans: the security hawks of the siloviki and the more liberal-minded civiliki. The clan-based system in the Kremlin was also meant to keep the two groups in competition with each other so neither would directly challenge Putin's authority. But the pressures related to a shift in economic policies, economic volatility, a failure in social policy regarding new political groups and personality conflicts all contributed to a massive breakdown in both clans. Putin had to scramble to keep his government functional as his loyalists pursued their own agendas, joined opposition groups or left the government altogether.
This breakdown has left Putin without a strong and focused team to help him handle the other shift in Russia's political scene: the rise of anti-Kremlin groups. The first real hint that these groups were gaining significance was the December 2011 parliamentary elections, in which Putin's United Russia party lost its supermajority in the Duma and opposition parties, particularly the Communist Party, nearly doubled their presence. The week after the elections, protests against alleged election fraud began stirring, culminating in a demonstration Dec. 24 that drew 80,000 participants -- one of the largest protests Russia has seen since Putin took power. The anti-Kremlin protest movements are not linked in their ideologies, roots, strategies or goals, but they have come together in mass demonstrations against the Kremlin, catching the attention of both Putin and the outside world.
Anti-Kremlin sentiment stems from many issues. Years of relative stability have led to a sense of political, social and economic security, which has fostered a belief among some Russians that the country no longer needs a "savior" like Putin. Prolonged periods of high energy prices and a strengthening Russian economy have created a new growing middle class, something not really seen in Russia before. Furthermore, much of the generation now coming of age was not raised under the Soviet Union or during the chaotic years immediately following its collapse. An extremist brand of nationalism has also risen across the country, leading more Russians to have no interest in a balanced government. Putin's government did not anticipate these shifts in recent years, and that failure has fed into dissent from within United Russia and the further rise of anti-Kremlin sentiment.
When all of these crises seemed to erupt within a few months, Putin's reaction was uncharacteristically slow. But now he is beginning to form a strategy to deal with the crises in the short term and formulate long-term political and social policies to take into account the shifts in Russia. This kind of adjustment has occurred cyclically throughout Russian history as the country has shifted between stability and chaos.
Putin's Perception Issue
However, these crises are creating problems of perception for Putin and Russia, and the longer Putin takes to resolve these crises, the weaker he will appear to the rest of the world. Putin needs to be seen as a strong and stable leader in order to effectively reorganize his loyalists and manage the strengthening anti-Kremlin groups.
The perception of a weaker Putin -- and a weaker Russia -- could also affect how well Russia handles other large challenges in the areas of economics and security. Political volatility and the perception that Putin is weakening is discouraging investors in Russia, which was depending on outside investment in order to launch its massive modernization and privatization programs. The perception of a weaker Kremlin will also affect Russia's resurgence in its former Soviet states and attempts to increase pressure in its near abroad, particularly Central Europe. Other countries, especially the United States, have taken advantage of the instability inside Russia and are attempting to exploit the image that Moscow is not as strong or powerful as it claims to be. As Russia continues to pressure Central Europe and Washington's interests in the region, Moscow cannot allow internal issues to erode its position.
Ultimately, the question is not whether Putin can handle the domestic instability and shifting political landscape inside the country, but how long it will take him to rein it in. With elections on the horizon, and the perception of Russia's -- and Putin's -- power eroding, the Russian leader will have to get his house in order before he can tend to grander schemes for the country.
Published with the permission of Stratfor.