Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2012

The End of the Putin Era?

Andrew Monaghan

July 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Much recent commentary on Russia consists of binary attempts to predict the country’s future: Putin or Medvedev? Will Putin maintain his grip on power or will his system collapse? The result is a short-sighted and one-dimensional discussion. The reality is much more complicated. Putin does indeed appear to have lost his “Teflon” image and support for the ruling United Russia Party is waning. The opposition parties in parliament—the systemic opposition—were strengthened by the December 2011 parliamentary elections and succeeded in gaining some positions of power in the body. Soon after the vote, however, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest the falsification of election results. As a result, many observers have seen the demonstrations as an unprecedented “re-politicization” of Russian society and the emergence of an increasingly politically active urban middle class led by a new wave of nonsystemic opposition figures. Yet, all forms of opposition are fractured and far from presenting a real challenge to the Putin system. The demonstrations remain limited in scale and are not the face of a swelling, unified opposition democratic movement. Moreover, the careers of the current systemic opposition leaders may be ending. Its senior figures were defeated handily in the presidential election and are now likely to wrestle with internal power struggles. Setting the movement back further is Putin’s unwillingness to guarantee that he will engage in the kind of reforms that many opponents and some supporters claim are required. An attempt to implement slow, evolutionary change appears to be the most likely way forward for the Russian leadership. This was already seen in one of the Kremlin’s early responses to the demonstrations—the dismissal of a number of officials and the promise that after the election there would be a serious “rotation” of personnel. A rotation, however, does not mean a deep reshuffle with the firing of senior officials. In the immediate term at least, Putin is not losing power. Of course, with the left-leaning parties in parliament offering some opposition and numerous practical difficulties wracking the country, from insufficient or decrepit infrastructure to corruption, Putin’s leadership team still confronts many challenges. But it is far from clear that the end of the Putin era is nigh.