What’s at Stake in Putin’s Culture War

What’s at Stake in Putin’s Culture War

The trial of a punk band in Russia reflects the Putin regime’s hard-line opinions on political dissent, and those views are shaping its foreign policy, says CFR’s Stephen Sestanovich.

August 13, 2012 2:38 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The ten-day trial of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, which spurred an international outcry and nationwide protests, concluded on August 10. On August 17, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich were found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for their forty-second performance in Moscow’s main cathedral, and were sentenced to two years in prison. For CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich, the trial crystallizes the wider ramifications of Vladimir Putin’s intolerance for political dissent and "Western meddling," which include a foreign policy that continues to support Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad. The result of Putin’s hard-line policies both at home and abroad is a country decidedly isolated from the European mainstream, says Sestanovich. "Putin’s view of President Assad is clearly shaped by his belief that it’s not right for the international community to wag its finger at incumbent leaders who are facing large demonstrations at home," he said.

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Journalist Masha Gessen recently wrote in the Guardian that this "remains Russia’s most important political trial." What do to think this trial says about the state of Russian politics in general and Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term in particular?

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When you talk about Russian politics, you’re speaking of a moving target. Six months ago, the authorities were on the defensive--they were uncertain about how to cope with the new ferment this series of demonstrations had made the defining feature of Putin’s reelection campaign. Many people thought Putin would have to undertake some kind of liberalization, [make] concessions to the opposition. But since the election, we’ve gotten a different answer as to how he intends to proceed: there have been a series of legislative measures designed to restrict opposition activities, making it harder for organizers to get people on to the street, for NGO’s to receive foreign support, for opposition groups to organize freely on the Internet and so forth. So a group of young women, who in the heady days of February thought that their performance art in the cathedral could be part of this popular upsurge, now find themselves victims of Putin’s backlash.

But I would disagree that this is Russia’s most important political trial, because the authorities are also moving to put some of the best-known organizers of the protests on trial. And that will be the most significant test of whether the Putin regime is prepared to actually create political prisoners out of people who were the leaders of these demonstrations.

You’re referring to the embezzlement charges levied against Alexei Navalny?

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Navalny is generally acknowledged as the most attractive new political figure [to emerge] on the Russian political scene in the last couple of years, and the authorities want to try to charge him with the same sort of corruption that he has been exposing in his blog. Earlier in the summer, they raided his apartment and office, and the homes and offices of other opposition figures. If the authorities can succeed in taking these people off the field of battle, they will have won a pretty significant victory.

So how do you think the opposition movement will fare in the coming weeks and months?

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Well, it’s unclear. They’re regrouping--they have [some] opportunities in upcoming local and regional elections, and they have new demonstrations planned. But they’re also aware that there has been a loss of momentum, a loss of focus post-Putin reelection. Obviously for that reason, there’s an interest in latching on to any new cause that dramatizes the repressive character of the Putin regime. And in that respect, the Pussy Riot trial is important. It has [shown] many of the middle-class supporters of the opposition that the authorities are prepared to put people in jail for charges that do have a kind of Soviet flavor to them.

Polls show a divided public sentiment about the fate of these women. Is this symptomatic of the growing economic, political, and cultural stratification of Russian society? Are there, in fact, "two Russias?"

There are at least two Russias. A lot of Russian commentators, backed up by Russian polls, say Putin has lost Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the middle class. But these same polls and commentators confirm that he’s pretty strong in other parts of the country, and it’s not simply an economic division. Putin has enjoyed increased support among parts of the country that have benefited least from Putinism, and he faces the hostility of those who have [profited].

Culture wars often become political wars. If you think about the symbolic politics of the Pussy Riot trial, you find echoes of culture wars [waged in] other countries.

Culture wars often become political wars. If you think about the symbolic politics of the Pussy Riot trial, you find echoes of culture wars [waged in] other countries. Think about Vietnam-era flag burning, for example. [Americans] responded to those actions in very different ways. [There’s a similar breadth of range] in Russian society’s reactions to the Pussy Riot trial. Putin is firming up support among his supporters--among his base--while alienating people who are already opposed to him.

Did these women play into the hands of the Putin administration just by the virtue of their affect and protest tactics?

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of Russians are unaware that these performance artists are inspired by Jacques Derrida and [post-structuralism]. What they see is not post-modernist irony but sacrilege, and it’s probably true that this group can’t do much to broaden the opposition to Putin. Putin, or at least some of the people around him, are obviously banking on the idea that these women are so shocking to ordinary Russians that the regime can actually benefit by making an example of them.

But one can’t be totally sure of how this will play out. Putin and his allies often overreach. You may have noticed that the prosecutors attempted to distinguish between the political [motives behind] the group’s so-called "punk prayer" in the cathedral and its "anti-religious" message. They’re trying to make clear that this trial is not an example of political repression, even though most people see it that way. So they have to be careful that they get this right, and Putin’s comments about the need for leniency may show his unease about where this is headed.

To that point, some observers have interpreted Putin’s recent plea for leniency as a sign of his conceding to growing international criticism. What does Putin stand to gain by taking this stance?

Putin has tried to send a number of messages to the opposition over the past several months, and his recent suggestion that perhaps seven years is too harsh probably reflects his effort to strike a balance. But in doing that, he obviously hopes to have it both ways. He and his sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev, have, over a number of years, emphasized that Mikhail Khodorkovsky should receive all due consideration for leniency, where it’s appropriate, but that hasn’t resulted in freedom for Khodorkovsky.

Does the outcome of this trial matter?

I think it does matter, but it’s only one part of the story that’s unfolding right now. And that broader story is about the ability of the regime to cope with the growing dissatisfaction among key elements of the population, including the elite. For a time, it looked like opposition was coming together and was going to achieve steady success. Now Putin’s opponents have had to regroup and find issues that can mobilize supporters and broaden their base. The Pussy Riot trial is part of that, the prosecution of Nevalny is another part of that, the efforts to create effective political movements at the regional level is another part of it. This is not a drama in which there’s going to be an early climax.

Can you briefly discuss the Russian Orthodox Church’s growing influence with the Kremlin leadership in post-Soviet Russia?

It’s an important question. Putin, even more than Yeltsin, has tried to cultivate an image of an Orthodox believer. He’s tried to use the vocabulary and ritual of the church to [confer] some legitimacy for himself--and to provide an anchor for a post-Soviet Russian identity. This is important obviously because of the enormity of the transition that Russia has had to negotiate over the past twenty years. And it’s not just a political play on Putin’s part: there’s no doubt that many Russians see the church as a unifying force in the country. You have more young people going to church today than you had twenty or thirty years ago. At the same time, the church is also seen by many as paying for its resurgence by supporting the authoritarianism of the Putin era. And that has made it a more kind of controversial force. Just as some people see it as an anchor of Russian identity, others see it as [an impediment to] its modernization.

And the church has been torn about whether [it should participate in] political struggles. You might recall that at the height of the demonstrations last winter, some people in the church seemed to be pulling back from Putin, and were suggesting that the orthodoxy had no dog in that fight. So when the church sees the regime on the ropes, it pulls back and dissociates itself. When it sees Putin regaining his balance, it’s more ready to re-associate with him. It’s a trend that applies to many in the elite right now.

So the consensus seems to be that the center is going to hold for now?

The center is holding--but it’s embattled. And there are new challenges ahead: Russia may be sliding into a recession. If that happens, will Putin be able to retain the loyalty of his disadvantaged working-class supporters? If the price of oil continues to slide, how will he resolve disputes about budget shortfalls? There are big issues ahead for Putin, and although he’s been able to right himself in the past six months, he has by no means won the war for good.

Russia currently faces mounting international pressure on several fronts: Syria, Iran, North Korea. How do domestic politics affect the country’s ability to forge an effective foreign policy?

I think it’s fair to say that Russia has not seemed as unattractive or unappealing as an international player in a long time.

There’s no doubt that Russian domestic politics have influenced its foreign policy. Putin’s view of President Assad is clearly shaped by his belief that it’s not right for the international community to wag its finger at incumbent leaders who are facing large demonstrations at home. That’s something visceral for him, but it has isolated Russia internationally. I think it’s fair to say that Russia has not seemed as unattractive or unappealing as an international player in a long time. The isolation of Russia as a result of the [civil] war in Syria and its support for Assad has surely been the most powerful factor in that. But with developments like the Pussy Riot trial, Russia has, in some ways, become a kind of international laughing stock. For many people, [the country seems] further behind in modernizing itself and coming into the European mainstream than Putin [would probably care to acknowledge]. But Putin never claimed that Russia was going to be guided by international opinion. He has said that Russia was going to make its transition in its own way, by which he has meant largely his way. And so far we haven’t seen signs that international opinion is a powerful factor in shaping his policy.


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