Pussy Riot have garnered international support, but ordinary Russians have been less sympathetic.
Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” criticised the close political relationship of President Putin and the head of the Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, in what is supposed still to be a secular state.
The state grants a role for the Orthodox church — along with the other “traditional” religions of Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. It suits the state to manage relationships with a few faiths. The Orthodox church guards its position against other Christian denominations. It is the Russian nature of the church that is its strongest suit.
In 2010 70% of Russians declared themselves to be orthodox — more than believe in God — compared to 44% in 1996. Russians who describe themselves as “not religious” have decreased from 43% in 1996 to 21% in 2010. Church attendance has increased but is still low. “Confidence” in the church has risen from 39% in 1996 to 52% in 2010.
The Orthodox church was not outlawed under Stalinism, but there were not enough churches to cater to all Russians. With the programme of political reform opened by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, which included granting freedom of worship, the church was always likely to grow.
Many Russians have been shocked by what they saw as Pussy Riot’s lack of respect to the Church, and now Putin is using the Pussy Riot case to try and discredit dissent in general.
Putin doesn’t much care about international opinion and makes the case to Russians that the west is trying to meddle in a country that it doesn’t understand.
His room for independence in international affairs is large. Depending on the measure, Russia is either the world’s sixth or ninth biggest economy; the importance of Russia’s oil and gas reserves were shown when it cut off the gas supply to Ukraine (and hence to much of Europe) in winter 2005-6.
In recent years Russia forms part of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) group of economies that are expected to dominate in the 21st century.
Other signs that Putin feels he enjoys freedom in international relations include the Litvinenko affair; and supporting the Assad regime in Syria. He is likely to brazen out the furore around Pussy Riot.
This cocksureness generally plays well with the Russian public, many of whom resent Russia’s fall from superpower status.
Former KGB man Vladimir Putin was made Prime Minister under Russia’s first post-communist era president Boris Yeltsin in 1999.
Putin was in turn elected president in 2000 and then again in 2004. Since Russians are not allowed to serve as president for more than two consecutive terms, he next filled the post of Prime Minister in 2008 while his younger protégé Dmitry Medvedev took a turn as president. In March 2012 Putin was re-elected president for the new longer term of six years. If he stands again in 2018 he could be Russian president until 2024.
After 1993, when president Yeltsin staged a semi-coup against the Duma (Parliament), Russia became a “super-presidency”, with massive powers including to appoint all ministers. The president controls much of the media. International observers describe Russia as an authoritarian state.
The Duma’s influence is small; arch-criminals have got themselves elected to the Duma just to enjoy immunity from prosecution.
Party politics in Russia is under-developed. People do not vote according to left/right political cleavages. In a 2008 survey only 28% of Russians could place themselves on this spectrum, and only 36% were interested in politics.
Most Russians preferred “The current system” (36%) to “Democracy as in the Western countries” (15%) or “The Soviet system as it existed before the 1990s” (24%). Another survey, in 2010, however, saw Russians favouring “a more democratic Soviet system” (33%) over “the political system that exists today” (25%),“the Soviet system as it existed before perestroika [economic restructuring]” (14%) and “Western democracy” (14%).
In 2008, Russians preferred an economic system “based on state planning and redistribution” to one based on “private property and market relations.” And, for all Putin’s popularity, in 2008 Russians still preferred a system with a Duma and elections (58%) over “a single, strong leader” (32%).
Putin has presided over increasing prosperity, albeit from a catastrophic base in the 1990s.
After breakneck privatisation and economic liberalisation, GDP in 1999 was 55% what it had been in 1989. In 1993 a third of the population, 50 million people, lived below subsistence.
Surveys show that Russians worry about rising prices, poverty and unemployment more than anything else.
Russia’s economic position improved in the 2000s with higher prices for oil; Putin has laid out plans to diversify the economy so that its prosperity depends less on energy exports.
Continued acquiescence in Putin’s reign will depend on acceptable economic performance.
Putin has also won support for clamping down on the rampant criminality that has burst out in the post-communist era; but the repressive state apparatus can be used against political opponents as well as against criminal gangs.
Putin’s critics must be very brave. There have been unpunished murders of investigative journalists, for example Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.
There were large protests in December 2011 against unfair Duma elections, and again around the presidential election in 2012. And now there is Pussy Riot...
* Figures cited are from Stephen White, Understanding Russian Politics (2011).