Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted a postmodern form of dictatorship distinct from former Soviet rule that the West has so far failed to address and in some cases even abetted, experts said Tuesday.
Whereas Soviet Union officials crafted a narrative of the state as an ideal model of communist government, Putin and his inner circle now openly admit that their government is less than ideal and have pledged to fight corruption, experts on the region said at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The result is that "to engage with the system you have to join it," said Peter Pomerantsev, a journalist who covers Russia.
Anti-corruption activists start out with noble intentions of reform but are easily co-opted into being "puppets" of the regime, he said.
"They’re great improvisers, the Kremlin," he said. "Any situation that comes up, they can reshape and shift. That’s what makes them so hard to fight. You can’t just be a dissident."
Pomerantsev pointed to the Snob media project as a typical example of the Kremlin’s efforts to marginalize the opposition.
The project, sponsored by Russian billionaire and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov in 2008, produces a website, TV stations, and a glossy magazine. It pays its writers, who at one point included Pomerantsev, handsomely and encourages them to espouse liberal and anti-Putin views.
While wealthy reformers are happy for the platform and the ability to vent their frustration, the Kremlin intends for the media platform to alienate rural, working-class Russians, he said.
"It took democratic values and fused them with something most Russians would hate," he said. "At the same time it made the Kremlin more powerful."
Prokhorov became the unofficial Kremlin-approved "liberal" candidate in the 2012 presidential elections, finishing third and garnering about 8 percent of the vote. Putin portrayed himself during the campaign as a defender of the common man fighting against oligarchs with a playboy reputation, such as Prokhorov.
While Putin attempts to broaden his appeal among working-class Russians, his "liquid dictatorship" also allows him to appease wealthy elites by securing oil and gas exports, Pomerantsev said. Much of Russia’s foreign policy and geostrategy, including its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, stems from its focus on energy pipelines, prices, and offshore transport, he said.
The West has mostly played along with Putin’s malleable regime, Pomerantsev added.
Although British and European Union (EU) officials meet annually with Russian human rights activists, the meetings have not produced tangible results.
Meanwhile, European countries have differentiated their concerns about human rights from their economic relationship with Russia. Russian money continues to flow into Britain and the London Stock Exchange, where "investor visas" are easily obtained and regulations relatively lax.
"In the U.K., there are many different safeguards in place to prevent money laundering and the export of corruption that is taking place today," said Pavel Khodorkovsky, president of the Institute of Modern Russia and son of imprisoned businessman and regime critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
"However, Russian money is a source of growth in depressed markets," he added. "Unfortunately we are now seeing an instance where these very regulations that have been put in place are not enforced."
Former European officials also routinely join the boards of Russian companies. For example, former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s recent appointment to the supervisory board of Russian oil giant Rosneft.
Pomerantsev said the West now has an opportunity to toughen financial regulations and exploit some of the weaknesses of the Russian regime in negotiations.
There is also cause for optimism among Russia’s opposition movements, activists say.
Anti-corruption activist and Putin critic Alexei Navalny surprised many observers last month by obtaining almost 30 percent of the vote in the Moscow mayoral elections despite the threat of imprisonment and a short campaigning period. Navalny alleged that the Kremlin’s candidate, Sergei Sobyanin, only achieved 51 percent of the vote and avoided a runoff through voting irregularities.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition leader with the Republican Party of Russia–People's Freedom Party, said Navalny’s impressive showing finally countered the regime’s narrative that it was the best government available for citizens—despite its corruption—due to a lack of alternatives.
"That was a turning point," he said. "From now on they will never be able to say that there is no alternative to Putin."
Pomerantsev said the elections suggested that the Kremlin’s strategy of encouraging the opposition to unite under one leader had "backfired." The Kremlin moved up the elections originally scheduled for 2015 to placate the opposition but did not expect Navalny’s success, he said.
"Maybe they will try to split up [the opposition] into twenty Navalnys," he said. "It’s more a question of can they control him. They really created him."