Western media constantly broadcast anti-Putin protests. Yet in reality, Russian opposition forces are in tatters, writes DW's Ingo Mannteufel, and Putin has achieved a precarious form of "stability."
One year ago, Vladimir Putin once again returned to Russia's highest office. The swearing-in of the third-time president was met at the time by noisy and volatile protests in Moscow. And, even on the anniversary of the occasion one year later, demonstrators again returned to the streets. But even so, the anti-Putin opposition in Russia has diminished in both size and power.
Divided and conquered
The real power of the anti-Putin opposition movement in Russia is undoubtedly overstated - above all else, in Western media.
From the beginning, the base of the opposition movement was relatively small. Both the government's targeted political repression and the splitting of the movement into radical and moderate forces have unsettled many, leading them now to avoid participating in protests.
In addition, a sophisticated campaign of media defamation aimed at opposition members has had its effect.
Yet, whether the crumbling of the movement has more to do with inner, ideological schisms, or the Kremlin's machinations, is now beside the point. The Russian anti-Putin opposition movement is socially and politically marginalized. It has no convincing political program, no clear strategy, no meaningful pan-Russian base - and crucially, no operational team. The movement's luminaries, such as the leftist radical Sergey Udalzov and blogger Alexei Navalny, are being kept in check with indictments, house arrest and the constant Sword of Damokles - imprisonment.
It is therefore, on the surface, correct when the Kremlin propagates an image of political stability throughout Russia and of Putin sitting staunchly at the helm.
But, Russia's political state of affairs is anything but simple. While the anti-Putin opposition movement presents no current danger to Putin's presidency, due to its lack of direction and social marginalization, the same critiques can be leveled at Putin and his ruling elite.
The Russian population's only connection to the Kremlin elite is through Putin. More specifically, it's through state television, which broadcast images of Putin as the patriarchal "father of all Russians," one who can understand the concerns of "the people." Those "people," however, are frustrated, particularly with the lawlessness and social inequalities of day-to-day life.
Unlike Putin-as-father-figure, his party, United Russia, is viewed as corrupt. Its functionaries are deemed by Russians to be nothing more than self-serving careerists. That's one of the reasons that Putin has been working for more than a year-and-a-half on a new "Popular Front," establishing the group as a new political force - and himself as its leader.
Among Russians, cynicism and apolitical attitudes are widespread, whether in regard to the anti-Putin opposition, or the Kremlin elite. Only Putin himself, through cultivated public broadcasts and conservative rhetoric, has succeeded (thus far) in bridging the gap between the popular masses and Russia's political elite.
Stability through the rule of law
Like the opposition fighting against him, Putin, too, has no clear political concept that would meet ,and ultimately conquer, the economic and social challenges facing his country. More often, experts and deputies of the reigning elite point to a general lack of a clear political perspective for Russia. In the political chambers of the Kremlin, signs of strong disagreements as to Russia's political orientation are becoming increasingly evident.
Russia's political situation is therefore treacherous. Over the long term, anyone who creates "stability" by steering a country single-handedly and crushing social-political movements instead produces fragility. Only the rule of law, strong democratic institutions and a balancing of societal interests can succeed in real stability.
Given the strong Russian penchant for revolutionary shake-ups, which always have set the country back, one can only hope that the Kremlin is insightful enough to recognize the need for evolutionary development and liberalization. The alternative is better left unimagined.