Illustration by Devin Washburn
Illustration by Devin Washburn

Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency represents much more than a setback for the country’s protest movement. It is a major defeat.

To understand why, consider the sudden celebrity of Irina Prokhorova, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s older sister.

Before this month’s elections, she acted as her brother’s proxy in a presidential debate against the charismatic and Oscar-winning film mogul Nikita Mikhalkov, who was standing in for Putin. With a few well-placed phrases, the calm, well-educated Prokhorova dismantled Mikhalkov’s arguments so thoroughly that he ended up offering her his vote.

Commentators parroted the director’s praise, building her up as a presidential candidate in her own right and calling her Russia’s answer to Angela Merkel. Never mind that Prokhorova, a publisher of high-brow literature who also manages her brother’s charitable initiatives, has no political platform, and no desire or particular qualifications to run the country.

The adulation of Prokhorova illustrates a deeper problem in contemporary Russia: Thanks to the sheer lack of fresh faces on the political stage, any new figure immediately becomes a sensation by default. Just as a love-starved man might lavish his attentions on the first woman he meets, so those Russians who are sick and tired of Putin are ready to fall for the first hero who comes into sight.

Magical Transformation

The same magic has transformed Alexei Navalny, a 35-year-old lawyer who spent several years blogging about corruption in companies and government, into the opposition’s No. 1 figure. He attracts the biggest applause at demonstrations; he has achieved the distinction of being banned from national television stations; and his face has graced the cover of Russian Esquire magazine.

Navalny himself doesn’t seem interested in the burdens of leadership. He took off for a Mexican vacation at a critical moment in the protests, he avoids interviews, and -- on those rare occasions when journalists manage to ask about his political program -- he honestly admits that he has none, other than eliminating corruption.

When tens of thousands of demonstrators cheer for Navalny, they don’t see the real person. They see their hopes for a new life in Russia -- hopes that are very likely to be misplaced, just as they were when people cheered for Putin in 2000 and Boris Yeltsin in 1991.

For this reason, Putin has nothing to fear from the protests. Demonstrators will come out into the streets for his inauguration in May, and possibly after that, but their numbers will dwindle. Some will make peace with the prospect of another six years of Putin, some will channel their complaints into blogs, some will join the growing number who are packing up and leaving the country entirely.

Russia’s political system doesn’t fit into a simple definition. It’s an autocracy in which people loyal to the regime can exist comfortably. Nobody is forced to repeat slogans or betray their friends and relatives. Corruption is so endemic that it has become an important source of income for a large share of middle-class Russians, including many who took part in the protests. They either benefit directly from kickbacks on government contracts or sell goods and services to people who do.

On that unwritten social compact -- loyalty in return for access to the government trough -- Putin’s power is built. It’s far more powerful than television propaganda, which lately seems directed mainly toward one viewer, Putin himself. It’s also more reliable than police batons, which aren’t always there when you need them. (Back in 2009, Moscow actually had to send its own police to the Far Eastern town of Vladivostok to disperse a demonstration against higher import tariffs on automobiles, because the local force refused to get involved.)

Kickback Economy

Nothing will threaten Putin’s regime until the millions of Russians who make their living in the kickback economy recognize that the costs outweigh the benefits. For that to happen, they must at least have some vision of the kind of Russia they would want to live in. Only a candidate who can formulate such a viable alternative to the current regime has a chance to win.

I don’t want my words to sound too much like a political forecast. It’s entirely possible that Putin will leave before his presidential term ends in 2018. But even if that happens, it won’t necessarily solve Russia’s problems. Without a clearly defined model for the country’s future that has the support of most citizens, any new leader -- be it Navalny or Prokhorova -- will inevitably become another Putin, one whose presidency might never end.

(Oleg Kashin is a political correspondent for Kommersant, a Russian newspaper. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Oleg Kashin at okashin@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net