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The Limits of Russian Strongman Putin's Power

Putin’s hardline policy towards the opposition is turning out to be counterproductive.

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Functionally, ‘reaction’ is a normal phase of a political crisis related to the gradual loss of a regime’s legitimacy. Obvious signs of weakness in a regime create grounds for a split in the ranks of the elite – support for the regime ceases to be a sure-fire bet. ‘Reaction’ is the response of a regime that needs to demonstrate to its elites its strength and total control of the apparatus of repression.

But ‘reaction’ is a big risk. If it is insufficiently convincing, it will only nurture unrest and panic amongst the elites. And both too little and too much use of force can have an equally negative effect.

In the first place, the elite is likely to have an ambivalent attitude to a ‘hard line’ Kremlin offensive. One notable event of the last few days was the news that United Russia MPs were forced to put their individual signatures to the Stalinist anti-NGO bill. It seems that such demonstrations of a ‘hard line’ caused some panic even in Putin’s supposed front line troops. There are obviously not enough people willing to swell the numbers of the ‘Magnitsky list’  (the list of officials, implicated in the death of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky in 2009, who may face entry bans to the US and EU countries) to guarantee the success of this policy.

 

A majority of Russians (50-60%) regard Putin as their legitimate president. At the same time, a majority believe his legitimacy is limited: in contrast to the situation in the last decade, people [ ] expect him to observe certain rules.

In the second place, research by the Levada Centre into Russians’ attitudes to protest and repressive measures against it produces the following picture. On the one hand, the majority do not approve of the protesters’ radical slogans, including their demand for Putin’s resignation (this demand is supported by 20-30% of the public). On the other hand, however, opinion is fairly evenly divided about the protesters themselves, with about 40% of the public approving of them, and another 40% disapproving. And when the question is put in a more abstract form – about the right of the protesters to protest – they are supported by a clear majority. And vice versa: only about 30% of Russians approve of repressive measures being taken against the protesters, whereas 45% disapprove of them.

So the likelihood of Putin’s ‘reactive’ strategy being unsuccessful is very great, since a hard line policy towards the opposition will undermine his legitimacy in the eyes of the public.     

This analysis of attitudes to the protesters brings us back to the idea with which I began this article. A majority of Russians (50-60%) regard Putin as their legitimate president. At the same time, a majority believe his legitimacy is limited: in contrast to the situation in the last decade, people are unwilling to delegate their political rights to him, but instead expect him to observe certain rules. It is significant that a relative majority of those polled (38% to 36%) approve of the idea of limiting the president’s powers and term of office.

The battle for the elite and the battle for the centre

If we summarise current public attitudes to Putin and his regime, the picture looks approximately like this. Over the last twelve to eighteen months the core of diehard Putin supporters has shrunk significantly, and now accounts for 15-20% of the population. The proportion of hardcore oppositionists is roughly the same (15%). Another 15-20% share the anti-Putin mood to some extent, and form a support group for the hard core. The group who express conditional support for Putin is much larger, at 40-45%.

 
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