The Limits of Russian Strongman Putin's Power

July seems a good time to draw some conclusions about the current political season and attempt a forecast of the one to come. If I were to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that the culmination of ‘Operation Caretaker’, as planned four years ago, was not a success. Formally, Putin has returned to the Kremlin, but without the mandate he enjoyed in his previous term as president. He is, however, intent on ruling as if his support was as strong as before, and this is the main factor behind Russia’s unrolling political crisis.

The crisis has not yet reached its acute phase. The situation is reminiscent of the moment when an illness might still be taken for a slight indisposition, but the number of white blood cells is already indicating something more serious. The patient, meanwhile, misled by the mildness of his symptoms, is trying to carry on as usual. Let’s take a look at the symptoms of this crisis, basing our analysis on more or less objective data and facts.

Popularity vs. oil

The first of these is a steady decline in Putin’s popularity among Russians. During the 2008-2009 crisis, Putin’s ‘approval balance’ (the gap between the ‘approves’ and ‘disapproves’, according to Levada Centre figures) predictably fell from a maximum of 78 points to 55 (April 2009). It then rose again and steadied at around 60 points. But another steep slide began at the start of 2011: by March Putin had a 40 point balance, and a second slide occurred at the end of the summer, ending up at 27 points in December. In other words, in the course of a year the balance fell by 50%. And after a slight pre-election peak at the start of 2012, the figure dropped once more to 30% by June.

Putin’s ratio of approval/disapproval stands in fact at around 65:35. This would be an excellent result for the president of any democratic country, but it is unacceptable for a ‘Tsar’ – an unassailable and all-powerful leader with an unshakeable mandate. Putin has in effect lost his mandate.

Another important point: this happened without any of the economic factors that usually explain such a fall in the index. Oil prices in 2011 were at a historic peak (the annual rate higher than in 2008). The inflation rate was falling rapidly. The standard of living index rose steeply from March 2011 (Levada Centre figures) and by autumn had almost reached pre-crisis levels. At the same time, however, public approval of the political system, governmental institutions, the general state of the country and Putin personally went into a noticeable decline. This situation, as some analysts have already noted, is practically unique since such data collection began at the start of the 1990s. It suggests that we are witnessing some fundamental trend, and that Russians no longer associate economic stability with the specifics of Putin’s political regime.   

The decline of the ruling party

The second symptom of impending crisis was the parliamentary election of December 2011. This was marked by two mini-crises, and not one, as is generally thought. The first of these was the fact that in areas inhabited by half of Russia’s population, ‘United Russia’ won less than 48% of the vote. According to the official (i.e. tweaked) figures, in 32 regions United Russia’s share was less than 40% (and in 16 regions less than 35%). 

These regions were quite different from one another, and included both large industrialised areas and the non-Black Earth agricultural belt, traditionally a Communist stronghold. The list also includes Moscow, where United Russia’s real share of the vote was less than 30%.

In this case it hardly matters how much the results were falsified. The main thing is that the local power structures were unable, or unwilling, to secure a satisfactory outcome for United Russia.  And this was a powerful blow to the political model of authoritarianism with one dominant party that was established in 2007. This model is considered by political scientists to be the most stable, institutionalised if you like, type of authoritarianism, the classic example being Mexico, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party has been in power for almost 70 years. United Russia should have presented itself as the institutionalised embodiment of Putin’s power vertical, exercising control over the regions and consolidating the loyal elites. The election demonstrated that this model had been rejected by at least half of the population, and not just ordinary voters but regional elites as well.

The battle for Moscow

The third manifestation of approaching crisis was the Moscow protest rallies. To retain a formal majority in parliament, the Kremlin had to resort to an unprecedented level of falsification of election results in the capital.  The widespread protest activity triggered by this can be looked at in two ways.

Firstly, it can be seen as a conflict between Vladimir Putin and the group generally known as the chattering classes. Or one could call them simply sophisticates. Either way, a broad intellectual elite, a well educated and westernised (in terms of their lifestyle) urban population, spoke out loudly and clearly against Putin’s political system. The consequences of this conflict will be more serious than is generally thought. The problem for the regime is that this group’s understanding of the situation in Russia today, and the political agenda it developed during the protests of the winter and spring, will inevitably attract new followers and increase its popularity.

Putin can appoint Igor Kholmanskikh, a tank factory foreman and candidate chess master, as his presidential envoy to the Ural Mountains region, and Vladimir Medinsky, who has been accused of plagiarism, as Minister for Culture, but they will clearly be unable to come up with a view of Russia today that can compare with that formulated by the intellectuals. 

The regime is incapable of putting forward a vision for the future acceptable to a majority of the Russian public: on the contrary, it is having to retreat into the past (in the hope of retaining the loyalty of the ‘provinces’), which will only boost the popularity of the opposition’s agenda.

But the Moscow protests reflected another conflict: that between Putin’s cronies (most of them his Petersburg buddies) and Moscow. This is not only a quarrel between Putin and the chattering classes, but hostility towards the president among Moscow’s elites, who lost their political protection when former mayor Yury Luzhkov was forced to resign. You could argue that a mere 0.5 – 1% of Muscovites attend rallies, but over half  of the rest express support or loyalty to the protesters, and 2/3 of Muscovites are critical of the new legal restrictions on protest action. This conflict, like the previous one, is unlikely to be settled in the foreseeable future. The battle for Moscow declared by Putin in his pre-election speech at Luzhniki is following the exact template of its historical Napoleonic model: Putin has taken Moscow, but lost the battle for the capital.

The ‘reaction’ and its consequences  

The new assault on the media; legislation, full of Stalinist rhetoric, against demonstrators and NGOs; preparations for a major political trial of opposition figures à la Lukashenko after the events of 6th May – all this comes under the heading of ‘reaction’.

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%.

This support is, however, strictly conditional: the protesters’ demand for Putin’s resignation may have the support of only one Russian in four, but 40% of those surveyed show less than complete loyalty to Putinism (42% agree that United Russia is the ‘Party of Swindlers and Thieves’, and 38% support the demand for new parliamentary elections).

Vladimir Putin believes that Mikhail Gorbachev’s big mistake was to make concessions (and that he fell from power as a result). Political analysts, on the other hand, tend to think that his mistake was that he conceded too late and then too little. But this is a nuance too far for Vladimir Putin, who is convinced that his hard line policy is the only correct one: no concessions, complete confidence and a show of power.   

The problem is that this policy is making Putin’s regime even tougher, and so less acceptable both to those who are unhappy with it but still recognise his legitimacy, and to those who are still loyal to Putin or take a neutral view. By voting for Putin, people were voting for a continuation of the status quo, not for a hardening of the regime. They would rather have Putin than the uncertainty that would follow his departure, but at some point this uncertainty might begin to look like a lesser evil than keeping the ‘tough’ Putin in power.

In other words, a hard line may be effective in the short term as a way of keeping the elites in line, but it will also narrow Putin’s ‘conditional support’  zone and increase the number of those who would support a demand for his resignation. When this trend can no longer be ignored (and by autumn the numbers in these two groups will probably level out), the pressure on the elites may well become counterproductive. 

A version of this article appeared in Russian in Vedomosti


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