Limits of Putin’s Power

The rallies in Moscow are the third manifestation of an impending crisis. In order not to lose their formal majority in the Duma, the authorities were forced to resort to an unprecedented scale of forgery of ballot papers in Moscow. The ensuing widespread protests in Moscow can be viewed from two perspectives.

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July is the perfect time to sum up the outcome of the political season and try to predict possible future political developments. In a nutshell, we can conclude that Operation Placeholder, planned four years ago, has been a failure. Formally, Putin returned to the Kremlin, but without the mandate he enjoyed during his previous terms. However, Putin clearly intends to rule as if he had received such a mandate. It is this which is the main driving force behind the political crisis that is unfolding in Russia.

The crisis has not yet entered its acute phase. The situation is reminiscent of a point in time when a disease can still be regarded as a mere indisposition, while the number of leukocytes in the blood clearly indicates that the condition is more serious. Meanwhile, the patient is focusing on mild symptoms and trying to carry on as if nothing had happened. Let us list the signs and manifestations of the crisis based on more or less objective data and facts.

Ratings vs. oil

The first manifestation is the steady decline in approval ratings. During the crisis of 2008-2009, Putin's approval balance (the difference between those who approved and those who disapproved) according to the Levada Center research organization predictably fell from its all-time high of 78 points to 55 (April 2009). The index then went up and stabilized at around 60 points in 2010. However, it took a plunge in early 2011, reaching a low of 40 points in March. Another downswing started at the start of summer 2011 with the index eventually bottoming out on 27 points in December. So the index lost half its value in a matter of 12 months. After a pre-election surge in early 2012, the index returned to the lows of late 2011 (30 points) in June.

As a matter of fact, the ratio of those who approve and those who disapprove of Putin stands at about 65:35, or slightly lower. This can be considered an excellent result for a president in any democratic country, but it’s unacceptable for a “tsar,” a dominant leader with an extremely wide-ranging mandate and without any viable competition. Putin has in fact lost any such mandate.

Another important aspect is the fact that there were no economic factors to explain the behaviour of the index. Oil prices in 2011 were at an all-time high (higher than in 2008 on an annualized basis). Inflation was falling sharply. The household finance index calculated by the Levada Center in March 2011 was rising rapidly and almost reached pre-crisis levels in the fall. At the same time, ratings for the political system, government institutions and the overall situation in the country and that of Putin personally were much lower in 2011. Some analysts noted this situation was almost unique since records of these observations began in the early 1990s. This suggests that we are dealing with a significant trend and that economic stability is no longer considered one of the defining features of Putin's political rule.
Failure of the ruling party

The parliamentary elections were another manifestation of the looming crisis. Two mini-crises, not one, as is commonly believed, are associated with these elections. The first one was that United Russia won less than 40% of the votes in the regions, which are home to half of Russia’s population. According to the official (i.e. rigged) data, in 32 regions United Russia won less than 40% of the votes (in 16 of them less than 35%). These regions are very different, ranging from large industrial regions to Non-Black Earth regions which have traditionally voted for the Communists. Moscow is part of these regions as well, with United Russia winning less than 30% of the votes there.

In this case, it does not really matter how badly the results were rigged in these regions. What is important is that the local authorities were unable or unwilling to secure satisfactory results for United Russia. This came as a powerful blow to the model of political authoritarianism, with the dominant party at the helm, which has been in the making since 2007. Political analysts believe that this is the most stable and even institutionalized type of authoritarian government (a classic example is Mexico with its Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled for nearly 70 years). In fact, the ruling party was supposed to act as an institutional shell for Putin's power vertical, ensure control over the regions and consolidate loyal elites. The elections have shown that at least half the country, not only regular voters, but regional elites as well, reject this model.

The battle for Moscow

The rallies in Moscow are the third manifestation of an impending crisis. In order not to lose their formal majority in the Duma, the authorities were forced to resort to an unprecedented scale of forgery of ballot papers in Moscow. The ensuing widespread protests in Moscow can be viewed from two perspectives.

First, it should be viewed as a conflict between Vladimir Putin and what Vladislav Surkov aptly called the “creative” class (although “advanced” would be a more accurate term). Either way a broad-based intellectual elite, educated and westernized (in terms of lifestyle) sections of the urban population strongly opposed Putin's political system. The consequences of this conflict are more serious than is generally thought.

The problem is that the vision of the situation, the Russian present, and the agenda formulated by the advanced class during the winter and spring rallies, are destined to win new supporters and gain popularity. You can appoint the head of a tank assembly plant and advanced checkers player Igor Kholmanskikh plenipotentiary envoy, or make a man suspected of plagiarism, Mr. Medinsky, Minister of Culture, but it is clear that they cannot formulate a vision of Russia's present that can compete with the one formulated by the advanced class. The administration is unable to come up with a vision of the future that would be acceptable to the majority of Russians; on the contrary, it is forced to cling on to the past in the hope of preserving the loyalty of the Russian provinces, which will only increase the popularity of the opposition agenda.

But the Moscow protests reflected yet another conflict: the one between Putin's clan (mainly from St. Petersburg) and Moscow. This conflict is not only about Putin's clash with the advanced class, but also about the feud with the Moscow elites, who found themselves without political protection after Yury Luzhkov’s dismissal. In fact only about 0.5%-1% of Moscow’s population attend the rallies, but more than 50% acknowledge their sympathy for and loyalty to the protesters and two thirds of Muscovites condemn the tightening of the law on rallies. Just like the previous one, this conflict is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

The Battle for Moscow announced by Putin in his election speech at the Luzhniki Stadiumis unfolding exactly in line with the historical allusion to Napoleon: Putin may have taken Moscow, but he has lost the battle for it.

“Reaction” and its consequences

A new assault on the media, laws against protesters and NGOs which smack of totalitarian Stalinist rhetoric, the preparation of a broad Lukashenko-style political process against the opposition in the wake of the May 6 events – all of this should be viewed as a “reaction.” Functionally, the “reaction” is a natural stage of the political crisis caused by the gradual loss of legitimacy by the regime. Clear signs of a weakening regime set the stage for a split in the elites: supporting the regime no longer looks like a win-win bet. “Reaction” is the response of a regime that must demonstrate its power to the elites and its complete control over the repressive apparatus.

However, the “reaction” is a big risk. If it turns out to be not overly convincing, it will only speed up agitation and panic among the elites. Moreover, the negative effect could result either from an insufficient or from an excessive use of power.

First of all, the impression produced on the elites by “hardline” policies could be two-fold. One of the more remarkable events of recent days was the news that members of United Russia in the Duma were forced to put their personal signatures on the Stalinist bill on NGOs.

Apparently such “hardline” manifestations cause panic even among Putin's vanguard foot soldiers. Clearly there are not as many people who want to see their names on the Magnitsky list as are needed to ensure the implementation of the hardline policy.

Secondly, a study conducted by the Levada Center on the attitude of Russians toward the protests and repressions shows that, on the one hand, the majority of Russians do not support the protesters’ radical slogans, in particular the demand for Vladimir Putin’s resignation (only 20%-30% support this demand), but, on the other hand, the population is quite loyal toward the protesters: supporters and detractors have formed two roughly equal groups of 40% each. But when the question is reframed and put in a more abstract form, asking about the right of protesters to protest, a strong majority of respondents comes out in favour. Conversely, repressions against protesters are supported by a minority (about 30% versus 45% who do not support them).

So the likelihood of the “reaction” strategy not turning into a winning strategy for Putin is very high: repressions against the opposition would undermine his legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

This analysis of attitudes toward the protesters brings us back to the thesis formulated in the beginning. In the eyes of most Russians (50%-60%) Putin is a legitimate president. At the same time, most people believe that his presidential legitimacy is limited. Unlike in the 2000s, people are not inclined to delegate their political rights to Putin; on the contrary, they expect him to follow certain rules. Characteristically, the slogan for limiting the presidential term and powers receives a relative majority in the polls (38% support it, 36% do not).

Fight for elites and for the center

People's attitude to Putin and his administration looks something like this: sociologists note that the core of Putin’s solid supporters has significantly contracted over the past 12-18 months and now stands at 15%-20%. The number of hardcore opponents is roughly the same (15%). Another 15%-20% share anti-Putin sentiments to some degree and support the anti-Putin core group. The number of tentative Putin supporters is much greater at 40%-45%.

However, this support is only provisional. For example, while the demand for Putin's resignation finds favour with only one in four, disloyalty to Putin's political system was shown by 40% of respondents (42% agree that United Russia is a party of crooks and thieves and 38% support the demand for new elections to the State Duma).

Vladimir Putin is convinced that Mikhail Gorbachev’s main mistake, and the reason he lost his grip on power, was making concessions. Political analysts, however, generally believe that Gorbachev's mistake was that he was always late in making concessions: by the time he made them it was already too late. But Vladimir Putin does not see this nuance and is convinced of the case for pursuing a hard line: no concessions, total self-confidence and a show of force.

The problem is that this policy makes Putin's government system even more rigid and therefore less acceptable to those who are dissatisfied with it but still recognize Putin’s legitimacy, or to those who remain loyal or are sitting on the fence. By voting for Putin, people voted for the status quo, not for a tightening of the regime. They prefer Putin to the uncertainty that would come about if he resigned. But at some point, this uncertainty may look like a lesser evil than a hardline Putin in power.

In other words, in the short term hardline politics can have a positive effect in the sense of disciplining the elites, but at the same time it will reduce the area of tentative support and increase the ranks of those who sympathize with the call for Putin to resign. When this trend becomes evident (the two groups are likely to become similar in size in the fall), the pressure directed against the elites will backfire spectacularly.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.