The populist threat to Putin’s power
Editor’s note: Is Vladimir Putin really the most powerful person in the world? Fiona Hill and Hannah Thoburn examine the reality of her domestic situation and the problems that Russia’s slow economic growth and populist movements may soon cause her.
In October 2013, Forbes Magazine named Russian President Vladimir Putin “the most powerful person in the world”. The rationale for this selection by publisher Steve Forbes suggested that the criteria applied by the magazine were not entirely objective. Nevertheless, Putin has reconsolidated his position on the Russian home front since the protests that erupted around the Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011 and his election to a third presidential term in March 2012. On the international scene, Putin’s bold gestures in pushing for a Syrian Chemical Weapons Agreement and publication of a scathing editorial on US foreign policy in the New York Times have also gained more positive attention than usual over the past three months. But the reality of Putin’s political position in Russia is much more complex.
President Putin’s political approval ratings are far higher than all other Russian politicians, including the Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev. In a September poll asking Russians which politicians they would vote for if a presidential election were to take place in a week’s time, only Putin scored above single digits. Indeed, Putin has now dissolved the tandem leadership agreement he created with Medvedev in 2008. Putin clearly retained his grip on critical levers of executive power when he was prime minister, but Medvedev has been relegated to a subordinate role since his return to the post of Prime Minister. In the words of a well-connected Russian businessman: “There is no one else! [And] as long as opinion polls and big business [domestic and foreign] continue to support Putin, it will be difficult for someone else to emerge.
The nascent opposition movement, which took tens of thousands to the streets of Moscow and other major cities just 18 months ago, now looks more like a passing ‘fad’ than a real threat for Putin’s regime. Even the much discussed surprise of opposition leader Alexeï Navalny during the municipal elections of September 2013 in Moscow reinforces this interpretation. Despite Navalny getting over 27% of the vote, a number far beyond the expectations of his own campaign as well as Kremlin pollsters, voter turnout in Moscow was extremely low. Only 32 percent of eligible Moscow voters participated in the election. Based on this, active participation in Navalny, in the city where the opposition movement had the most impact and support, was only around nine percent.
Reducing active support for the opposition and its leaders, and turning the opposition movement from threat to fashion, has been a key goal for Putin since his reinstatement as president in May 2012. At the height of the protests , a foreign interlocutor asked Putin in a personal meeting if he was worried about the new movement. He retorted “give them five years and then let’s see what they’ve accomplished!” Putin and the Kremlin have focused heavily on fighting the opposition. They have used a mixture of co-optation and intimidation to control, contain and suppress the movement, its leaders and supporters, and to reduce its capacity to mobilize.
These measures have included the use of the court system and ‘show trials’ to target key individuals and groups – like Alexei Navalny, the girls of the punk rock group Pussy Riot and a disparate group of people who have participated in some of the events. demonstrations. in Moscow in May 2012. Legislation passed by the Russian parliament also obliges Russian NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they receive international funding for their programs. The trials were particularly successful in making would-be protesters realize that they could disrupt, if not destroy, their lives if they decided to move from passive support for opposition goals to participation in collective action. In a recent poll by the Russian Levada Center, for example, 55% of those polled indicated that they considered the prosecution of 28 protesters arrested in May 2012 to “scare the pro-opposition spirit of the public”.
With the hindsight of the urban professionals who supported the 2011-2012 opposition movement, Putin may seem – like Forbes Magazine suggested – to have reaffirmed its authority. But Putin and the Kremlin still have to worry about other groups with more troubling agendas. Protesters demanding the right to actively participate in Russian politics gave way to other protesters. These call for an end to immigration and migration within Russia, and for the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian Orthodox believers to take precedence over minority groups and religions.
A recent poll shows that 73 percent of Russians would like to see immigrants from other former Soviet states expelled from Russia. Some 71% say they support the slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus” (Хватит кормить Кавказ), which demands that the Russian government stop subsidizing the unstable North Caucasus region. These sentiments manifested themselves in street protests and riots against crimes committed by immigrants and migrants, and a series of violent assaults against minorities, including an attack on a train bound for Tajikistan.
The Kremlin has long closely monitored Russian nationalist and extremist movements and kept leaders of populist political parties on a leash. In early November 2013, Putin quickly withdrew nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky after making particularly inflammatory statements about the unstable North Caucasus, including that the region should be literally closed off from the rest of Russia. From his early days as president, Putin has deliberately appropriated the political platforms of nationalist groups, as well as the conservative social agenda of the Russian Orthodox Church, to maintain the Kremlin’s grip on all ideological issues. . The church is one of the few organizations in Russia with massive mobilization potential. Religious events draw hundreds of thousands of people and Putin wants to make sure the Church hierarchy and believers stay focused on spiritual matters.
Despite Putin’s best efforts to channel Russians’ political sentiments into approved channels, there is always the risk that situations will get out of the Kremlin’s control. The potential danger was summed up in the placard of a nationalist protester during a “Russian march” on November 4. He said: “The good half of the population already hates the regime. Soon you will get to know the bad half. The risk is now increased by negative economic developments. During the boom years of the 2000s, aggrieved constituencies could be “redeemed” with populist “bread and butter” measures such as increased social payments and massive sporting and cultural events. Putin’s former adviser on domestic social and political issues, Vladislav Surkhov, once told participants at a Valdai Club session in Moscow that there were no more inter-ethnic issues to be solved in Russia – only questions economical to process.
Unfortunately, the Kremlin’s ability to redeem problems will soon be reduced as, more and more, there is less money to spend. Putin and the Kremlin may one day look back Forbes Magazine ephemeral climax rank. In the 2000s, largely thanks to high and rising oil prices, Putin paid off Russian state debts and presided over a period of impressive economic growth that boosted jobs and incomes and contributed to a decade of inner stability. Today, GDP growth has slowed. Most economists inside and outside Russia estimate that the country’s annual GDP growth cannot exceed 2-2.5% without a further sustained rise in world oil prices.
Slow growth will endanger national stability if jobs are lost in critical manufacturing sectors, which tend not to be very competitive in the global market. The disappearance of jobs in major cities and the heart of Russia will increase Russian ethnic animosity towards immigrant and migrant workers and add economic fuel to existing political tensions. For this reason, many of the Kremlin’s announcements of new programs in the defense industrial sector are aimed more at maintaining and creating manufacturing jobs than at producing a new generation of Russian weapons. Likewise, the so-called “megaprojects” of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup have been used as mechanisms to subsidize and repay interest earned in economically disadvantaged regions.
Outside of large cities such as St. Petersburg or Moscow and Russia’s oil and gas producing regions, jobs are already scarce. Small Russian towns and villages are collapsing. Vladimir Naperkovsky, a resident of the small northwestern town of Lyuban, recently told The New York Times’ Ellen Barry that “little by little everything is rotting.” “The people above don’t know what’s going on here… If I needed a word to describe it, I would say it’s a swamp, a stagnant swamp. As it was, it is so. Nothing changes.
Discontent is brewing in these regions. It hasn’t reached levels of desperation that would spur locals to collective action, but polls still point to a troubling direction for Putin. An October 2013 poll from the Levada Center, for example, reports that 43% of Russians think their country is “going in the wrong direction.” This percentage was up from a low of 27 percent in October 2008. In response to a question about their “life situations”, 15 percent of those polled said they already could not tolerate their bad situation. . 57% of those surveyed told the Levada Center that although “it is difficult to live … I can be patient”. Only 25% were positive enough to say that “everything is not so bad, life is possible”.
These are still percentages that Putin probably thinks he can handle, but the trendline is going in the wrong direction. Putin’s task in the coming period will be to focus on what is sometimes referred to as Russia’s “silent majority”. These are the Russians – partly summed up in the 57% of Levada Center respondents – who work in manufacturing industries and the public sector, live in rural areas and receive pensions. They depend on state subsidies which provide Putin with his greatest base of support. Putin must make sure that his patience does not run out. It must also maintain the feeling that “living is possible” for the most positive 25% segment of the population in the Levada poll. Most importantly, Putin must stem the sense of hopelessness among the most disgruntled groups. Putin’s current national priority is to support the slowdown in the Russian economy against external shocks and crises and to ensure that nothing goes terribly wrong. In the coming months, despite the absence of any credible opposition figures on Russia’s political horizon, Putin and his team will closely monitor opinion polls – and not just election results in cities and towns. key regions – for the first clues of real difficulty.