Back to no future

With his regime running out of steam, Vladimir Putin is resorting to the rhetoric of the past and traditional values. Marie Mendras sees little future in it. 

The moment of truth for a nondemocratic leader is when he needs to revive his fading authority and legitimacy. A snatched electoral victory over a year ago brought Vladimir Putin no new popularity, indeed quite the opposite. Since his return to the Kremlin, his words and actions have reflected entirely negative emotions, such as fear of his own people, distrust of the elites around him, and a desire to avenge himself on those who have dared oppose him. Much of his energy goes on proving himself right and his critics wrong: he even accuses these of working for foreign powers and endangering national security. Putin has not recovered from the humiliation and scare of last year’s political contest, and is now facing tough economic and social challenges. The choice he has made is to try to restore his authority with a combination of targeted repression, doctrinaire ideology and an increase in control over institutions and companies. This is an unlikely recipe for success.

Weakened legitimacy

Vladimir Putin was reelected on a controversial vote in March 2012. He could have won his new mandate more honestly, had he accepted the possibility of a second round runoff, but he was determined to win an absolute majority in the first round. He wanted to humiliate the other ‘authorised’ candidates by raising himself high above them, proving that he was the one and only - and a loyal Central Electoral Commission conferred on him a generous 63% of the vote. A year on, all the voters’ associations and NGOs that investigated election fraud are being harassed and some, like the Golos association, might have to close down. Key figures of the movement for free elections are also being prosecuted.

'According to recent polls, only 22% of Russians would like Putin to be re-elected in 2018, and 58% believe that ‘there is more corruption than they have been told about’.'

Putin’s election in 2000 and 2004, and Dmitry Medvedev’s election in 2008, were ‘managed’ ballots as well. This time, however, things turned out less manageable than usual. The widespread and vocal public protest of the winter of 2011-12, news of which flew around the country in a few keystrokes, exposed all of the regime’s rottenness and trickery. And the anger of a revitalized civil society was directed at the leader in person, under the ubiquitous slogan: ‘Putin, ukhodi!’ (Putin - out!). His party fared badly in the parliamentary elections of December 2011, and in Moscow itself its performance was a complete disaster. 

Throughout the 2000s, Vladimir Putin built his power and legitimacy on order, rising living standards and Russia’s growing global status. However, he will have more difficulty delivering in all three of these areas in the months and years to come, and he will be held to account for it. Public outcry against all-encompassing corruption will also not die down, a further blow to his shaky popular legitimacy. Only 22% of Russians would like Putin to be reelected in 2018, and according to a Levada Centre poll in March 2013, 58% believe that ‘there is more corruption than they have been told about’.

'Putin go away!"was a common slogan during the 2011-12 protests. Photo: (cc) Demotix/Maria Pleshkova

Weaker authority - stronger repression

When authority is waning, the temptation is often to show force. Repression is always an option; deterrence works. Russia has not experienced such fierce repression since the darkest days of Brezhnev in the 1970s. And the consequences will be much more disturbing than a Soviet-type crackdown on dissent, for Russia today is an open country, a capitalist economy with an internet-savvy public. However, to resort to brute force means to bury the real issues and act as though nothing serious has happened in society and within the elites. Denial leads to self-deception. How can administration heads, businessmen, cultural and scientific elites show dynamism and innovation when the leadership spends more time suppressing and controlling than creating incentives for a much belated modernisation? 

'Russia has not experienced such repression since the darkest days of Brezhnev in the 1970s. And the consequences will be much more disturbing than a Soviet-type crackdown on dissent, for Russia today is an open country, a capitalist economy with an internet-savvy public.'

After 14 years at the helm (since August 1999, when he became Yeltsin’s Prime Minister), Putin has reached the limits of his capacity, but is not prepared to devolve more responsibility onto more able people. He does not fully trust his lieutenants and fosters divisions among them, as the current anti-Medvedev media campaign illustrates. Medvedev may be an easy scapegoat, but this will not help the regime - the Prime minister is, after all, part of the inner circle of power. Putin is short on ideas and policies, and needs them badly, but fears ideologies of all kinds. Consequently, he is trying to establish a doctrine that he thinks will please the ordinary Russian, reassure the elites, and keep the ‘dissidents’ in check.

A credo, but no ideas

Putin has no ideology of his own, no strong beliefs. He is using classic populist tactics that rely on quick judgment and tough actions. But will others not outflank him? Is he not unleashing dangerous passions just for the sake of rebuffing democratic politicians? Is he not becoming more dependent on the Church, on the men in uniform, on corrupt judges, on thinkers and movements on the far right? Even if he himself does not share the radicalism of their positions, he is singing along to some of their tunes.

The politically correct credo follows a few simple motifs: state-dictated nationalism, Russian and Orthodox supremacy, the foreign threat, and Russia’s ‘special path’ (osobyi put’), all pitched against the ‘liberal’ western model. No utopia, no grand design, no modernisation. Putin likes to talk of ‘spiritual identity’ and ‘traditional values’, concepts recalling both Tsarist and Soviet times, as former deputy and opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov noted after Putin’s state-of-the-nation address in December 2012.

'Putin has no monopoly on nationalism. The most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, calls for an end to federalism, a unitary state and an end to subsidies to the North Caucasus. The Kremlin propaganda machine can put Navalny behind bars, but they will not outwit him in the battle for ideas.'

The official nationalist discourse reveals serious contradictions. It promotes a ‘rossiisky’ identity, by which it means a ‘non-ethnically based’ Russian nation formed predominantly of … ethnic Russians! It often claims that minority ethnic groups, especially Muslims from the Caucasus area, do not quite belong to the ‘rossiisky’ nation. The presidential Council of Inter-Ethnic Relations is busy producing school textbooks to teach this ideology of a ‘single nation’. Moreover, after his election on 4th March 2012, Vladimir Putin publicly stated that he was a president for all Russians, but would fight against the ‘traitors’ who had endangered his rule and Russia’s security.

Another problem with this patriotic rhetoric is that Putin has no monopoly on nationalism. The most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, at present on trial and facing a prison sentence, calls for an end to federalism and a unitary state, and for an end to subsidies to the North Caucasus. The Kremlin propaganda machine is clearly losing steam. They can put Navalny behind bars, but they will not outwit him in the battle for ideas.

If there is an ideological slogan in the Kremlin, it is ‘the economy first’, i.e. growth, more money to spend, more power to control people and organizations. And this is where the system breaks down. The Russian economy has now stopped growing and may go into negative figures before the end of this year. All Russian and foreign assessments are in agreement about sombre short term prospects.

Self-Defence

The economic nationalism credo is a sign not of a change of direction, but an intensification of recent trends. The regime is aging and can’t expect a second wind. So it has few options left if it wants to stay in power and silence its now numerous critics and opponents. It must increase its control of the political space still further, and exert still more pressure on already powerless public institutions such as the Duma, the courts and the media. Putin must convince the outside world that he still wields significant power throughout Russia. And he tries to convince himself, and everyone else, that the Russian people are satisfied with his rule. But inside the ruling elites doubts and insecurity are mounting.

'Putin is not some neo-fascist leader seeking to strengthen his power by appealing to the masses. He is weary of crowds. That came out clearly in February 2012, when to counter opposition demonstrations he grudgingly let his henchmen organise huge pro-regime gatherings in Moscow.'

Vladimir Putin is a man of action, not a man for thinking and forward planning. A state ideology is an encumbrance, imposed by the changing domestic economic and political context and rising challenges from larger and more competitive economies such as like China, India and even the USA. The more the regime clamps down on the media, NGOs and opposition movements, the more it is obliged to construct a self-serving narrative about Russian history and ‘specialness’. Putin is not, however, a neo-fascist leader seeking to strengthen his power by appealing to the masses. He is weary of crowds. That came out clearly in February 2012 when, in order to counter opposition demonstrations, he grudgingly let his henchmen organise huge pro-regime gatherings in Moscow.

This attitude is typical of aging personalised regimes. It reveals a highly conservative and protective attitude, for the leaderships’ primary concern is self-defence. The Kremlin has to fend off the political stamina of people as different as Navalny, Udaltsov, Nemtsov, Ryzhkov and Chirikova, all of whom are more attractive, more modern, more forward-looking. Putin’s official oratory, in contrast, is anchored in the past, and offers little to lift the spirits of young people and the aspiring middle classes.

'The longer Putin clings to power, the more he will have to face the side-effects of ‘mature’ Putinism (‘mature socialism’ was the polite way of describing the aging Brezhnev leadership), and the more unpredictable events will be.'

The key question is not whether Putin can stay at the helm until the end of this six-year term but how his succession may be managed relatively painlessly for the elites and the public alike, in 2018 or earlier. Russian observers often prefer not to think about Putin’s impending fall because they are afraid of its consequences and they know they may be blamed for any subsequent disorder. In fact, timing is crucial here. The longer Putin clings to power, the more he will have to face the side-effects of  ‘mature’ Putinism (‘mature socialism’ was the polite way of describing the aging Brezhnev leadership), and the more unpredictable events will be.

High oil prices, high living standards and political stagnation — Brezhnev or Putin?. Photo: (cc) Demotix/MIke Kireev

The Russian president made his mark on politics with the slogan ‘the dictatorship of the law’. Is he now considering a ‘dictatorship of beliefs’? Utopia is out of the question, nationalism is failing to galvanise society, and nobody wants any new wars. Only a comprehensive economic and social strategy with a compelling forward vision might succeed in reuniting the many diverse communities and regions of Russia. But such a strategy requires a political determination that Putin no longer possesses. The man is too afraid of taking risks, he will not embark on the major reforms that would imply more adherence to the rule of law, and so pave the way for a real succession contest. As the Russian joke goes, Putin is making progress, moving away from 'bezalternativnaya sistema' to 'bezperspektivnaya sistema' - from a no-alternative regime to a no-future regime.

Part of a 5-part oDR expert symposium on Putin's third term. See other contributions:
About the author

Marie Mendras is a research fellow with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and a professor at Sciences Po University’s School of International Affairs in Paris. She is author of 'Russian politics: the paradox of a weak state' (C Hurst & Co, 2012)