Governing on autopilot


Like a crippled Dreamliner, the Russian economy is slowing to a standstill; the bureaucrats are ignoring instructions; even the scientists are in revolt. Andrei Kolesnikov asks, if Putin is governing on autopilot, will the passengers take over?

Andrei Kolesnikov
10 October 2013

Like the Soviet system in its time, the Putin political and social model has peaked and is now at stall speed. Like the popular song of a few decades ago, ‘Moscow Nights’ – ‘The river is flowing and not flowing:’ on the surface everything looks fine, especially if you judge Russia by Moscow’s city centre, and the investment forums where the president and PM say all the right things. In reality, however, what we have is not so much a simulation of development, more a simulation of any movement at all. In Putin’s Russia it is not just economic life that is stagnating,it is social life, political life; the whole lot. 

Simulation is perhaps one of the key words in understanding Russia  today

Simulation is perhaps one of the key words in understanding Russia today: a simulation of parliamentary government; a simulation of competition in politics and the economy; a simulation of integrity in the middle classes, masking all-pervading corruption. Then there is the simulation of social policy: the poor are bribed with oil money to vote for the regime, and the resources of the so-called National Welfare Fund, set up to supplement inadequate pension provision, are being diverted into loss-making infrastructure projects. 


Putin attempts to land a bird-imitating device in Siberia last September. The president's popularity in Russia remains high, but approval ratings for United Russia have nosedived considerably, suggesting that Russians are growing tired of a regime without vision. 

At the core of the Putin system is a rejection of regulations and institutions in favour of a ‘doors-to-manual,’ ad hoc approach to governing; and this has led to a serious administrative crisis. The regime likes to think it is running something, and running it in a rigorous and even authoritarian manner. The truth is, it isn’t even running its own civil service, where middle managers are effectively sabotaging its policies because they don’t want to take responsibility for the results; because they receive contradictory and sometimes unrealistic instructions; because any regulation can be ignored at the whim of a top dog.   

Civic consciousness 

The Putin system is, however, in a new situation, in the first place because of the emergence of civic consciousness; this has not yet reached the mass of the population but then, social progress has always been driven by an active minority. The Russian public has discovered an ability to organise itself, and has acquired a voice. This development has taken a variety of forms: volunteering; election monitoring; the growth in NGOs despite the new laws branding grassroots activists ‘foreign agents;’ street democracy that is undeterred by other restrictive new laws about public meetings. All this is new for Russia; it springs from an ethical, not a political, basis, but official resistance is forcing it to become political.  

Asleep at the wheel, the Putin regime’s reaction to events is unpredictable

Asleep at the wheel, the Putin regime’s reaction to events is unpredictable. It can suppress or ban; it can overlook or punish. It can tighten laws and corrupt the courts, so that they hand out punishment out of all proportion to the crime. This has been its policy since the start of the development in public resistance, when it refused to talk to the protesters on the grounds that they had no identifiable leaders. The prosecution of peaceful demonstrators in the ‘Bolotnaya Square’ case is symbolic of the Kremlin’s repressive reaction to the new ‘angry urbanite’ opposition. And the prosecution of one of its leaders, Aleksei Navalny, on a trumped up embezzlement charge is symbolic of its judicial politics of the absurd. It has also been counterproductive, raising Navalny’s profile and widening his support base, despite his controversial reputation. In the Navalny case, the default ‘crush the opposition’ line clashed with another line, popular among Putin’s political advisors – the acceptance of an element of competition, a cautious simulation of democracy designed to take some of the heat out of the situation. 

Navalny’s unfair conviction and sentence made him a popular figure who could attract large numbers of voters, 

The test for this new approach was the Moscow mayoral election in September, which Navalny was allowed to contest: he was obviously considered no threat to the favourite, official candidate Sergei Sobyanin. Navalny’s unfair conviction and five-year prison sentence, on top of his considerable political charisma, made him, not surprisingly, a popular figure that could attract large numbers of voters; and he had this infighting between the hard- and soft-liners to thank for it. As a result the opposition acquired its only recognisable leader; and the Kremlin is left dithering over whether or not to confirm his prison sentence.  

Electoral and other glitches

In this Red Queen system where the usual institutional checks and balances are replaced by the see-saw of security service strongmen undermining the pragmatists; and the supporters of government intervention sabotaging the laissez-faire liberal economists, Putin is still trying to hold onto his role of referee; a referee, what’s more, who is the sole institution and whose rules he makes up as he goes along. This umpiring doesn’t go down well in civil society, nor is it much liked by many of the elite, although they are largely still too afraid to speak out against him or risk getting involved in a political battle. Oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, for example, did well in the 2012 presidential election, but decided against standing for mayor of Moscow. 

The victory of opposition mayoral candidate Yevgeny Roizman in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city is one of the first signs that voting at an election may be a meaningful act.   

The problem for Putin is that his political managers, by permitting even the smallest degree of electoral rivalry, might get more than they bargained for, and end up not with a simulation of political competition, but something like the real thing. The victory of opposition mayoral candidate Yevgeny Roizman in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city is one of the first signs that voting at an election may be a meaningful act. 

Putin has also met resistance from a totally unexpected quarter. The reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which was supposed to be pretty much the usual formality – the handover of its properties to a new government agency and government control of research priorities and allocation of funding – triggered a real wave of protest. The government thought it was just creaming off some income from the leaders of the scientific establishment, and that would be that. It turned out, however, that, as well as the weak and bureaucratised Presidium and a clique of aging directors of research institutes, Russia also had a genuine scientific community that was determined to fight for its independence and self-government; and the right to determine its own areas of research. The reform was pushed through, but was a PR disaster for the regime in general, and Putin in particular.



Aleksey Navalny is credited by many to have sparked a new style of politics in Russia. His Moscow mayoral election campaign relied heavily upon volunteers from various walks of life - engineers, students, computer programmers and small business owners. Photo (c) RiA Novosti / Ramil Sitdikov

Economic downturn

Russia’s economic slowdown is more clear evidence of a burst tyre in the Putin system, especially in the light of continuing high oil prices. There used to be a kind of social contract between the regime and the public: ‘You get sausage and the commission on our oil and gas income, and you hand us your political freedom in return’. But this isn’t working anymore, and not just because some of the middle classes have acquired civic consciousness as well as a consumer lifestyle, and are demanding not just the freedom to buy property and take holidays abroad, but political freedom as well. It is also a question of an economic system that is going through a counter-reform, where assets are being re-acquired by state owned structures and quasi-private bodies affiliated with the regime, and whose efficiency has peaked and is now in decline. Lack of competition; the practical disappearance of small and medium-sized business; high barriers to market entry; the unlimited power of state monopolies and corporations; megalomaniac construction projects, not to mention the preparations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 Football World Cup, all these are just part of an economic picture that adds up to a mere 2% rise in GDP. 

Another aspect of this psychological crisis is the whitewashing of the Soviet past

The picture also includes a defeated attempt at pension reform, abolishing the former savings element, and a government financial crisis, with insufficient funds available to cover social expenditure, defence, security and law enforcement. These are the political priorities, because Putin is no longer the president of all Russians, but is reliant for support on the poorer and less educated mass of the population, for whom social security benefits, on the one hand, and Russia’s military prestige, on the other, are still important. Other sectors, such as health and education, have to make do with whatever’s left. No longer cushioned by the huge revenues from oil and gas, this is the first time Putin has had to face an unbalanced budget and the need for cuts. 

The system is going through a psychological, image crisis. This is what is behind all the talk of ‘spiritual ties’ that bind us, and the increasing importance of the Russian Orthodox Church in the life of the country. The Church is beginning to act like the old Communist Party propaganda department, promoting traditional values, such as nationalism and Imperial rule, that haven’t been traditional for a very long time. The regime looks to the past for its heroes, and uses the tools of the past, such as the cinema, regarded in the Stalin era as ‘the greatest of all the arts.’ One recent effort in this area is an artistically weak and factually inaccurate biopic of the famous 1970s ice hockey star Valery Kharlamov, who died in a car crash in 1981, and so isn’t around to complain. Another aspect of this psychological crisis is the whitewashing of the darker pages of the Soviet past, including the effective rehabilitation of Stalin’s name and many of his deeds. Putin himself, for example, recently defended the Soviet attack on Finland in the winter of 1939-40.          

In short, this crisis is multilayered and countrywide. This does not mean that this ineffective regime will suddenly collapse all by itself. Only a few years ago, however, no one could have imagined that Russia’s economic growth would dwindle to almost nothing, that new and interesting figures would appear in its political life and – most importantly – that we would see the emergence of civic consciousness. Russia is entering a period of unpredictability, and life here is once again becoming interesting, perhaps even too interesting.

Thumbnail image (c) RIA Novosti/Alexei Druzhinin

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