Russia viewed from the Kremlin
The official Kremlin view goes something like this. In the 90s, Russia was riven by opposing factions. The source of the problem was to be found in the so-called oligarchs, or the extremely rich and unpatriotic people who wanted to exploit Russian resources solely and entirely for their own enrichment. When Putin came to power at the beginning of the 21st century, he removed the oligarchs as a political force. He united the nation around him and thus removed any possible grounds for serious contradictions.
Now the strengthening of social unity around the leader has entered another stage. On 11-12 June (a national holiday now called Russia Day), the All-Russian Popular Front will hold its inaugural congress, to be chaired by Vladimir Putin personally.
Though support for Putin is down, a strong — if no longer fanatical — base remains
Previously the dominant concept in the Kremlin was what came to be known as ‘two pillars of government’. The brainchild of Putin’s chief political strategist, Vladislav Surkov, 'two pillars' meant the formation of two political parties – ‘United Russia’ and ‘Just Russia’ — both equally focussed on Putin. If one of these pillars were to weaken and lose the support of society, then Putin would be able to rely on the other. When the ‘second pillar’ in its turn lost strength, society’s support would return to the first. In this way Russia could be ruled from one centre, shifting all the time from one pillar to another.
In 2011-12 this concept collapsed, when ‘Just Russia’, seeking to increase its popularity with the voters, attempted to break the unwritten agreement with Putin. The ‘prodigal son’ i.e. the party returned to its ‘father’, but Surkov lost Putin’s confidence and was retired. His place was taken by Vyacheslav Volodin who, as we now see, preferred not to play with the parties, but to make Putin the leader of the nation via the Popular Front.
This approach meant that ‘United Russia’ also lost its credibility, having failed to provide a firm and stable support base for the government at a moment of crisis. Former president Dmitry Medvedev was made head of ‘United Russia’ and his reputation has suffered alongside that of his declining party.
The current concept of Putin’s unity with the people recognises a degree of dissatisfaction in society, but these people are considered to have been incited to protest by foreign agents, enemies of Russia. The contention is that foreign countries whose aim is to weaken Russia (from the US to Georgia) finance the political opposition and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), so the protest is not a sincere expression of discontent, but rather the result of palms being greased.
And from the opposition camp...
The picture of today’s Russia painted by the leaders of the 2011-12 protests is diametrically opposed to the government’s. They contend that there is no unity between Putin and the nation and that the Kremlin’s smoke and mirrors approach is becoming ever clearer to the wider population. In this picture ‘United Russia’ is the party of crooks and thieves, though it is finding it increasingly difficult to conceal its true intentions from the people.
‘The protest movement is gradually fading out: relatively few people take part in its events, even in Moscow, and it simply cannot be said that the spirit of revolution has spread into the provinces.’
The unmasking of the crooks and thieves started with the protest meetings on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. The protest leaders believed that the process would gradually spread from the capital into the provinces and that the true nature of the Putin regime would be recognised by more and more people. When the majority understood that the government takes no account of their interests, but only of the crooks and thieves, the regime would come to an end.
It is now already clear that this picture is very far from true. The protest movement is gradually fading out: relatively few people take part in its events, even in Moscow, and it simply cannot be said that the spirit of revolution has spread into the provinces.
It should, however, be noted that the Kremlin picture is also far removed from reality. Sociological research shows that, firstly, support for Putin is slipping away and secondly, even those who would be prepared to vote for him in the future are no longer fanatical supporters. Russians are disillusioned with both the current government and the protest movement. They are waiting for a new leader to emerge.
Discount the obvious
To gain a true picture of the situation in Russia today, one has to abandon two theses, which, although seemingly fairly obvious, are actually only confusing:
Firstly, the idea that the Russian elite, which has done so well during Putin’s reign (including the representatives of the ‘crooks and thieves’), is keen to preserve the current political regime and prepared to make efforts to strengthen it.
Secondly, that the majority of the population longs for democracy, thirsting for true information about the abuses of the Putin regime and ready to support anyone who takes up the cudgels with it.
The Putin regime is a modification of an authoritarian regime, in the sense that it seeks support not from the elite, or on mutually binding agreements with its various parts, but from the masses. To this end the regime has recourse to overt populism, starting with using petrodollars to increase real incomes and finishing with demagogic speeches about threats to Russia from the US, Georgia and other foreign ‘foes.’ In this system, representatives of the elite can serve the regime and earn good money (or steal it through corruption) but Putin has no obligations to them. Disloyal or inefficient managers can be sacked at any moment, as Surkov found out.
This kind of regime meant that the elite was never particularly fond of Putin, but it put up with him. There were two reasons for this: the minority, who to a greater or lesser extent had a hand in running the country or a part in big business, had become considerably richer under Putin. For the majority, currently known as the professional class (small businesses, the creative intelligenstia, managers and doctors etc), what mattered was something else: the qualitative difference between the Putin regime and the old Soviet system in which they had grown up.
‘Putin regime denied many important elements of democracy, but preserved the main things that bothered people ... it seemed to be far from the worst option for anyone who remembered life under the Soviet system.’
The Putin regime denied many important elements of democracy, but preserved the main things that bothered people who remembered the shortages, the Iron Curtain and the complete ban on private enterprise in the first half of the 80s. There is no doubt at all that for the professional class these problems were more important than anything to do with Putin’s authoritarianism. Many might have preferred a less authoritarian regime, like the Yeltsin regime of the 90s, for instance. But as that could not be preserved, the Putin regime seemed to be far from the worst option for anyone who remembered life under the Soviet system.
The elite puts up with the current political regime in Russia, because it is to their material advantage. For many, however, the moral aspect of the regime is extremely unpleasant and they would certainly not make any attempt to defend it in the event of an acute social crisis. Even those who go on about patriotism and their love for Putin.
Various sections of the elite would react differently to a crisis. The rich members of the ruling group would emigrate en masse to the West. They have, after all, already acquired property and some have moved their families there. All talk of patriotism, of the greatness of Russia and the significance of Vladimir Putin as national leader will be forgotten in a trice. They will try to adapt to Western society, acquire citizenship and set up successful businesses.
The professional class is not rich enough to emigrate en masse, although some are doing this already (the well-known economist Sergey Guriev, for instance, who emigrated to France in May). In the event of an acute social crisis, they will try to assist in the soft democratisation of the regime, as they did during the protests of 2011-12. But these people are much more afraid of communist and nationalist radicals than of the Putin regime. The radicals play an important part in the protest movement, so the professional class are more likely to be scared of change.
Sergei Guriev's surprise relocation to France has added heat to the debate about 'political emigration' among the Russian professional classes. Photo: (cc) Flickr/Strelka Institute photo
However, this point applies only to the older generation, those who remember the USSR. Younger people (from 30 to 40) have a much more robust attitude to Putin: they see his failings, but pay no attention to the plus points which make his regime infinitely preferable to the Soviet. On the other hand, it will likely be the representatives of this generation of the professional class who will eventually transform today’s political system into a Western-type democracy.
As for the masses, they will on the whole continue to support the Putin regime, as they have little idea of the scale of corruption today and considerably overestimate the part Putin played in the growth of real incomes which took place over the years from 2000 to the beginning of the crisis in 2008-09. As the gap widens between their expectations and the likelihood that the state will be able to continue increasing real incomes, so disillusionment with Putin will grow.
‘Putin’s 'Popular Front' is a Colossus on legs of clay and it could very soon collapse’
The disillusioned will, in their turn, fall into two groups. One will lose all interest in politics: they will either stop turning out to vote in elections or continue to vote for Putin, since all routes for outstanding alternative leaders have been closed off. For some time the Kremlin will be able to use these people and rigged election results to give the appearance of massive support for Putin among the people, but the nature of this support will be very different from the idyll proposed by the Russian Popular Front. The Front is a Colossus on legs of clay and it could very soon collapse.
The second big group of people disillusioned with Putin will quickly adopt a radical ideology, especially one with nationalist overtones. The large numbers of migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia who are now living in Moscow, Petersburg and other big cities throughout Russia will provoke violent confrontations. The nationalists will support radical political parties which could become stronger if the economy deteriorates and a social crisis develops which brings millions out on to the streets.
But those millions will not be moderates from the professional class: they will be people fighting desperately for their physical survival.