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Vladimir Putin, a man of the people: How the Kremlin is preparing for a populist wave

Modernising Russia within the context of its kleptocratic system is no simple task. Can the Kremlin meet the expectations of the Russian people over the course of Putin’s fourth term?

May 7, 2018 - Evgeny Pudovkin - Articles and Commentary

Vladimir Putin addresses rally on Manezhnaya Square in Moscow Photo: en.kremlin.ru

Vladimir Putin’s record win in the March presidential election, where he garnered 77 per cent of the popular vote, cemented his status as a living father of the nation. “Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014”, the analysts Ivan Kravtsev and Gleb Pavlovksy wrote in a paper for the European Center for Foreign Relations think-tank, “opinion polls have indicated that Russians view Putin as a historic figure rather than an elected official”. 

Today, Putin’s regime is at the pinnacle of its acclaim. On the international stage, the Kremlin has achieved geopolitical victories in Syria, and Crimea. At home, it is still eating through resources accumulated during the era of high oil prices. The real threat posed by Western sanctions – restrictions on technology transfers – will only reveal itself in the longer term. 

This window of stability, though, can only last for so long. Over time, the ‘Crimea effect’ is going to wane. Nor can it be replicated. Finding an opening for yet another ‘small victorious war’ in present circumstances is a problematic challenge

Meanwhile domestic concerns are already emerging as dominant for a vast majority of Russians. When asked to list their top concerns by the Levada Center pollsters, most respondents named social security – 39 per cent, healthcare and education –  25 per cent and corruption – 19 per cent.

The full consequences for the Kremlin of this shift in agenda are yet uncertain. One thing, however, seems clear: The combination of stagnating incomes, limited political representation, and rampant corruption make for a precarious context the regime will have to operate in. 

Red lights are already flashing. Taking into consideration a mall fire in Kemerovo, which took the lives of 64 people, and which allegedly happened due to corruption, or the waste dump in Volokolamsk, where several children suffered from serious poisoning. 

Left unmitigated, problems like these will create an auspicious ground for populism and protest activity. Those risks are especially pertinent for a country, where the majority already leans left on key economic issues, and where the current regime has been in power for eighteen years. 

Putin knows this. As the Vedomosti business daily reported last spring, the Kremlin had been consulting the Expert Institute of Social Studies (EISS), a think-tank, on how to counter a populist upsurge, which, the analysts said, would arrive to the country by the time of the next presidential elections in 2024. 

Worse still, the anti-establishment wave will reach Russia at the least opportune moment. By 2024 Putin will have turned 72. Even if the Russian leader circumvents the constitution – which prohibits any person from running as president more than two times in a row – he can only govern for so long. 

Can the center hold? 

On a political and administrative level, this raises the challenge of leaving the system on a sustainable footing before the transition of power. Above all, this requires disarming the populist bomb. Another important task is to depersonalise the regime such an extent, that it equips Putin’s successor with formal levers to enforce his or her authority. 

The ‘textbook’ solution to the transition conundrum involves providing the next Russian leader with a mandate respected by the different factions within the establishment, the opposition forces, and the electorate. As an illustration, consider Mexico, a once authoritarian state that transitioned to a democracy in early 2000s. 

In order for this approach to work, however, two prerequisites must be met. For one, the formal power hierarchy (ministries, departments, judiciary etc.) needs strengthening vis-à-vis “Putin’s court”, an informal network of oligarchs close to the president. For it is only by isolating the institutional procedures from the network’s influence that contingent deals can be substituted for tenable, transparent rules.

Beyond that, democratisation requires a parliamentary system composed of competing parties that recognize each others legitimacy. This is the only way to ensure that, once the ruling elite is removed from office, it will have reliable guarantees of getting back.

Yet, political liberalisation hardly chimes with Putin’s longstanding predilections. If unfettered democracy is introduced, he fears, it is radicals who will triumph at the ballot box, not moderate liberals. And if Putin himself is not willing to share power, there is no political group – either within the elites or out in the public space – to force him into making any concessions.

That is not to say the Kremlin has an appetite for large-scale repressions. By now, Putin has suppressed any conspicuous dissent on the liberal fringes, or within the elites. Today his main task comes down to preserving a wide coalition of supporters he accumulated since the 2000s. This includes residents of rural areas, the working class, the military, and white collar employees in both public and private sectors.  

The nationalisation of populism

Therefore, the chances are that we will not see any sudden moves. An instinctive conservative, Putin will elaborate the familiar system rather than drastically changing it. 

To check populism, he will turn Russia into a more recognisable version of corporatism, with concerns of the ‘ordinary people’ (Putin’s largest constituency) gaining in salience. Thus, speaking to the Federal Assembly, Putin pledged to fight corruption, raise wages for the poorest, and spend more on healthcare. Cornering the system overall, it will become both more centralized, and immune to the impact of informal networks.

More to the point, such a transformation will likely entail three main trends. 

The first involves the strengthening of official bureaucracy (particularly at the federal level) and security establishment, while curtailing the influence of senior business people with informal ties to the Kremlin. The aim is to centralise control over the levers of power, and (at least to some extent) limit rent-seeking. Consequently, some oligarchs may have to lobby their interests through formal structures; those with less influential ‘friends’ risk losing patronage altogether.  

Secondly, the Kremlin seems more determined than ever to carry out civil service reforms. Measures include bringing more professional managers into the public sector, and devising means to monitor bureaucrats’ performance. More ways to increase efficiency gains come with digitalisation – both through providing more services online, and reducing corruption by storing data in a digital – and thus a more transparent – format. 

Thirdly, Putin may well resurrect the practice of using organizations like the All-Russia People’s Front – a Kremlin-linked pressure group advocating for consumer rights and social welfare – to channel popular grievances over corruption or cost-of-living. In addition to that, the government has also introduced online apps allowing citizens to exercise direct democracy (i.e. voting for infrastructure projects, or rating public services). 

Those platforms can then act as vehicles for ‘legitimate’ (apolitical, systemic) protests, as opposed to ‘illegitimate’ (radical, anti-Kremlin) campaigns of ‘non-systemic’ politicians, including Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist. 

Troubles ahead?  

Receiving 77 per cent of the popular vote in March was certainly a triumph for Vladimir Putin. Yet it was also a confirmation of Russia’s paternalist instincts writ large. Most Russians see only the good side of strong presidency, perceiving it as a safeguard against special interests and lackadaisical bureaucrats. They trust their leader to clamp down on the pockets of corruption and ‘make trains run on time’. 

Putin has shown that he has listened. Whether his proposed modernisation can actually deliver, though, is another matter. What obstacles stand in the way of the Kremlin’s agenda? 

The most ostensible hurdle the Kremlin faces is institutional inertia. The rationale for civil service reforms in Russia is sound. But here is the catch: So entwined have regional officials become with their clientele among local businesses that it will be hard to disentangle this web at a little cost. It is also unclear who will monitor the implementation of the government’s agenda or the day-to day performance of the civil service. It may therefore take some time to create the necessary infrastructure – including official watchdogs, hardware for digital operations, and political centralisation – for the reforms to work. 

So when analysts speak of Russia being governed by patriotic McKinsey consultants, one has to ask if there is enough of them to make a real difference – and, not less importantly, if their expertise quite suits the Russian realities. 

Another issue is financial scarcity. Hitherto the Kremlin has been able to create dividends for a wide range of groups: Businesses have relied on government contracts; workers have enjoyed wage rises that outstrip productivity; white collar employees could expect cheap mortgages and vacancies in Western firms. With economic growth plateauing at 1.5% GDP, government sticking with its tight fiscal regime and a new arms race looming, it is hard to understand how Putin is going to keep everyone on board, – even if one factors in the gains from public service reforms or squeeze on big business.  

Finally yet importantly, neither online democracy nor ‘patriotic’ anti-corruption groups can serve as intermediaries between the people and the elites. According to one study, public trust towards government institutions has fallen dramatically in recent years. In this context, lack of genuine political opposition bodes ill for the Kremlin. For, although the Russians trust Putin, he cannot be omnipresent. This means that, should new local crises like Volokolamsk arise, it will be hard for the authorities to communicate with the public to stabilise the situation.  

Evgeny Pudovkin is a journalist writing on European politics, Russia and foreign affairs

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