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Russia: stable dictatorship – but for how long?

The ongoing consolidation of Putin’s dictatorship has been accompanied by a deepening, though still passive, public dissatisfaction with the political system and the ageing leader. Demands for change are subsequently on the rise. These attitudes may accelerate the erosion of a seemingly stable model of rule.

February 8, 2022 - Maria Domańska - Articles and Commentary

People took to the streets against the arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny in January 2021. Photo: Jonas Petrovas / Shutterstock

Last year began with Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment and ended with the liquidation of the Memorial Society. The year overall in Russia was marked by the consolidation of the country’s authoritarian system, which now bears all the hallmarks of a dictatorship. It is based increasingly on legal nihilism, with any semblance of the rule of law abandoned by the Kremlin. Repression has become one of the critical tools of state governance. Those in power also display totalitarian ambitions, seeking to expand their control over citizens.

These ambitions have resulted in increased censorship and a fight against political opposition in workplaces, schools and universities. Meanwhile, the state also continues to pursue its perfection of cyber-surveillance techniques and promote neo-Soviet propaganda. The long-term smear campaign targeting “foreign agents” has accelerated over the past year. More and more non-governmental organisations, independent media outlets and politically inconvenient individuals have been placed on the government’s “blacklists” and presented as de facto “enemies of the nation”. Officially, the activities of these groups and individuals have not been made illegal. However, they are burdened with an increased risk of criminal and administrative sanctions for even minor violations of the law.

Putin’s dictatorship appears stable. There are no signs of ferment within the ruling elite. After numerous waves of repression, the public’s willingness to actively express anti-government sentiment has visibly declined in the country. After a brief economic crisis provoked by the pandemic, the economic situation has largely returned to normal. Although Russia is facing long-term stagnation, its high foreign-exchange reserves will probably allow the authorities to feel comfortable (at least for a while) even in the case of further western economic sanctions. The National Welfare Fund currently holds a record 12 per cent of GDP, which equates to roughly 190 billion US dollars. This can be used either to appease the disenchanted electorate or buy the loyalty of those who make up the country’s repressive apparatus.

The political alternative offered by Alexei Navalny’s movement was banned as “extremist”. Many oppositionists, activists and independent journalists subsequently found themselves in forced political exile. They are now being joined by bloggers, artists and academics critical of the government. Many people not involved in politics also do not see a future for themselves under the authoritarian regime and leave Russia. According to the Free Russia Foundation, over 1500 political activists and journalists fled Russia due to political pressure in 2021. The authorities are also increasingly harassing lawyers who defend those accused in politically motivated trials, of which some concern alleged subversion. Some of these advocates are also seeking refuge abroad. One of the leading figures in this group is Ivan Pavlov, who was one of the attorneys of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. The government “encourages” its opponents to emigrate, as it is less costly (both in political and organisational terms) than investigations, trials and imprisonment.

The political opposition is gradually relocating to Vilnius, Kyiv and Tbilisi. Despite this, many are still determined to stay in Russia against all odds. The numerous examples of solidarity shown by local communities bring these individuals some hope. Ordinary citizens often contribute to crowdfunding initiatives that aim to support independent media and charity projects. Many have also helped activists pay administrative fines.

An active minority trying to save the country’s civil society structures continues to coexist with a silent majority once considered the Kremlin’s electoral base. It is now clear that the second group’s attitudes are gradually changing. If this trend continues, it may threaten the regime’s stability in the long term.

Public fatigue and frustration

The first signs that public support for the government was starting to erode came in mid-2018, after the authorities announced a highly unpopular pension reform. It raised the retirement age to 65 and 60 for men and women respectively. Back then, citizens’ real incomes had been declining for several years in a row. A small but regular pension income frequently stabilises household budgets for many Russians. The reform was therefore perceived as an example of the Kremlin’s brazen arrogance, as it seemingly broke the country’s social contract. Citizens often viewed this move as a betrayal by a president who had promised many times not to tamper with the retirement age.

Since then, the level of support for the president and his policies has stood no chance of returning to the “Crimean” level of 80 to 90 per cent. It remains on average slightly above 60 per cent, which is not something to be particularly proud of in a system devoid of political competition (unless stated otherwise, the results of the independent Levada-Center’s polls are quoted throughout this article). Respondents often evaluate the government positively only because they lack other reference points in public politics. At the same time, answers to other questions posed by sociologists reveal even more negative outlooks.

Despite their general “support for the president’s course”, Russians overall are growing tired of Putin and increasingly dream of a new leader. In the fall of 2021, as many as 42 per cent of respondents (the most in eight years) said that they did not want Putin to be president beyond 2024. Just like with many other issues, the moods of the oldest and the youngest differed significantly on this matter. For example, 57 per cent of respondents over 55 want Putin to serve another term in office. At the same time, the same percentage of those between 18 and 24 want the exact opposite. Young people also show stronger pro-opposition and pro-western feeling than other age groups.

There is also a growing public belief that the president has alienated himself from society. An increasing percentage of Russians (currently 40 per cent) believe that he represents the interests of the country’s law enforcement bodies (including the secret services) or big business. As many as 41 per cent say that people believe him only because they see no alternative.

This attitude has been accompanied by an apparent decline in overall public trust in state institutions. Around 53 per cent of respondents said that they had faith in the head of state (the lowest percentage in nine years). Trust in law enforcement bodies is also decreasing. As many as 58 per cent of respondents do not feel that the law protects them (the highest result since 2010). This insecurity may be the result of a growing awareness that the state violates citizens’ rights and that an aggressive foreign policy (including military interventions) is becoming increasingly costly for ordinary taxpayers. There is also an erosion of faith in elections and growing dissatisfaction with their results. As many as 45 per cent believed that the September 2021 parliamentary election was unfair.

The demand for new faces in politics is visibly growing. As a survey from September 2021 showed, a hypothetical party led by Navalny would have a chance to enter parliament. Before his imprisonment, the politician himself was supported by as many as 20 per cent of respondents according to independent polls. This is an excellent result considering the total embargo on Navalny-related topics in the state media. A new Kremlin-linked party, New People, which first ran in the 2021 parliamentary election, gained quite a bit of genuine support thanks to its fresh brand and liberal rhetoric. This is in spite of the fact that the group is loyal to the authorities.

Desires for a welfare state are also clearly on the rise. This shift has been motivated by a persistent decline in citizens’ real incomes since 2014, which has been caused by years of economic stagnation and rampant food price inflation. Over the past year, some essential products have increased in price by dozens of per cent. According to a mid-2021 study by Moscow University for Industry and Finance “Synergy”, approximately 20 million Russians live below the poverty line. At the same time, more than 60 per cent spend half of their household budget on food, with 16 per cent spending almost their entire budget on such products. Material difficulties are accompanied by a deepening sense of injustice, which has been provoked by drastic income inequality and violence and lawlessness on the part of the authorities. Following the brutal suppression of mass protests in defence of Alexei Navalny in January – April 2021, as many as 52 per cent of the population feared a return of mass repression. Around 58 per cent were also worried about lawlessness in the country. This result is the highest since 1994, when Russians were first asked this question in surveys.

The public’s growing sense of uncertainty has increasingly encouraged nostalgia for the political and economic system of the Soviet Union. This sense of unease has only grown following the lifestyle changes demanded by the pandemic. The communist era is associated primarily with social security and stability. In August 2021, almost half of Russians indicated that the Soviet model was their preferred political system. In turn, support for the current system (18 per cent) is now equal to “Western democracy”, which is still relatively unpopular among the public given the traumatic transformation of the nineties. Almost two thirds of Russians favour central planning and income redistribution, while the free market is associated with growing inequality and injustice. Rather than a resurgence of genuine pro-Soviet or communist feeling, these trends reveal a growing demand for fundamental revisions to the government-society relationship. Many studies have shown that Russians now possess an increasing awareness of civil rights.

Whilst the Kremlin presents Russia as a “besieged fortress” threatened by the West (which bears many traits of the Cold War rhetoric), public support for great power ideology and conflict with the West is decreasing. In November 2021, more people expressed positive attitudes towards the US compared to negative opinions (45 to 42 per cent). Respondents mostly want Russia to be “a country with high living standards, not necessarily one of the strongest in the world” (a record two thirds), rather than “a great power that others are afraid of” (just one third). Foreign policy is losing its ability to distract Russians from everyday socio-economic problems.

Does this mean that Russians will turn en masse against the authorities in the event of another military intervention abroad? It is doubtful. As aforementioned, however, it will be difficult to recreate the mass support that the president enjoyed following the annexation of Crimea. This will be especially true if the coffins of fallen “volunteers” begin to return to Russia.

Running to stay in the same place

The seemingly stable Russian regime is increasingly beginning to run out of steam. The current model of government is unable to create impulses for development and offer Russians an attractive vision for the future. The progressive centralisation of the “vertical of power” has not translated into greater success regarding state governance. The country’s law enforcement bodies, primarily the Federal Security Service (FSB), seem to act with increasing impunity. This affects both ordinary citizens and the state administrative apparatus.

In spite of a wave of repression and Vladimir Putin’s involvement in September’s parliamentary elections campaign, the party of power (United Russia) struggled to achieve a high level of support. About half of the total number of votes officially attributed to UR were likely the result of ballot stuffing. The use of this less than subtle method was at an all time high. The increase – a dismal record for the whole Putin era – suggests that the authorities care less and less about their social legitimacy. Instead, those in power simply demonstrate their determination to break through any resistance and ignore voters’ preferences. This is a relatively new type of legitimacy in contemporary Russia, based on brute force and “sovereign” arbitrary power. This has started to replace the previously dominant form of legitimacy based on the charisma of the leader, which peaked in 2014.

 In September, the large-scale protest vote favoured the Communist Party. This party proved to be the most popular group among the Kremlin-controlled opposition. This development went largely against the wishes of the party’s leadership, which remains loyal to the government. This outcome showed that the public will always find a way to express their frustration with the authorities despite all attempts to eliminate political competition. Social protest has so far been peaceful but further blocking legal channels of state-citizen dialogue could lead to more radical feeling among the population. In this case, any political group may become a centre of gravity for all kinds of active protest. The government is likely to respond with an escalation of violence in such circumstances.

In the era of declining Putinism, Moscow finds itself in a position similar to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. In order to prevent the erosion of the authoritarian system, the Kremlin must “do all the running they can, to keep in the same place”. The role of violence and repression in state management will therefore continue to grow. Those in power will focus not so much on economic development but on control and the prevention of protest.

The January 2022 unrest in Kazakhstan only reinforced the Kremlin’s fears that even a seemingly stable system can face a severe challenge. These events also exposed the risks associated with the model of presidential succession chosen in the country. As it turned out, a retired leader can never feel completely safe. The example of Nursultan Nazarbayev has probably strengthened Putin’s conviction that only lifetime power is an ironclad guarantee of personal security. But will Russians simply tolerate the ageing leader for a dozen or so years to come?

Maria Domańska, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian domestic politics.

Listen to the Talk Eastern Europe podcast episode on Russian politics of memory with Maria Domańska.

Artykuł można przeczytać po polsku na portalu Nowej Europy Wschodniej.

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