NEWSWATCH: “Russia on the Eve of its Presidential Election: How Long Can Change and Stasis Coexist?” [Excerpt] – PONARS Eurasia/Nikolay Petrov

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Nikolay Petrov is Professor of Political Science at the Higher School of Economics (Russia). He was previously Chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Society and Regions Program.

(PONARS Policy Memo) At last, Vladimir Putin has decided that he will indeed be a candidate in the 2018 presidential election. Considering how long he has been in charge, it may seem that little has changed or will change in Russia’s political sphere. However, in recent years, Putin has had his own personal perestroika and has modified Russia’s political order to sustain his successful authoritarian system. By looking at the recent rejuvenations he made to Russia’s political landscape, we can gain a more comprehensive sense of where Russia is headed. Despite clever alterations to personnel and decision-making processes, and the firm incapacitation of the opposition, there may be troubled times ahead. Russia faces deep economic challenges and Putin may experience problems rolling back his self-branding as a “war chieftain.” The Russian political system is beset by a certain stasis and the president is in a legitimacy trap. Putin is sure to remain personally popular, but the government and economic situation as a whole are increasingly unpopular.

The New Political Regime

Russia’s post-Soviet political regime has been “sultanistic” in nature, but it is a different regime than when Putin won the 2011-12 presidential election. The regime’s most radical transformation took place in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Although the Russian leadership seemed to suddenly enter a new identity zone at that time, the Kremlin had been making preparations for a while for a regime shift, in terms of both leadership postures and operating procedures.

The main change for Putin himself was that he transitioned himself from being a political leader to what might be called a “sultanistic military chieftain.” In 2012-2013, his approval rating of 60 percent was among his lowest since 1999, but once he took Crimea and became a war commander, his public approval rating sharply increased to about 86 percent in 2015. During this time, public trust levels also improved toward all state institutions. Even though trust levels toward agencies of the state ultimately went back down to where they were before the annexation of Crimea, the public’s views of Putin remained constantly high.

The condition of Putin’s new legitimacy is still top-down in nature, from leader to political/economic elites. One change is that the dependence of the elites on him grew while his dependence on them decreased. Part of this was based on structural changes: the “new” leader no longer needed the elites to deliver him votes in elections. For example, the legitimacy of governors became based not on popular votes but whether Putin supports and/or appoints them. Since 2014, it is safe to say that the authorities no longer need elections to maintain legitimacy. Due to this, there have been fewer elections and those that have taken place (assorted local and regional elections as well as the 2016 parliamentary elections) have been marked by a lack of competition, low voter turnout, and generally low visibility (the Kremlin no longer needed to work hard to attract attention to its candidates/policies).

What we learned from the 2016 parliamentary elections is that as the leader’s character strengthened, Russia’s already weak institutions weakened further. The trend of increasing centralization has resulted in fewer autonomous centers of influence. Already a while ago, Russia stopped being a federation of regions and became a federation of “corporations”-a super-centralized state with a single center: Putin. It seems efficient, but it leads to a problem that can best be described as a cascade of hostage-taking: the country is held hostage by the regime, the regime is held hostage by Putin, and Putin is held hostage by his own 2014 decisions. …

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In spite of a number of crises, there is strong demand at both high and low levels for keeping the status quo in Russia. According to a Levada Center survey in June 2017, two thirds of Russians would like to see Putin stay as president and three quarters would like the same tough or even tougher line to continue in both Russia’s foreign and domestic politics. Having more liberal domestic politics and softening confrontation with the West would be preferred by only 12-13 percent of respondents. Still, tension in society has been growing, particularly due to the absence of economic development prospects. Even though protests indicate signs of increasing and varying discontent, they do not pose a real threat to Putin’s system. Feelings of great power status over-ride other considerations, at least for the time being.

We can say that the current political regime is new, but it is transitionary, unconsolidated, and on the march. There are several elements that could lead to deeper and more serious transformations going forward. First, Moscow’s political (Putin’s legitimacy trap) and financial resources that are needed to maintain the status quo are almost exhausted. Second, more elite changes, and changes to the informal rules between the state and elites, may take place. The regime is making changes and has rejected parts of its previous frameworks, but it has not elaborated wholly new patterns of functionality. Russia is still in its zone of quiescence, which it entered back in 2005 when it refused to enact quality economic reforms. Whichever direction it ultimately goes, either more liberal (Alexei Kudrin-esque) or more conservative (Sergey Glaz’yev-esque), the static nature of the system will be disrupted. Because the system has a profound stasis, it will become unstable immediately when it moves more than tentatively in any direction. This kind of dynamic makes a new institutionalization drive inevitable. But for now, the Kremlin has weighed its risks and seeks to avoid mistakes caused by haste. It prefers to delay transformations that truly benefit society and milk Putin’s role as the “Tsar-Sultan War-Chief.”

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