Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown his regime’s real intentions.
By changing the constitution to allow him to remain in office until 2036 and incorporating conservative new language, it has cast off its teetering mask of democratic legitimacy.
However, just as Putin has sought to entrench his rule, his regime is looking weaker than ever.
In the city of Khabarovsk, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks, chanting, “Putin resign!”
They are not alone. While Putin’s approval rating might seem high, it is low by Russian standards.
His 59 to 60 percent approval rating in recent months is his lowest since October 1999, when he was prime minister, and it is unlikely to improve significantly for a simple reason: Putin’s tried-and-tested methods to win support have lost their firepower.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Russia hard, in terms of public health and economic fallout.
With oil exports, the mainstay of Russia’s economy, down sharply, the government’s budget revenues have cratered.
As a result, the Kremlin’s tacit pact with the public — we ensure your basic wellbeing, and you do not complain — is unraveling.
Putin’s regime has long sought to divert public attention from domestic problems by touting its foreign-policy victories and its unrelenting battle against a domestic “fifth column.”
Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 embodied what have long been his most effective tactics for securing support: xenophobia, anti-Western hysteria and the invocation of a glorious past.
His approval rating skyrocketed to more than 85 percent.
IMAGE IS EVERYTHING
However, for Putin, the impression of broad public support is arguably more important than the support itself.
The July 1 plebiscite on the constitutional amendments meant little in practice. The changes had been ratified by the Duma and regional legislatures months before.
However, the popular vote gave the Kremlin the opportunity to claim that nearly 78 percent of Russia’s citizens supported the changes.
It could cite the 21 percent who, according to official figures, voted against the changes to refute the many accusations — including from the EU — that the vote was rigged.
High voter turnout enhanced the facade, but the fact that so many people participated under duress — they often had to report to their employers that they had voted — could end up hurting Putin in regional elections this year and next year, when federal parliamentary elections will also be held.
Unlike in a plebiscite, people will be able to cast protest votes.
The Kremlin’s heavy use of another favorite tactic — firing, arresting or otherwise removing ideological opponents — could also backfire.
Early last month, the authorities detained two activists — including Andrei Pivovarov, the executive director of exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia pro-democracy movement — who were campaigning against Putin’s plans to prolong his rule. Four others had their homes searched.
Several journalists have also been targeted in recent weeks, including Svetlana Prokopyeva (fined for supposedly inciting terrorism) and Ivan Safronov (charged with treason).
Pyotr Verzilov, the publisher of Mediazona, a news site that chronicles abuse in Russia’s justice system, has had his home searched repeatedly.
Likewise, the historian Yuri Dmitriev, whose work exposing Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s crimes has cast doubt on Kremlin hagiography, received a prison sentence for sexual violence against a minor.
Last month, celebrated theater director Kirill Serebrennikov was convicted of embezzlement — part of an effort to crack down on independent theater.
These are proven tactics, but they are also transparent. And, though a loyal segment of society approves, others — including formerly loyal constituencies — are pushing back.
The Khabarovsk protests were triggered by the sudden arrest of the popular governor, Sergei Furgal, for his alleged involvement in murders dating back to 2004 and 2005, when he worked in business.
Furgal is no liberal; he is a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, part of the “systemic opposition” in the Duma, but he won his position in 2018 by defeating a Kremlin-backed candidate. By arresting him, the Kremlin likely wanted to send a message to regional leaders who might try to capitalize on the national government’s failures during the COVID-19 crisis.
Instead, the arrest immediately tarnished the image of national unity that the plebiscite result was supposed to project.
To be sure, the Khabarovsk protests alone do not pose a threat to Putin’s rule. Their effects will be felt nationwide only if they spread to other cities, especially Moscow.
However, they should worry the Kremlin nonetheless. In Khabarovsk, it is not just professionals who are protesting, as has usually been the case.
Many protesters can hardly be considered politicized intelligentsia from Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Those in the streets previously would have been part of Putin’s social base — and they are setting an example for other regions.
Yet Putin’s sclerotic regime has little choice but to continue relying on the same approaches.
The line between those the Kremlin supports (the millions of law-enforcement and security officers, bureaucrats and other state employees, not to mention loyal oligarchs) and those it does not (virtually everyone else) is growing sharper.
Still, there is no clear political or social force in place that would hasten the regime’s erosion. If a fatal blow comes, it will be dealt by an unlikely source.
However, as the Khabarovsk protests have shown, unexpected surges of resistance are hardly beyond the realm of possibility.
In any case, Putin’s strategy of preserving power by any means necessary will not solve Russia’s many problems — and there remains the question of what will happen to the system after him.
What we are witnessing is a further “Francoization” of the Russian political regime: Putin is laying the groundwork to remain head of state for life, as Spain’s Francisco Franco did with the 1947 Law of Succession.
However, as Europe grew wealthy in the postwar era, Spain atrophied decade after decade under Franco’s increasingly dozy regime.
Putin seems set on achieving the same level of inertia — in politics, the economy and society.
Franco at least had a successor in mind. By having the monarchy restored on Franco’s death, Spanish King Juan Carlos could ascend the throne.
However, Putin is leading Russia into a dead end. After all, he cannot bring back the czar. So he has simply postponed the problem of succession.
Apres lui, le deluge [After us, the flood].
Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and chair of the Russian domestic politics and political institutions program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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