Putin's First Year Back in Power: A Kingdom Built on Sand?
When Vladimir Putin had been in power for six years and the political system created by him was nearing the peak of its clout, one Japanese Russia-watcher remarked: "Putin's Russia is like a world made of sand. It looks powerful, but when the sun comes out and wind starts blowing, it will simply collapse." The sun and wind came in the shape of mass political protests in the "winter of dissent" of 2011/2012 and the sandcastle has indeed lost some of its defining features. Some analysts such as Ivan Krastev have even seen it as a kind of "regime change" that has left Putin in power but exhausted the modus operandi of his regime.
Probably the most important change is popular opinion. In his first two terms, Putin was genuinely popular and therefore able to arbitrate between different political clans and marginalise challengers. By applying a mix of seemingly incompatible policies - for example, liberal economic reforms coupled with restoration of some Soviet symbols and discourses - he managed to associate with very different groups in society, all of whom saw him as someone who shared at least part of their agenda.
That is not the case any more. Putin remains the most popular politician in Russia, but his support ratings have come down and his magic is fading. He clearly has lost the support of urban intellectuals. Protest has now moved from streets into the souls, where it is ripening, mutating, and waiting for a time to manifest itself again, probably in new ways. The provincial majority -whom Putin is now trying to mobilise as his power base - is not happy either. They may not care about political freedoms as much as the "creative class," but they also suffer from the problems of the system: corruption, inaccessibility of basic services, inadequate healthcare and education systems, etc.
People have stopped associating Putin with hopes for the future; instead those who support him do so because they see no credible alternative. During the first decade of the century, Putin's popularity rested on the notion that he had brought Russia out from the chaos, poverty and the perceived humiliation of the 1990s. Contrast with the 1990s remains Putin's main claim to legitimacy, but for the population, reference point is shifting: future, rather than past is becoming relevant; and the future is clouded by uncertainty.
Generational change is also eroding people's ability to empathise with Putin's other reference point: the late Soviet era. Putin's rhetoric still bears many hallmarks of that era; his jokes and metaphors often are rooted in Soviet realities. But younger Russians who do not remember the Soviet Union, and often have a distorted view of its nature, may simply not get it; for others, who do, these references make Putin seem like a man of the past.
So far the political opposition has failed to capitalise on this loss of support for Putin. The protest movement emerged too late to organise itself as a political force in time for the presidential elections in March. Even since then, it has struggled to agree on a proper message and strategy. The current so-called non-systemic opposition is a diverse group that includes nationalists, socialists, liberals and opportunists. Some hope to change the system by evolution, for others, revolution remains the only good option. Some want to completely destroy the system, while others want to just replace Putin. Some want to boycott the Putinist system completely, others are trying to score small victories in local elections, with the hope that this will cumulate into something bigger. As a rule, radicals from different ideological camps seem to get better along with each other than with their more moderate ideological peers.
Moreover, much of the energy of the protest movement comes from provinces. The peak of the protest was actually not in the "winter of dissent" in 2011-2012, when thousands of people gathered on the streets and squares of Moscow, but in 2009, when there were uncoordinated but frequent actions in provinces, mostly with social and economic messages. The leaders of these protests rarely link up with, and in many cases despise, the political class in Moscow. The protest movement in Moscow, in turn, has not yet managed to find a way of communicating with the provinces. The two agendas - local and practical versus high political - remain separate; no leader has managed to merge the two into one by demonstrating the links between local ills and the federal system of government.
Nevertheless, despite the opposition's problems, Putin himself seems to take it seriously. "He truly got scared in late 2011," stated one former high official. "He is now taking revenge on everyone who made him scared: protesters, independent NGOs and elites of fragile loyalty." Close to 30 people are under investigation under the so-called Bolotnoye case - the criminal case against participants in the protests that took place on the eve of Putin's inauguration last spring; and more are being added by the day. Three NGOs have been labelled "foreign agents" under the laws adopted last summer. Alexei Navalny, probably the most prominent protest leader, is facing a court-case on politically motivated charges. Much-trumpeted, but selectively applied anti-corruption campaign is designed to keep in check the Kremlin-associated elites, many of whom had flirted - and a few even joined - the opposition.
In many ways, this is very much like what Putin did in the early 2000s when he had just come to power. Slowly, and using legal means, he took on the individuals and institutions that had dared to challenge him while showing the oligarchs that they could keep their property and freedom if they steered clear of politics. However, it is uncertain whether this old approach has the same chance to succeed. Unlike in the early 2000s, when the dissent really emanated from a limited number of prominent actors - mainly oligarchs and the media -, this time the protest mood is inside the society; the leaders only express it. Putting Alexei Navalny in prison will not make protests to go away, closing down NGOs will not change the fact that badly organised government is not able to provide the elementary services, thereby creating incentives for people to self-organise in order to have at least the basic things taken care of. Effectively, the way Putin addresses "the winter of dissent" amounts to shooting the messengers instead of dealing with the problem: corrupt and inefficient system of governing.
So far, the Putinist system has kept itself afloat thanks to permanent influx of oil- and gas-money. Now, however, the economy is showing signs of slowdown even before the decline in oil gas prices has properly kicked in. The pie is getting smaller; and there are painful dilemmas. There is urgent economic need to reform, but reforms would have some social cost, which - given the already unhappy population - is risky. To keep the social expenditure on its current level or increase it, one needs money, but money is hard to come buy if global oil and gas prices stay under the levels foreseen in the Russian budgets. To get the economy off its dependence on raw materials, Russia should modernise, but modernisation inevitably foresees some political reforms, as this presumes the cooperation from "creative classes," who are currently antagonised and contemplating emigration. Dealing with corruption truly, rather than selectively, would be a big step forward on the economic as well as domestic political front, but this would erode the very bases of the Putinist system: loyalty of the elites in exchange for the possibilities of self-enrichment. Putin is used to having it all: abundant economic as well as political resources have been at his disposal during his first two terms. Now, both of these resources are drying up, forcing him to choose between different constituencies, loyalties and priorities; even worldviews. Having it all is not possible any more; and the choices made at this junction will not only determine the lifespan of Putin's rule, but will also have meaningful implications for post-Putin Russia.