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Putin’s Grip on Power: The Beginning of the End?

Putin’s Grip on Power: The Beginning of the End?
 Tatiana Stanovaya
Founder and Head of R.Politik

In 2020, Russia saw extreme political upheaval with the constitutional reforms announced by President Vladimir Putin. They marked a critical turn in Russian politics, towards a much more authoritarian and repressive regime, with no tolerance for opposition - as the Alexei Navalny affair has clearly shown. The constitutional reform also implied that Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms would be zeroed out so that he could run for two more consecutive terms, that is, until 2036. Can the political situation change course? Tatiana Stanovaya, founder and head of R.Politik, and non-resident scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center, analyzes the workings of the current Russian political system, and the population’s growing anti-Putin’s sentiment, especially among the youth. 

A year ago your analysis stressed how the Constitutional reform strengthened the Russian presidency and marginalized other branches of government. How would you evaluate the situation a year after the beginning of the reform? 

It is important to focus on two dimensions of the Russian domestic political reality - institutional and political. The first one - the institutional dimension - concerns the formal way of how the political infrastructure functions. There were two stages in the constitutional reform. The first one, the amendments to the Constitution, followed by constitutional voting between June 25 and July 1 2020. The second stage - from July 2020 to today - was marked by the modification of many Russian laws on the political system, with a goal to bring it in line with the changed Constitution. 

This implied the amendment of existing legislation on government, judiciary, law enforcement, parliament, as well as security (regarding the Security Council specifically) and social policy. Several politically important developments can be noted here. To some extent they responded to the initial expectations about how the political system would function after constitutional reform. For example, the legislation developing the new Constitutional status of the State Council did not boost its political weight as expected. In fact, the real role of the State Council remains the same as before the reform. The State Council is one of the key platforms for Putin to coordinate the work of the Cabinet, governors, expert community, state banks and corporations, which is convenient and consolidates all the bodies and state levels. Nevertheless, it has not become a "second government" as many suggested. It will also not "replace" or compete with the Security Council. Note that Putin keeps his weekly meetings with the Security Council, while he presides over State Council meetings only a few times per year. The Security Council remains a very narrow, "couloir" mechanism to discuss strategically important questions, mostly related to national security. However, do not be misguided: Putin does not make his decisions during such meetings. Instead, he listens and uses them as an opportunity to stay in touch with key figures, to feel the moods and test different ideas. Real decision-making takes place even beyond the State Council. It is important to remember, for example, that the current secretary of the State Council, Igor Levitin, answers to Putin’s first deputy Chief of Staff, Sergei Kiriyenko, and Levitin’s real role is negligible compared to the role of the Security Council Secretary, Nikolay Patrushev. Levitin represents the Presidential Administration and acts more as a technocrat, while Patrushev is a prominent player, has central influence and a hawkish ideology. 

The new amendments have now forbidden both the publication of dissenting opinions and any public criticism of Constitutional Court rulings.

Interestingly, such legislative adjustments became an additional opportunity for the Kremlin to further tighten the screws. The adoption of new laws that developed constitutional amendments, was used to deepen initial constitutional changes. The most striking example concerns the Constitutional Court. Constitutional amendments have already made the Judiciary in general far more dependent on the president.

For instance, the Head of State can now remove judges from the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and lower courts, for misconduct (although dismissals must be coordinated with the Federation Council). The Constitutional Court is also to be slimmed down from 19 to 11 judges. After the constitutional reform, the relevant bill aimed at bringing in line existing legislations with the Constitution has de facto abolished the concept of a "dissenting opinion" - an important institution that allowed Constitutional judges to express disagreement with Court’s rulings. Formerly, if judges did not agree with a ruling, they could submit a dissenting opinion that was to be published in the official journal. The new amendments have now forbidden both the publication of dissenting opinions and any public criticism of Constitutional Court rulings.

As a result of this reform, Vladimir Putin can now stay in office until 2036. Is Putin’s power in Russia now unchecked?

Overall, the presidency has become the most powerful institution and Putin can stay in power as long as he wants (2036 no longer means much). The prerogatives of the parliament have shrunk, and the judiciary has become all the more dependent on the Head of State. Yet, it would be wrong to say that the reform totally watered out the separation of powers. 

From an institutional perspective, it’s true that the reform weakened the legislative branch and the judiciary. For example, the amendments relating to the functions of the Federation Council oblige it to relinquish some privileges, such as the power to confirm the prosecutor-general and regional prosecutors, appointments which are now down to the president (who must, however, "consult" the candidates with the senators). The Federation Council, on the other hand, has obtained some new privileges, though not decisive: for instance, the president must consult the upper chamber over the future heads of law enforcement agencies, but the latter cannot impose its candidates on the Head of State, or block a presidential appointee.

In other words, even after the constitutional reforms, we cannot say that the role of the Federation Council has been bolstered (which is what Putin regularly says about parliament) or that it now has some new special rights. In fact, it lost important privileges that were "compensated" with more "consultative" ones. The same is also true for the State Duma - the lower chamber also gained new powers,but still won’t have a final say on decisions, like the appointment of the prime-minister, his deputies, or ministers. 

Thus, on the one hand, the president has indeed obtained more important privileges that allow him to overcome parliament vetoes and impeach judges, which strengthens his grip on power. But the way the regime functions depends not only on institutional mechanisms, but also on political institutions: this is where the political dimension comes in. It implies the ability to secure the loyalty of key institutions - the ruling party United Russia, governors, and elites in general. From the political point of view, if tomorrow the ruling party loses its approval rating and becomes highly unpopular, Putin’s social support will also water down: then the system will start functioning differently. The Kremlin may face opposition in parliament, the governors will start challenging the federal state and the ruling party will fall apart. 

Without the ability to secure the desired election results and to rely on a strong ruling party, Putin’s political stance and control over other government bodies will drastically weaken. 

All this is important in order to understand that without the ability to secure the desired election results and to rely on a strong ruling party, Putin’s political stance and control over other government bodies will drastically weaken. 

But here comes another important element about Putin’s possibilities to secure such political "stability" and control. In fact, he only has two main strategies at his disposal. The first one is to secure his own large political support, when the regime relies on the "power of authority" (based on popular legitimacy). The second one is to resort to the "authority of power", implying a reliance on repressive measures rather than constructive and convincing strategies. 

From 2018 onwards the regime slowly began shifting from the "power of authority" to the "authority of power". The constitutional reform has drastically accelerated this transition process. The regime has now become less tolerant and more repressive, conservative and ideological. Amongst some examples, we find the imprisonment and poisoning of Navalny; the crackdown on his team, regional staff and even on ordinary opposition activists; unprecedented pressure on media and journalists; a set of new repressive laws and the lawlessness of security services. All these are practical consequences and developments of deep political changes that were "reinforced" by the constitutional reform. I believe that 2020 saw a pivotal moment in Russian history when the regime made a radical turn towards authoritarianism and repressiveness, with no tolerance for anti-Putin critics. In fact, the anti-Putin, traditionally labelled "non-systemic opposition", has now been made illegal in Russia. 

As to Putin’s decisions to zero out his terms - I would stay cautious. For now it remains an institutional option (not a defined political choice), but we know nothing - and it’s his purpose - about Putin’s real intentions, which might even be changing in real time. No one, and maybe not even Putin himself, is able to say whether he will remain president by 2036 or not. His initial instinct was to stop the elite from, as he said, "darting their eyes around, searching for the successor". However, as he has no better (read: safe) solutions for his future, the temptation to remain in power for as long as he can might be really high.

With Alexei Navalny now on the sideline, is there still a chance of seeing an organized political opposition to Putin?

We are used to dividing the opposition in Russia into non-systemic - meaning anti-Putin -, and systemic - the opposition that abides by the rules and does not dare to challenge Putin personally. At least, it did work that way for many years, until 2020. Non-systemic opposition was allowed to function, to have its own media, to develop important internet activities, and even have a prominent impact on the agenda. It was, however, deprived of the rights to run elections, to freely organize protest rallies, or to be allowed on mainstream TV channels. 

The Kremlin’s intention today is to target any probable ‘reincarnation’ attempts.

That is not the case anymore. There are at least two main processes at hand. The first one is the criminalization of the non-systemic opposition. The Kremlin seeks to eradicate it, including everything that may relate to Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and even the media that sides with them.

In this regard, the FBK is to be designated an "extremist organization" (the court will call the verdict May), but its activities are already being suspended. Let’s be frank - this is the end for Navalny’s FBK. The regional network has been disbanded, media are shut off, many leaders have had to leave the country. Some activists will continue to work as independent regional politicians, but FBK will physically not be able to exist - use its labels, bank accounts, and spread information. I do not believe that a substitute or alternative organization might be created - it will instantly be shut down too, since we are dealing with a political decision to completely destroy Navalny’s network. The Kremlin’s intention today is to target any probable ‘reincarnation’ attempts. Perhaps, the most dedicated anti-Putin activists will go underground and radicalize, others may join systemic opposition. But In today’s Russia, links to Navalny and his team may directly lead to prison. Finally, it may well become difficult to manage the Smart Voting strategy ahead of the State Duma elections. It is highly likely that all websites related to Navalny’s team and their projects will be blocked in Russia, meaning that the only opportunity to continue the fight will be from abroad with significantly restricted access to the Russian segment of the Internet.

The second process relates to the radicalization of the regional branches of systemic opposition. It concerns, first of all, the Communist party, but also the social-liberal Yabloko, the social-democratic A Just Russia, and even the Liberal Democrats. Part of the systemic opposition parties’ elites demand a more radical political line that dares to challenge Putin, to organize unsanctioned rallies and to possibly align with Navalny’s regional staff. Plus, a new generation of politicians has been growing, from both the left and right wings, who are more decisive, strong-willed, and who are not content with the mild political positions of the parties’ leaderships. This means that cracks and splits have started to form within the political parties, which might result in the more radical elements to quit the party system and potentially replace non-systemic opposition. The problem here is that the Kremlin remains highly severe against any sign of anti-Putin activities, thus warning politicians to not cross the "red line", otherwise they might be, at best, ousted, at worst prosecuted. Therefore, I would say that new political developments will depend on two main factors: the first one is the ability of the state to carry out further repressions and suppress any "hostile" political activities (which seems to be the case). The second one refers to social factors, like the willingness of ordinary Russians to raise their voices and protest.

Where do the Russian people stand in regards to Putin’s stranglehold on the presidency and recent political tensions? 

This is a very complex and nuanced question. First of all, a majority of Russians supported the Constitutional reform, but the attitude towards different amendments was very contradictory. Around two thirds backed the part of the reform that concerned social rights. However at the same time, one third of the population expressed opposition. This marks a huge shift for Putin’s regime, which did not see anti-Putin sentiments as important before. Furthermore, the reasons to support Putin have shifted: while in the past, people supported him for his achievements, it has now become clear that they vote for him due to a lack of a decent alternative, a fear of a financial crisis, and the risk of political instability.

The reset of Putin’s terms was thus the most irritating part of the reform. Last year’s polls from the Levada centre showed that 44% of those surveyed were strongly (33%) or somewhat (11%) against it. In fact, the decision to zero out the terms deeply split the society in two. For Putin, this is another major controversial move that has faced resistance from a significant part of society (the first one was his pension reform in 2018 that cut 15% of his approval ratings).

Furthermore, a clear generational divide was explicitly deepened in 2020, with regards to Putin, Navalny, and protests. Young people are much more defiant, they obtain information more from the internet and social networks (where the Kremlin’s control is yet very fragile) and sympathize more with Navalny. For example, according to Levada, half of respondents aged 18 to 24 said that Navalny was imprisoned unjustly, compared to 19% among those aged 55 and over.

Putin’s approval rating among young people has reached its lowest level since polling began at the beginning of this year.

Most importantly, Putin’s approval rating among young people has reached its lowest level since polling began at the beginning of this year: Levada data showed 46% of 18 to 24 year olds disapprove of Putin's actions, up from 31% in January 2020. Some 40% of 25 to 39 year olds currently disapprove of Putin, compared to 36% a year ago. For those aged 40-54, the disapproval rating grew by four percentage points in the same period, to 38%. Finally, for the over-55s, the numbers are unchanged: 74% approve and 25% disapprove. 

A new generation has emerged, one that has never lived under another president’s tenure and can’t compare Russia under Putin with life in the 1990s. Putin's achievements, like socio-economic stabilization, the annexation of Crimea, or geopolitical assertiveness, are perceived by young people as routine and granted. This may explain why young people have been more involved in the current protests than ever before, with social networks as the main platforms for mobilization. Almost 60% of young Russians say they would not want to see Putin president after 2024 (40% in general). The same can be said for attitudes towards protests - 38% of respondents from the youngest category have a positive attitude towards protests against only 16% of 55+. 36% of young people approve of Navalny's actions, while in the most aged group it is only 12% of them who do. 34% of young respondents see Navalny's poisoning as an attempt by the authorities to eliminate a political opponent. Among the 55+ group, only 9% agree. The difference is easily observed in relation to Navalny's verdict: only 35% of respondents aged 18-24 consider the decision to be fair, half of the respondents (50%) unfair. Among respondents of 55 years and older, 60% consider the decision to be fair, 19% unfair.

This also correlates with stances towards information: those who use the Internet, social networks and YouTube are much more critical than those for whom television is the main source of information. At the same time, social networks are significantly increasing their influence: over the past few years, the number of daily users of social networks has increased by one and a half times - in 2017, 37% of respondents used social networks daily or almost daily, in 2021 they are at 57%. It should not come as a surprise that the Kremlin has been increasing its control over internet content and boosting its pressure on foreign companies.

This new generation, more critical, less "grateful" to Putin, and more independent regarding information, will grow as a menace for the Kremlin, and for Putin personally who remains very "old-school". As it seems today, the regime intends to increasingly lean on repressive tools rather than on dialogue or on building communication channels. But what is certain is that Putin’s future decision - whether to run in 2024 or not - will be a challenging and all the more divisive move for the Russian society, in comparison to the previous years of relative political stability. Putin has stopped being a consolidating leader and many of his current decisions have deeply split the Russian society. The perspective of 2024 puts him in front of a difficult choice: daring to oppose a prominent part of society in order to stay in power. The 2018 campaign was the last one for him as Russia’s unifying figure.



Copyright: Alexey DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / AFP

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