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Russia – The Virus and The Czar

Russia – The Virus and The Czar
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Is President Putin taking matters back into his own hands? This is what some of the Kremlin’s recently announced decisions might suggest. The rescheduling to July 1 of the popular vote to approve the constitutional reform, which had to be postponed in April due to the pandemic, seems to point in that direction. 

Time to revise the Constitution

The main purpose of these changes is to enable Mr. Putin to run again for two more six-year presidential terms, starting in 2024. The current Constitution includes an "in a row" clause, which regulates the maximum number of presidential terms. Removing this clause would also ensure that mandates held under the current regime would not count for the implementation of the amended Constitution.

Furthermore, the Victory Day ceremonies commemorating the surrender of Nazi Germany during World War II, originally planned for May 9, will be held on June 24. On May 9, these celebrations would have taken place with several foreign heads of state in attendance, a form of triumph for Mr. Putin – while also building a positive mindset in preparation for the constitutional reform vote. Instead, on June 24, only leaders of the former USSR are invited. The "Immortal Regiment" march, a sort of popular duplicate of the Victory Day ceremonies, is set for July 26.

What is most surprising about this calendar is how at odds it is with the country’s health and social situation: Russia is now the third country in the world with the highest number of infected people. There is little chance that the pandemic will be contained by July 1. The number of deaths is still low, but official statistics are considered unreliable. As we wrote in this blog, Russia was ill-prepared to deal with the health crisis, not least because of its dilapidated health system. The economic effects of the health crisis are further aggravated by the drop in oil prices, which alone is a serious handicap for a Russian economy that is highly dependent on energy exports.

Vladimir Putin also did not turn out to be a very convincing crisis manager. Much like Trump on the side of democracies, he first seemed to deny reality, then privileged the economy over health and tried to shift the responsibility to others, in particular the governors of the provinces (which Trump also did). Rather notably, the President’s popularity continues to decline. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Institute from May 22 to 24, 25% of polled Russians said they "trust" Vladimir Putin, compared to 59% in November 2017. Those close to the President may find relief in the results of another survey: 63% of polled Russians "approve of Vladimir Putin's action as President". However, this figure should be compared with Putin’s 70% satisfaction rate in October 2019.

Much like Trump, [Putin] first seemed to deny reality, then privileged the economy over health and tried to shift the responsibility to others.

Given the situation, why did the Russian government insist on holding the constitutional reform vote before the summer, considering that the issue at stake is the level of participation rather than the vote’s expected result? Why not wait until autumn, as was initially planned by the presidential administration? In Moscow’s halls of power, the reason for this early vote is barely a secret: as the economic and social situation will presumably not recover for a long time, the President's deteriorating popularity is bound to keep getting worse.

The Czar’s declining popularity

Liberal circles in Moscow and other major Russian cities are beginning to wonder whether the Covid-19 pandemic is "one crisis too many" for Vladimir Putin. Their frail hope is not for a change of regime but for Putin to abandon the idea of running again in 2024. The Russian President's current bad run is part of a trend that needs to be understood.

In 2008, the social consequences of the crisis caused Vladimir Putin's popularity rate to drop for the very first time. Demonstrations in major cities in the winter of 2011-2012 gave Mr. Putin's second election as President in May 2012 a bitter aftertaste. But the Annexation of Crimea in 2014 reversed the trend. The President's popularity then reached its highest point. More importantly, the "Crimean consensus" had somehow changed the status of the Kremlin leader. Judging by the conversations one could have while visiting the country, in the eyes of his compatriots, the President seemed to float above all other officials and powers, untouched by contingencies, like the czar in the past. As noted by Russian political scientist T. Stanovaïa, it was as if Putin could never run out of popular support, with the country forever indebted to their savior for the historical annexation of Crimea to the fatherland. The President then abandoned the social dimension of his action in favor of a grand geopolitical scheme to confront the West. Moreover, he delegated internal, economic and other affairs to the presidential administration and other organs of power.

However, since 2018 and the announcement of a pension reform, the "Crimean consensus" has begun to erode. A qualitative study carried out in recent months under the coordination of Mr. Dmitriev and based on focus groups, highlights an increasingly critical attitude towards the government on the part of a segment of the public. 

According to the study, the main public concerns are linked to "the rule of law, civil liberties, respect for procedures, and the demand for justice". There is a public aspiration for a less aggressive foreign policy and improved relations with other countries. It should be noted that this point is also confirmed by the declining popularity of the two ministers emblematic of Russia’s confrontational stance with the West: Mr. Lavrov (Foreign Affairs) and Mr. Shoigu (Defense).

There is a public aspiration for a less aggressive foreign policy and improved relations with other countries.

According to the same study, the coronavirus crisis has "emphasized this conflict of values between public opinion and the regime": irritation and anger are directed at the central power, including the President, and not at the governors (whose approval rating in public opinion exceeded that of Putin for the first time in April – thus undermining the myth of the "good czar and the bad boyars"). Other surveys from other institutes (e.g. the University of Economics) also point out that the "demand for authority" is giving way to the desire for a more balanced power. Another survey carried out by the Levada Institute from May 22 to 24 indicates that 28% of polled Russians were ready to demonstrate in the streets. This percentage is higher among young people between the ages of 18 and 24 (40%) and those between 40 and 54 years of age (35%).

Clearly, opinion polls and surveys suggest that Putin's traditional power base is starting to shrink. Historically, it had consisted of civil servants and pensioners, to which had been added entrepreneurs and, since the Crimea consensus, young people. A large proportion of pensioners are dissatisfied since 2018, entrepreneurs are moving away, and young people are turning away from Putinism.

Is President Putin's entourage aware of this? The answer is yes, of course, and that is why the choice was made not to wait until autumn to get the people to vote. The so-called official campaign in favor of the "referendum" carefully avoids the question of new mandates open to the President. Emphasis is placed on "nationalist" amendments: social rights, the importance of the Russian language, the refusal of gay marriage, the supremacy of national law over international law, etc. 

There is more: the country’s authorities are extremely sensitive to comments made about the President’s popularity. The Bloomberg agency drew the wrath of the Russian Embassy in Washington as well as other Russian officials (including the Speaker of the Duma himself) for citing investigative findings that are consistent with the Levada Center’s conclusions. Some Russian commentators speak of a "fetishizing of the President's image", which they explain as follows: in today's Russia no institution enjoys the support of the population, no party in the true sense of the word exists, Vladimir Putin is not Yeltsin's heir, and the whole system is based on the President’s personal popularity. 

Pensioners are dissatisfied since 2018, entrepreneurs are moving away, and young people are turning away from Putinism.

However, this popularity is rapidly deteriorating and a deeper phenomenon might be at work: as philosopher A. Tsipko points out, the virus is desacralizing the Czar’s power. No patriotic magic or external glory can erase the lack of medical equipment, the disease’s ability to strike the powerful and the poor alike, and the feeling that those in power fled in the face of the pandemic.

What now?

It is sometimes said – somewhat naively – that Vladimir Putin isn’t particularly interested in holding on to the presidency, but the system’s great barons – oligarchs and security chiefs – believe there is no alternative to his presence at the head of the state at this stage. The truth is that we know very little about the inner workings of power in Moscow today. If the handful of leaders who make up the country's political elite came to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin is not in a position to guarantee stability, and therefore to protect their interests, would they hesitate for long before seeking out another option?

For the time being, there is no real prospect of a change in the Putin regime, apart from a further toughening of the Russian authoritarian model. Would a new external adventure provide the Kremlin’s leaders with some respite? While this is not totally out of the question, we have seen that the public opinion seems to have shifted with regard to this subject. Along the same lines, it is impossible to avoid noticing the importance that power continues to attach to the glorification of the "great patriotic war" (World War II), as if it were stuck in the past and incapable of building a vision of the future. This is one of the signs of the growing gap between the regime and popular sentiment in Russia in these times of pandemic


Copyright : Alexey DRUZHININ / AFP

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