Jun 1st 2016

The Secret of Putin’s Survival

by Andrei Kolesnikov

Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior associate and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.


MOSCOW – Two years ago, a long process of growing authoritarianism and isolationism under President Vladimir Putin culminated in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But even as much of the international community condemned the move, Russians seemed to welcome it. Indeed, the peninsula’s “return” to Russian control had a profound effect on public sentiment – one that seems to have strengthened Putin’s grip on power, even as Russia faces deepening political and economic challenges.

In March 2016, 83% of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea, while only 13% opposed it. Even progressives – including some who protested against the regime in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2011-2013 – have found in Crimea a reason to support Putin, albeit with some reservations. Indeed, Putin now enjoys an 80% approval rating, reflecting how closely he and Crimea are linked in Russians’ minds.

The reason why the annexation has attracted such wide support is simple. For most Russians, Crimea remains part of the “empire,” both culturally and geographically. To be sure, Russia does not possess the power and resources to recreate an empire, even within the confines of the abstract “Russian world.” But by focusing on Crimea, Putin’s regime was able to create a sense of restored historical justice and revive expectations of a return to “great power” status.

Of course, not everyone in Russia supports the annexation. And, in fact, opponents of the move are intractable, describing Crimea as occupied territory. Nonetheless, they comprise just a small minority and lack any real influence (the regime has seen to that). They are literally surrounded by people who unquestioningly support the authorities – and especially Putin.

That response may be surprising, given the tangible consequences of the annexation – in particular, the economic impact of Western sanctions, the effects of which have been compounded by plummeting oil prices since June 2014. The emotional element certainly plays a role. But this is not simply a matter of manipulation by propaganda.

In fact, the main reason the majority of Russians support the annexation of Crimea seems to be precisely that: the majority of Russians support it. For the average post-Soviet Russian, who regained Crimea from their couch, remote control in hand, falling into line with the majority is far more appealing than rocking the boat – so much so that Russians are outright refusing to think critically about what is happening. It is typical crowd psychology.

This unflinching support has carried over to the “just,” “defensive,” and “preventive” military operations that Crimea catalyzed, from Donbas to Syria, and even the trade war with Turkey. Despite the obvious risks associated with such moves, Russians have accepted the narrative that they are necessary to preserve stability, not to mention Russia’s newly reacquired status as a “great power.”

As if that were not counter-intuitive enough, Russians also seem to be supporting the Putin regime’s economic mismanagement precisely because their economic situation is so dire. The average Russian has been quick to revert to habits associated with the culture of scarcity of the recent past. Their attention is focused on obtaining basic necessities like food and clothing; few are interested in analyzing the causes of their declining living standards.

And who can blame them? After all, those Russians who do consider the political context are immediately confronted with grim reality: The regime has gutted all opposition, not least by stoking fear of being labeled an “extremist.” More than one vocal critic of the regime has met an untimely end.

That is why even demonstrations opposing some government policy or outcome are not so much “protests against” as “appeals to” the regime. Without fundamental change in the political system, it is unlikely that such demonstrations, even if they become more frequent, will become overtly oppositional. And, without oppositional protest, systemic change seems unlikely.

In the absence of open political competition, Putin has built a system of checks and balances within the elite. A group of loyalist liberals hold key financial and economic posts, balancing the hawks in the military and special services, including structures like the Security Council, which frequently serves as an incubator for elegant conspiracy theories about Western plots. Of course, all members of the elite must continuously demonstrate their loyalty to Putin.

This system keeps Russia’s elites from pushing for change (unlike in the past, when those elites did attempt to initiate reforms), as it precludes the possibility of anti-Putin intrigue. And the regime does seem relatively stable, at least for now. Indeed, it has only gained strength since 2012, and now, with post-Crimea popular support having bought it some time, the regime is trying to adapt to the protracted economic, political, and social malaise Russia is facing.

But that time is, of course, limited. That is why, in advance of the September parliamentary elections, the regime is increasingly directing citizens’ attention toward internal “threats” – that is, political opponents and supposed “traitors.” One prominent example is former Yukos Oil Company Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose expressions of doubt about Putin’s leadership landed him in jail and, later, exile.

In 1970, the Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik asked, in a prophetic essay, “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” We must now ask how long Putin’s regime will survive. It seems likely that it will last until the next presidential election, in 2018. Whether it will endure through the subsequent election, in 2024, is a question that Kremlinologists – a quickly recovering species – will soon be debating.




Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "