Putin’s party United Russia overwhelmingly won the most recent parliamentary elections in 2016. The political situation is stable: while the Russian economy is deteriorating, social and labor protests remain local and apolitical. One could argue that the poll results are false1, the elections were fraudulent2, and that the regime’s opponents are afraid to display their disagreement. Another explanation may reduce the problem to unrestricted propaganda and “brainwashing” directed at the Russian population3. Unfortunately, the situation is not so simple: many Russian genuinely support the present regime.
Since I do not believe that Russia has been sentenced by history to be an autocratic country4, I will, therefore, not explain the Russian authoritarianism through traditions or culture. Nevertheless, the Putinite regime developed slowly and gradually. It derives from the 1990s when, first of all, authoritarian institutions were established by the constitution and, secondly, the very notion of democracy was discredited by the presidency of the ineffective and unpopular Boris Yeltsin as well as by permanent political and economic crises. The economic recovery during Putin’s first and second terms, which was caused both by increasing oil prices as well as by the growth of state capacity led to a sense of euphoria among different social groups that were able to improve their quality of life. Since that period of growth, most citizens prefer to be loyal unless and until an absolute economic catastrophe occurs. Thus, a period of protracted stagnation, which seems to be Russia’s future for the next decade, is not a scenario to which the Kremlin is opposed.
The beginning of the 2000s was a period of depoliticisation. People were excluded from political life through different methods. Official propaganda presented politics as dirty business, exploiting popular disenchantment with the political system during the 1990s. Subsequently, both political institutions and civil society degenerated. The right to protest and the freedom to organize were both eliminated by a number of laws. Elections became a mere formality. Nevertheless, the events of last five years (the 2011-2012 protests and the Ukrainian crisis) demonstrated that the regime was able to mobilize its supporters.
The Russian regime presents itself as a “power vertical.” While this description is partially true but there is also a branched local infrastructure which enables mobilizing voters, disseminating moral values and beliefs approved from above, and organizing pro-Kremlin street activity. Management of state-owned enterprises, official trade unions, and schools or hospitals are able to influence a substantial number of public-sector employees. The dominance of state ownership of the Russian economy and inflation of the state apparatus make it possible for management to wield this influence effectively to impose loyalist ideology. Thus, we can see pro-governmental rallies where managers speak on behalf of workers and teachers stay together with officials.
The Russian authoritarianism demonstrates a high level of flexibility and sustainability. Thus far, the regime has managed to build mass support by relying on sophisticated political infrastructure and satisfactory economic performance. It is currently difficult to identify the most fragile points in this support. However, the forthcoming presidential elections—which take place in a context of unpredictable events in both international relations and in the world economy—may yet undermine political stability in Russia.
1 Strong criticism of ‘state sociology’: http://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2016/01/10/623416-opros-forme-suschestvu
2 Statistical evidences of the frauds: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/11/when-the-russians-fake-their-election-results-they-may-be-giving-us-the-statistical-finger/?utm_term=.5e0cec91f8d0
3 ‘Insanity’ of the official propaganda: http://carnegie.ru/commentary/?fa=63423
4 This opinion (‘Russia cannot be a democratic state’) is extremely popular among different social groups including liberal intellectuals (e.g. Vladislav Inozemtsev, Five Reasons, Why There Will Be No Democracy in Russia https://snob.ru/selected/entry/99514).