The COVID-19 pandemic has brought disillusionment with Vladimir Putin and the regime he symbolises. Putin’s mounting troubles are not that surprising given several political missteps, and while Russia will not collapse like the USSR, future change may be quite dramatic.
“The Putin system is going to the dogs! With this epidemic, one has to be totally blind not to see it!”. A friend of mine, a successful Russian PR executive, spoke to me from his spacious house near Moscow, where he self-isolated among the tasteful collection of modern Russian paintings.
His family is also protecting itself from coronavirus – but at their villa in one of the warmer EU countries. His yacht is moored somewhere in a Mediterranean marina, awaiting my friend’s return to a routine of leisurely fixing deals while sipping martinis on the deck. That is if the routine ever resumes.
As an entrepreneur, he was never overly politicised or squirmish when offered to work for Russia’s state-owned enterprises which dominate the economy – as long as cash kept flowing in.
The scorn he poured on the Kremlin stood in stark contrast to his circle’s usual ‘carpe diem’ attitude of mild cynicism and resignation, typical of those who adapted to living (and making money) in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
My friend’s words struck me because this new attitude I now see spreading among other Russians I know and – to believe several recent public opinion surveys – among millions of them who I shall never have a chance to meet.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have had a serious effect on their attitude towards Vladimir Putin and the regime he symbolises. This is not what the Kremlin planned for at the beginning of 2020.
Before the pandemic, the Russian leader focused his attention on two main themes. One was getting popular approval for changes to the Russian constitution that will effectively allow him to rule the country until 2036. The other was to celebrate with pomp and circumstance the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany.
Putin views VE-Day not only (and even not so much) as a celebration of the heroes of the Second World War but rather of Russia’s ‘rebirth’ as a great power because of his wise leadership and despite Western plots to keep her down and out of world politics.
Then came the virus and things started to change. First came the president’s belated and clumsy response to COVID-19 pandemic. Putin showed up at an infectious diseases hospital near Moscow dressed up in what looked like a space suit while everyone else around him wore simple masks. Then followed a half-hearted announcement of restrictive measures – but without a formal proclamation of the state of emergency.
This created uncertainty for what still remains of Russia’s quickly shrinking private sector. It was loaded with additional expenses because by proclaiming an indefinite holiday season instead of a national emergency the president in effect ordered a freeze on any staff downsizing.
Later, when endless footage of long lines of ambulances at hospitals, clogged wards and medics working without basic protection emerged en masse, Putin made another political misstep which dealt probably the most serious blow so far to the system he built. In a TV address to the nation, he suddenly put all responsibility for tackling the epidemic on regional governors – who are de facto unelected presidential appointees with little independence.
Their independence used to be severely limited. All their decisions had to be closely ‘coordinated’ with the presidential administration in Moscow. And now Putin decided to make them take all the risks without providing extra budgets or executive powers.
This visible reluctance to shoulder unpopular and risky decisions dealt a very heavy and very public blow to Putin’s ‘power vertical’, the system of total political control he built over the last two decades.
“If there is any use for authoritarian regimes it is during a crisis like this. People expect them to muster resources, take and implement tough decisions, in one word, save the day”, a vice-president of a major Western investment bank with significant interest in Russia remarked to me. “If they do not do this then what is the point of having dictators? One might as well opt for democracy.”
He also thinks that Putin’s policy of supporting state-owned corporations, where his cronies are CEOs, to the detriment of medium and small businesses will have a lasting political effect in both capitals as well as in the major cities. “Those who struggle now will remember – the Kremlin did nothing to alleviate their plight”, he says.
Disillusionment with Putin
Opinion polls started to reflect the public’s disillusionment with Putin. Even the government-funded and ever obedient All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (known by its Russian acronym VTSIOM) published findings which showed Putin as having the trust of no more than 27 per cent of Russians.
When Bloomberg mentioned this data in one of its pieces, the Russian Embassy in Washington accused it of spreading fake news. As with most of the Russian diplomats’ displays of loyalty towards the Kremlin, this only proved Bloomberg’s (and, for that matter, VTSIOM’s) point.
The Levada Centre, Russia’s most respected independent pollster, recently registered a spike in the number of those who do not trust any politicians, including the president. The number nearly doubled with more than a third of Russians expressing this view.
What is even more worrying for Putin is that the number of those who are ready to vote for ‘his’ constitutional amendments dropped. They are already approved by the Kremlin’s pocket Constitutional Court.
But the president’s desire to get a popular acclamation for his plans to rule Russia until he is 84 was so strong that he announced that the vote will take place on 1 July, when the pandemic may well be still far from over. Voting will last for a week starting from the VE-Day parade slotted for 24 June. Voter registration rules will be significantly relaxed for the purpose.
Independent political analyst Abbas Galyamov told the BBC that the Kremlin tries to rush the legally dubious voting through before public opinion trends become even more negative.
However, here Putin risks exacerbating popular hostility. The approval of the amendments by the Constitutional Court only has a symbolic meaning. It will look as if people are being herded to the polling stations in spite of the opposition to letting Putin rule forever.
High level of public mistrust
But what should worry the president and his people most is data from a group of independent researchers headed by economist Mikhail Dmitriyev and psychologist Anastasia Nikolskaya. Their ongoing project analyses long-term societal trends rather than day-to-day attitudes.
Ten years ago they were the only ones who predicted a wave of mass anti-government protests in Moscow in winter-spring 2011-2012 in the wake of the rigged State Duma elections. Preliminary results of their new research show a very high level of public mistrust vis-a-vis central authorities, as well as a growing trend among citizens to self-organize.
According to Dmitriyev, this is evident even in the provinces where people are poorer and more dependent on the authorities. There is also a marked shift from interest in local issues (city hall corruption, social welfare deficiencies, corrupt developers’ land grabs) towards topics like federalism and the future of Russia’s political system. Most people seem to want a freely elected parliament playing a much bigger role in decision making.
What must be most worrying for Vladimir Putin is that Russians seem to be much less interested in the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist foreign policy. Even annexation of the Crimea does not inflame public passions as it did only three to four years ago. Several polls conducted by different pollsters over the last year confirmed this.
“Russians clearly want peace and better relations with the world”, Mikhail Dmitriev told me in a telephone interview. “The ‘Crimean consensus’ is over as a policy factor”, he added, referring to the deal which Putin’s regime implicitly offered the Russian society in 2014 – “You give up your freedoms and well-being in exchange for the return of the Soviet ‘glory’.”
In retrospective, Putin’s mounting troubles are not that surprising. Think of six years of real disposable incomes’ continuously shrinking, an unpopular and drastic pension age increase, a rouble roller-coaster with three devaluations in six years. Add to this rampant top to bottom corruption, police brutality, pliant courts – and Putin’s popularity slump is hardly surprising.
True, he weathered such storms before. He still may weather it now. But Putin has been at the top for twenty years. This is too long for the public opinion which is now saturated with information and images much more than in 2000 when he first entered the Kremlin. If Putin really stays on until 2036 as he wants to, he will overtake any Russian ruler of the last four centuries.
Born in 1952, surrounded by a tightly knit ‘court’ of peers with the same (Soviet) life experience and similar biographies (mostly KGB or suchlike), the president is unable to grasp the changes that occur in the country and give it a new sense of direction and purpose.
Not ready to swing open the Kremlin’s gates
Simply put, the COVID-19 emergency dramatically highlighted something that was there even before it – Putin’s regime became obsolete. More and more Russians are finally taking notice. It does not mean they are ready to swing open the Kremlin’s gates for the current political opposition – which has been around for at least the last decade.
Alas, the opposition does not look new enough to Russians citizens and it struggles (at least until now) to generate a new comprehensive vision for Russia without and beyond Vladimir Vladimirovich. Polls confirm this. However, this is a temporary consolation for Putin. Politics abhors a vacuum.
The Soviet Union’s speedy demise serves as an instructive reminder here. What looked like a monolithic system collapsed in six years under pressure from a stagnant and inefficient economy, an unpopular war but what is most important, from the population that suddenly decided – “Так жить нельзя!” – “No way to live as we do!”, as a popular 1980’s documentary title proclaimed.
Russia will not collapse like the USSR. The population does not want this and will not let it happen. People gained some political experience over the last thirty years and have much more to lose than they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, future change may be quite dramatic – with the rule of law, social inequality plus federalism emerging as core domestic issues and tackling China as the main foreign and security policy challenge.
I shall risk predicting: Putin will have a hard time holding on to political power beyond 2024 when his current (fourth) presidential term expires. It is time to make plans for his inevitable – and, likely, final – departure.