A sandcastle in the sun: Putin’s first year back in power

Vladimir Putin may still be the most popular politician in Russia, but his system of government is showing certain signs of weakness one year after returning to power.  

Vladimir Putin may still be the most popular politician in Russia, but his system of government is showing certain signs of weakness one year after returning to power.

When Vladimir Putin had been in power for six years and the political system created by him was nearing the peak of its powers, one Japanese Russia-watcher remarked: “Putin’s Russia is like a world made of sand. It looks powerful, but when the sun comes out and wind starts blowing, it will simply collapse.” The sun and wind came in the shape of mass political protests in the “winter of dissent” of 2011/2012 and the sandcastle has indeed lost some of its defining features. Some analysts such as Ivan Krastev have even seen it as a kind of “regime change” that has left Putin in power, but exhausted the modus operandi of his regime.

Probably the most important change is popular opinion. In his first two terms, Putin was genuinely popular and therefore able to arbitrate between different political clans while marginalising challengers. By applying a mix of seemingly incompatible policies – for example, liberal economic reforms coupled with the restoration of some Soviet symbols and discourses – he managed to associate with very different groups in society, all of whom saw him as someone who shared at least part of their agenda.

That is not the case any more. Putin remains the most popular politician in Russia, but his support ratings have come down and his magic is fading. He has clearly lost the support of urban intellectuals. Protest has now moved from streets into the souls, where it is ripening, mutating, and waiting for a time to manifest itself again, probably in new ways. The provincial majority –whom Putin is now trying to mobilise as his power base – is not happy either. They may not care about political freedoms as much as the “creative class”, but they also suffer from the problems of the system, including corruption, inaccessible basic services, and inadequate healthcare and education systems.

People have stopped associating Putin with hopes for the future; instead those who support him do so because they see no credible alternative. During the first decade of the century, Putin’s popularity rested on the notion that he had brought Russia out from the chaos, poverty and perceived humiliation of the 1990s. The contrast with this period remains Putin’s main claim to legitimacy, but for the population the reference point is shifting: the future, rather than the past is becoming relevant; and that future is clouded by uncertainty.

Generational change is also eroding people’s ability to empathise with Putin’s other reference point: the late Soviet era. Putin’s rhetoric still bears many hallmarks of that era; his jokes and metaphors are often rooted in Soviet realities. But younger Russians who do not remember the Soviet Union, and often have a distorted view of its nature, may simply not get it; for others, who do, these references make Putin seem like a man of the past.

So far the political opposition has failed to capitalise on this loss of support for Putin. The protest movement emerged too late to organise itself as a political force in time for the presidential elections in March. Even since then, it has struggled to agree on a proper message and strategy. The current so-called non-systemic opposition is a diverse group that includes nationalists, socialists, liberals, and opportunists. Some hope to change the system by evolution; for others, revolution remains the only good option. Some want to completely destroy the system, while others want to just replace Putin. Some want to boycott the Putinist system completely, and others are trying to score small victories in local elections with the hope that this will accumulate into something bigger. As a rule, radicals from different ideological camps seem to get along better with each other than with their more moderate ideological peers.

Much of the energy of the protest movement comes from provinces. The peak of the protests was actually not in the “winter of dissent” in 2011-2012, when thousands of people gathered on the streets and squares of Moscow, but in 2009, when there were uncoordinated but frequent demonstrations in the provinces, mostly with social and economic messages. The leaders of these protests rarely link up with the political class in Moscow (in many cases they despise them). The protest movement in Moscow, in turn, has not yet managed to find a way of communicating with the provinces. The two agendas – local and practical versus high political – remain separate; no leader has managed to merge the two into one by demonstrating the links between local ills and the federal system of government.

Nevertheless, despite the opposition’s problems, Putin himself seems to take it seriously. “He truly got scared in late 2011”, says one former high official. “He is now taking revenge on everyone who made him scared: protesters, independent NGOs, and elites with questionable loyalty.” Almost 30 people are under investigation under the so-called Bolotnoye case – the criminal case against participants in the protests that took place on the eve of Putin’s inauguration last spring – with more added by the day. Three NGOs have been labelled “foreign agents” under the laws adopted last summer. Alexei Navalny, probably the most prominent protest leader, is facing a court-case on politically motivated charges. A much-trumpeted (but selectively applied) anti-corruption campaign is designed to keep Kremlin-associated elites in check, after many of them had flirted – and a few even joined – the opposition.

In many ways, this is very similar to what Putin did in the early 2000s, when he had just come to power. Bit by bit he used the law to take on the individuals and institutions that had dared to challenge him, while showing the oligarchs that they could keep their property and freedom if they steered clear of politics. However, it is uncertain whether this old approach will succeed again. Unlike in the early 2000s, when the dissent really emanated from a limited number of prominent actors (mainly oligarchs and the media), this time the protest mood is deeply felt within society. Putting Alexei Navalny in prison will not make protests go away, and closing NGOs will not change the fact that people are self-organising to make up for the failings of a disorganised government that is unable to provide elementary services. Putin is addressing “the winter of dissent” by shooting the messengers instead of dealing with the core problem: the corrupt and inefficient system of government.

So far, the Putinist system has kept itself afloat thanks to the influx of oil and gas money. Now, however, the economy is showing signs of slowdown even before the decline in oil and gas prices has properly kicked in. The pie is getting smaller; and there are painful dilemmas. There is urgent economic need to reform, but at significant social cost, which – given the already unhappy population – is risky. Maintaining public expenditure needs money that will be hard to find at current oil and gas prices. Russia needs to modernise to wean itself off its dependency on raw materials, but this would require difficult political reforms and cooperation from the antagonised “creative classes”, many of whom are contemplating emigration. Political and economic corruption also needs tackling, but this would erode the basis of the Putinist system, which buys the loyalty of the elites with the possibility of self-enrichment. 

Putin has got used to having it all: abundant economic as well as political resources have been at his disposal during his first two terms. Now, both of these resources are drying up, forcing him to choose between different constituencies, loyalties, priorities, and even worldviews. Having it all is no longer possible, and the choices made at this point will not only determine the lifespan of Putin’s rule, but will also have meaningful implications for post-Putin Russia.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.