Russia has changed and Vladimir Putin has run out of ideas. Although he will still win the Russian presidential election, Putin faces the biggest ever challenge to his power once he re-enters the Kremlin.
All authoritarian regimes are based on a mix of coercion and inspiration, fear and promise. But to be successful, authoritarian leaders need to stand for something. The more convincing their ideational offer, the less coercion they have to use and the cheaper and more lasting the system is likely to be. Thus, the autocrats of this world routinely use various ideologies – from Islamism to communism and from monarchism to anti-colonialism – as their ideological foundations. But the moment they exhaust their ideational drive, their countdown starts.
This is the situation Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, finds himself in. Over the years Putin became associated with a set of ideas he stood for and campaigned on. These ideas were convincing and appealing to most of the Russian public. When he came to power in 1999-2000 Putin’s key selling point was the promise of wiping out terrorism and fending off threats to Russian territorial integrity. With a new war in Chechnya raging and bombings of apartments blocks in several Russian cities including Moscow this was both urgent and salient.
In the 2003-2004 election cycle Putin launched and then rode a wave of anti-oligarchic sentiment with promises to fight corruption, clean up the economic system and squeeze the super-rich. As part of that campaign Khodorkosvky was put in prison. The 2007-2008 campaign season was all centred on Russia’s newly found geopolitical greatness and ‘standing up from its knees’, as the phenomenon was advertised by pro-Kremlin loyalists. It was all expressed through intense anti-Western hysteria invoking the dangers of US-sponsored a colour revolution and geopolitical encirclement. This is how over the years Putin chipped into the ideological profile of what could conventionally be termed as Putinism.
But Putin has nearly run out of ideational appeal. He has preciously few new ideas to oil his frailing political system. His old promises are smashed by Russia’s reality and he lacks new ones. This is one of the reasons why Putin faces the biggest ever challenge to his power.
The promise of restoring territorial integrity is now hitting Putin back as a boomerang. Whereas Putin came to power on a wave of patriotic upheaval and readiness to ‘die for the Caucasus’, now a majority of 62% of citizens now support the slogan of ‘stop feeding the Caucasus’. Putin’s Potemkin war with the oligarchs is also exposed as almost all the super-rich of the 90s remained so, but their numbers swelled through many of Putin’s personal friends. Moscow tops the global lists of homes of billionaires with 79 of them, compared to 59 for New York and 19 for Beijing. And even though the Russian economy is four times smaller than the Chinese economy, it has 101 billionaires, compared to China’s 115. For some in Russia this is something of a badge of honour, but for most it is just another sign of how skewed, corrupt and unfair the Russian economic system is.
As for Russia’s greatness, it is much more difficult to boast of it in times of economic crises, as it is difficult to blame everything on the Americans when Obama is far from the convenient bogeyman that Bush was. And anyway the dysfunctionality of Putin’s system based on high levels of corruption, insecure business environment, and numerous abuses of the state apparatus is more salient than Western geopolitical scheming.
Putin’s other promises have also been smashed by realities. The 'vertical of power' turned into a sham. The ‘dictatorship of law’ turned into increased corruption with Russia falling from the 90th place in the world to the 143rd Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index between 2004 and 2011.
PR-stunts and macho posing replaced whatever ideas Putin tried to project. In the last couple of years his public profile was reduced to a stream of photographs and youtube-able videos with Putin posing bare-chested on a hunt, discovering underwater Byzantine amphorae during dives, or singing ‘Blueberry Hills’. This was all ‘cool’ in form but devoid of content. And whereas in his early career Putin’s posing in fighter jets and tanks served the purpose of showing his vigour and energy that contrasted with that of the old and ailing Eltsin, now Putin’s posing just make him look like someone who is bored or life and in continuous search of fun things to do.
This has been obvious for some time, but tolerable as long as Dmitry Medvedev pretended to be a real and president and covered the ideational ground by thundering about the need to fight corruption and modernise the economy and political system. With Medvedev pushed aside, Putin’s ideational emptiness is more obvious than ever. Worse still (for Putin), Medvedev’s presidency itself played a role in the de-legitimisation of Putin by raising the bar of expectations vis-à-vis the government regarding the need to modernise the country and fight corruption.
Even if Putin is weaker than he used to be, he is not weak. His current election campaign was rather successful. He managed to disorient the opposition by playing it rather well at its own game- convening massive public rallies. His campaign was designed to instil fear of return of the instability of 90s, spiced up with some anti-Americanism and fears of ‘coloured revolutions’, promises of more social spending, the rhetorical question of ‘If not Putin then who else?’ and infusions of short-term steroidal public endorsements from public personalities like the Russian Patriarch Kirill or Chulpan Khamatova, a famous Russian actress who played in ‘Goodbye Lenin’.
None of these elements of campaign amount to a narrative of what Putin stands for, but it seems to have worked in the short term. It managed to galvanize his electoral core, while putting the opposition on the defensive. Yet, steroids boost short term performance, but damage long term health. Without a bigger narrative, it will be much more difficult for him to hide that Putinism is about little else than Putin’s personal power.
ECFR has published 'The end of the Putin consensus', a policy memo by Ben Judah and Andrew Wilson, about the challenges facing Vladimir Putin once he re-enters the Kremlin.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.