Undoubtedly, the political highlight of the past week was the founding congress of the All-Russian People’s Front (ONF), or, as it is now called, the People’s Front for Russia, the political project of the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, and a tribute act to its elected chairman, Vladimir Putin. Well, for Russia-watchers, at least. As Kirill Kobrin pointed out in this week’s Power Vertical Podcast, the congress did not manage to draw much attention, even in educated circles interested in politics. Almost concurrently, Sergey Sobyanin, the Mayor of Moscow who resigned on 4 June, announced that he would be running as an independent candidate rather than a candidate of United Russia. This is quite unsurprising: as I have remarked quite a while ago, Sobyanin most likely belongs to the power group led by Volodin. Therefore, the juxtaposition of the announcement and the congress of ONF may as well be symbolic. But are these momentous things, happening in the upper echelons of the elite really important only to those directly affected? The answer is a little more complicated.
First of all, we have to understand the rationale behind Sobyanin’s decision to resign and call early elections. Most of the commentaries focused on the opposition and suspected that Sobyanin was eager to get elected as long as the opposition was not popular enough to dethrone or embarrass him. This is however only one side of the story, and the weaker reason out of the two that probably prompted Sobyanin’s decision.
Right place, right time
Those who place this understanding in the foreground risk overlooking that the point of gravity of today’s political conflicts is not between the “Kremlin” or the “authorities” and the opposition but within the political elite which is increasingly far from being monolithic. Take for example the fact that only a couple of months ago Sobyanin openly spoke against early elections. Did the non-systemic opposition do something that scared Sobyanin into resigning? Hardly. Possible opposition candidates, with the notable exception of Alexei Navalny, are not exactly stepping over each other to get nominated. Mind you, seeing the slow progress of the opposition’s galvanisation in the past year and a half, it would probably be safe to speculate that even in 2015, Sobyanin would have stood a pretty good chance.
Thus, something, somewhere else must have happened to convince Sobyanin of changing his mind. I suspect this something to have been the realisation, after the events of the past couple of months that the intra-elite competition was getting hotter but not hot enough to explode prematurely. Put it another way, Sobyanin was not afraid of the opposition, he was rather afraid of another pro-government candidate. His choice to run as an independent candidate underlines the fact that, as I have blogged several times before, the main front line in the elite runs between proponents of the People’s Front and those who are keen to keep United Russia and its massive administrative power in place. Sobyanin is part of the former group.
In light of Surkov’s dismissal and the upheaval that followed Sobyanin probably rightly felt that instead of biding his time, he had to throw his hat into the ring right now. This way he will be able to kill two birds with one stone: not only is he almost sure to be elected and able to show off his skills of a politician able to win a competitive election (a must for anyone seeking to succeed Putin), but he will have a more or less safe and influential office until 2018. In other words, he will be at the table where a happy few decide about the succession of Putin.
Furthermore, taking this step now was convenient for Sobyanin, as his team is on a winning streak. The People’s Front may not be interesting to politically minded Russians, but then again, it was not made for them. The impeccably Soviet-style settings of the congress and the organisation itself reflect that the main purpose of ONF is exactly what Putin stated on many occasions: to find a new way of communication between the President and the voters, to establish a sort of direct democracy or – as Mark Galeotti called it in the said podcast – a false corporatism.
A new social contract
To understand why Putin needs such a thing we first have to consider the state of the Russian public sphere. As I pointed out before, the state of Russian politics – on all levels from voters to the elite – is best described as a state of patience.
The ‘social contract’ that cemented the political ‘deafness’ of the society during Putin’s first two terms evaporated with the crisis and falling energy prices. As he is unable to ensure the previous cash flow to everyone, he now needs to establish a smaller coalition both within the elite and among voters. And the shrinking of the supportive coalition makes two things particularly difficult: establishing a balance (within the elite) and keeping up a benevolent political idleness among voters. The establishment of the People’s Front as a political entity solves these problems only partially: it institutionalises the new popular coalition, it reinforces the existence of conflicting structures within the shrinking elite coalition and it creates a chain between the two, in case the competition at the top got two hot. I suspect that in the foreseeable future we will see many more political stunts, projecting a leader-like image from Putin as in the past couple of years.
However, in order to make this work, Putin will have to accept the ‘state of patience’ as the social contract of his third – and last – term. In this system, he is not loved but tolerated enough by voters and by the elite to have enough leeway in selecting his successor. It is exactly the state of patience what cements the present political apathy in Russia. From the aspect of power politics, this can be seen as a piece of wealth bearing a future value. A ‘political futures market’ as Brian Whitmore called it (in a slightly different context). The promise of a place at the table and an orderly succession for the siloviki; a hope of desirable change – whatever this may be – for the majority of the population.
And this is exactly the problem with the People’s Front. The fact that it may turn out as good tactics but bad strategy. Preventing a coup now, it puts Vladimir Putin to the helm of Russian politics once again: the national leader who keeps in direct contact with his people, the decider that cannot be circumvented. However, if the People’s Front will project that Putin cannot be replaced either, he will lose exactly what, for the time being, helps him to stay in the saddle: the state of patience. It will be like a second castling. A highly dangerous move with uncertain outcomes.
Unless, of course, Putin wants to gamble – on energy prices, or on some kind of geopolitical earthquake. Nevertheless, his career so far has shown that he would rather play safe. And if he does intend to do so, he will have to solve this dilemma.