Trial by legitimacy

Most Russia-watchers agree that the trial against Alexei Navalny signals the beginning of a new era in Russia. Indeed, there are a lot of similarities with the Khodorkovsky arrest (and trial) in 2003-04, which I will not enumerate in details, and enough differences for this trial to be called the beginning of the end of the Putin era as we know it. It is therefore worth some time to look at the legitimacy situation from a wider angle. What exactly can the Navalny trial do to the political system in Russia?

Sometimes if you want to explain an actual and very specific situation clearly and concisely, you have to reach back to something general and classic. According to the American political science classic Seymour Martin Lipset, there are two kinds of legitimacy in a political sense. One is triggered by effective performance and the other kind is intrinsically present in the system. If these are both strong, a regime is highly stable. If one is weak, the regime enters a transitional period. If however, both get weak, the regime can only survive (for a limited time) if it uses crude force. Have we arrived to this point in Russia already?

On legitimacy

To map the situation of the legitimacy of Putin’s system in Russia, we have to map it in two dimensions, Putin’s two ’constituencies’: the power groups of the elite and the increasingly diverse population.

Putin, arguably, has no such intrinsic legitimacy among the elite. As I have blogged earlier, his main problem in the past year seemed to be that with dwindling oil prices and growing political uncertainty he ran out of carrots and had to rely on the very same elite he wanted to discipline to get his sticks. Surely, the crisis in Cyprus helped a lot to push through the bill on the repatriation of foreign assets of officials, but this would not be enough to keep dissenting opinions at bay. Putin needed a careful re-staffing (both putting his close associates to the helm of strategically important agencies and rebalancing positions among power groups) to make the elite accept that it was in the interest of all if they let Putin choose his own successor. For the same reason, he needed to show the alternative to the ‘orderly’ way of doing politics. And this is exactly Alexei Navalny.

But how much of a real alternative is he? According to a recent survey, while an increasingly large number of Russians are aware of Navalny, he’s still only moderately known (53%). Furthermore, most of the people who know him have expressed growingly unfavourable opinions of him (51% from 31% in February 2012). While obviously there may be doubts about the accuracy of VTsIOM’s data, it is nevertheless clear that the campaign against Navalny is working in some strata of the society.

As far as Putin is concerned, the last ten years, and especially the last couple of years have seen a considerable shift in the popular opinion about him. While in 2003, at the eve of the Khodorkovsky trial 81% of Russians had a favourable or rather favourable opinion about the President, this figure now stands at a mere 50% according to Levada Center. Nevertheless, according to the same survey, only 22% think that Putin should run again in 2016. Almost 30% of Russian voters, while sympathising with him now, possibly for his past record and the ideal he represents, will potentially turn away from him by the end of his term. Moreover, only 8% would be OK with another ‘castling’ (the survey explicitly mentions Medvedev, but it implicitly puts a large question mark to any other hand-picked successor as well).

Therefore, while there is a growing discontent with Putin and whatever he represents to different people both in the elite and in the society, there is also some kind of patience. While a large majority of voters are clearly sick with the thought that Putin might run for office for a fourth time, a slight majority of them are seemingly willing to give him leeway until 2018. While the elite have clearly started elbowing their way to the successor’s seat, they are apparently willing to wait it out and looking for a blessing from Putin.

This is exactly characteristic of the ‘transitional periods’ I mentioned above. Despite the growing hostility towards his system, Putin has a reservoir of legitimacy for his past performance in a large enough chunk of the society to keep his ship afloat for now. He seems to have enough legitimacy within the elite as well, but another kind, contingent upon his ability to deliver wealth and security now and after his departure from power.

The beginning of an era

This is the context of the Navalny trial. Under laboratory conditions, that is. But this is not why it is the beginning of an era.

In 2003, Putin had the 90s to point at. A lot of people believed Khodorkovsky to be guilty because they needed someone to be punished for all the mess of the Russian transition and Putin rightly felt that Khodorkovsky would make an excellent scapegoat. In 2013, however, for the want of the 90s (or for the existence of the 00s), he has to resort to the much riskier path of character assassination with a very dubious end game.

In 2003, with the crashing of Khodorkovsky and Yukos, Putin strengthened his performance-driven legitimacy in the elite through demonstrating that he presided over the redistribution of wealth in the post-90s era, and he also reinforced his already existing charismatic legitimacy in his extended voter base. In 2013, however, he has to show exactly the opposite picture to his two ‘constituencies’. Surely, it would help him make the elite rally around him if he made them believe that at this point, Navalny is the only alternative to an ‘orderly’ succession. But from Putin’s point of view it would be disastrous if Russian voters actually believed the same. Therefore, the most he can do is to make people believe that Navalny is in fact just as corrupt as the system is.

But for that, a rigged trial as in 2003 won’t be enough. Not after more than a decade of a different political system, not in the era of widespread internet access and a drastically changed society.  For all he can do, Putin may get a sentence, but if he doesn’t manage to convince the real jury – Russian voters – that Navalny’s corrupt, he won’t get a conviction.

It’s doubtful whether the president still has the means for an act of make-believe of such measure. His carefully orchestrated, smoothly operated and sometimes surrealistic live-show this week showed that he probably thought that he still had it. If he doesn’t, the trial might be just enough to push everything out of limbo and sentence the system to a truly very different era of illegitimacy.

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