For the want of better

Just a couple of months ago, it might have seemed that the theme of Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential campaign would be the story of a strong leader in a country besieged from all sides. Diverting the anger of voters towards an imaginary foreign enemy when things go south domestically is an old trick, one that Putin himself had successfully used in the past. Yet, by all accounts, Putin decided not to go with this strategy. The world around him hardly changed; Russia has not convincingly emerged from its economic crisis, either. So why does this decision make sense to Putin? And how can it backfire?

Playing for two theatres

Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign will, for the first time, target both a domestic and a foreign audience, much like electoral campaigns in the United States. Obviously, this is not the first time that a Russian electoral campaign is under close scrutiny abroad, or even that the rulers of the country are eager to project an image: the 1996 presidential campaign, for instance, needed to project the image of a stable, yet democratic country. This time, however, the Russian government will itself decide what kind of message the election has to carry.

Thus, targeting a foreign audience does not mean that the president will insist on the election appearing democratic. It means that the election has to appear legitimate. And the concept of legitimacy in the Russian president’s projected world is very different from the concept of legitimacy in a democratic country. Nonetheless, it is a concept that has gradually been gaining acceptance in European countries, and which, if Putin manages to pull off an election victory with flying colours and parade it in the face of what many (wrongly) see as a politically sclerotic West, will receive an important boost.

The 2018 presidential election may very well become a part of Russia’s soft power. Admittedly, Russia does not have many instruments to project its soft power. One of the few tools that it does have, is anti-rules populism: the idea that the established rules of international law, the unwritten, but essential rules of a healthy liberal democracy – which are sometimes called political correctness – the iron law of facts, have to be challenged or ignored. It is easy to dismiss this phenomenon as a string of falsehoods fed to gullible people, but in fact, many in the West (not to mention Russia), especially young people, embrace the idea that unpleasant rules and facts can be brushed aside with sheer force and swagger.

Accepting this grotesque political masculinity as a source of legitimacy does not require foreign audiences to like Russia, the country. However, it helps if Russia is not seen as a threat. It is not a coincidence that the tone of the presidential campaign is remarkably less confrontational than it could be after nearly four years of economic sanctions that will likely continue at least through this year, public spats with EU leaders and a recent, humiliating decision to ban Russian athletes from the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. This is a conscious decision.

This also does not mean that Putin will take less risks abroad. As Julia Ioffe pointed out in December, despite his image of a careful broker in the delicate cobweb of interest groups in the Russian deep state, when it comes to foreign policy, Putin is actually a risk taker. This is mostly due to the simple fact that authoritarian leaders have always been prone to take more risks in the field of foreign policy than democratic leaders who have a significantly larger and more volatile selectorate, and are thus easier punished for costly adventurism. This often involves wars, but not necessarily. It also explains why the democratic leaders of the EU are so painfully hamstrung by its insistence on “proportionate responses”. But Putin is also a risk taker in foreign policy because, in all likelihood after pulling off the annexation of Crimea, he does in fact believe that he has got it all figured out, as opposed to, for instance, economic policy.

Running alone

Putin feels that he does not need to invoke foreign policy in the domestic political theatre either. Arguing that Russia is surrounded by enemies, yet turning down the intensity of Russia’s military operations abroad, yet having to explain military losses in Syria, yet trying to avoid new sanctions, is in fact complicated, so he is not going to make this point. And contrary to what many suppose, Putin is not forced to rely on a constant series of foreign policy successes domestically, at least for now. Certainly, there is some sparring with the United States over media outlets and there is Putin calling Alexei Navalny an American agent, but these are very likely the products of old reflexes in an interior policy establishment heavily dominated by the security services, rather than attempts to show that Russia is indeed besieged. In this field, the Kremlin might very well have become reactive, rather than proactive, as Gleb Pavlovsky noted in his end-of-the-year remarks for Fontanka.

The point, however, is that right now, Putin does not need to be proactive. As Valery Solovei pointed out – also for Fontanka – even though the Kremlin can act unrestricted in less areas than before, wherever it can act, it can act with a good degree of success. And portraying Putin as the only man standing is certainly one of these areas.

If the Russian president casts himself as the symbol of an alternative way of doing politics abroad, domestically he is casting himself as someone without an alternative (or “alternativlos”, to use a brilliantly concise word that German political commentators have used to describe, among others, Angela Merkel). The Kremlin does not even try to hide the fact that “opposition” candidates are quasi-employed by the government structures, any more. In 2012, Mikhail Prokhorov might have seemed like an unpalatable, but relatively independent candidate to many. In 2018 Ksenia Sobchak, Prokhorov’s successor in the political theatre that is the presidential election, is not even trying to hide her strong personal ties to the president. Boris Titov, cast as the “pro-business candidate” is running while he is still working under the president as Russia’s business ombudsman. Sergey Mironov who in 2004 was the first fake opposition candidate, is not even running. Rumours that Putin might participate in a debate with Pavel Grudinin, the communist candidate, in the unlikely event that they do materialise, would probably see Putin expose the luxury-loving communist businessman as a laughable contradiction. It is very hard to imagine that any of Putin’s counter-candidates would be able to get more than only a couple of percent of the vote. Even independent pollsters measure Putin’s share of the vote between 70 and 80 percent.

The death of Putin

So where is the catch?

Whether Putin’s appearing alternativlos is a message for the political elite or Russian voters is questionable. The president has reason to think that, given the strong assumption that his next term will be his last, many are already actively looking for his replacement. All the grotesque backstabbing and realignment of the governing elite that followed Stalin’s death in 1953 (and to which Armando Iannucci’s satirical film does justice perfectly) would happen while Putin is still alive and kicking. This is simply because while it was nearly impossible to predict when Stalin might die – unless you tried to poison him – it is fairly easy to count down to 2024. Spreading the fight for positions out over six years may reduce the amount of blood spilled, but it risks paralysing the executive.

It seems that at this point, most still accept Putin’s supremacy. Once the president publicly approved the show trial of Alexei Ulyukayev at his press conference in December, the court delivered a severe verdict and, as Oleg Kashin observed, the Russian elite, driven by an old Soviet reflex of having to choose between survival and meddling, chose to forget that Ulyukayev even existed. At the same time, it is difficult to tell whether this was due to Putin’s command or the fact that one of the strongest players in the elite chose to take on a dispensable figure.

But this may as well also be a harbinger of the post-Putin era. After all, it was clear throughout that Sechin, who could have taken down Ulyukayev through much more subtle means, wanted the trial to look wanton and outrageous. With this, he drew a circle – a pretty large one – around himself, and all this with the approval of the president. It remains to be seen how many of the stronger players in the Russian political elite will follow suit and start assaults on each other, looking for a presidential nod; and if they do, how often Putin will be able to shake his head, instead of nodding.

Some are already trying their boundaries: at the beginning of January Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s biggest lenders said that it would stop working with domestic defence enterprises to avoid US sanctions. By this, Alfa is openly questioning the rationality of sticking with the policies of a president who will be out in a couple of years. With possible new sanctions around the corner – especially if these affect Russian sovereign bonds in a year following the expiry of the more easily accessible of Russia’s two reserve funds – Putin’s fourth term will require a significantly higher degree of loyalty from business. And the president might not get it.

The quandary is that while Putin needs to appear alternativlos to govern, he needs the cooperation of Russian voters to appear alternativlos. And it seems that, as Leonid Bershidsky pointed out, an alternativlos Putin does not incite the level of turnout necessary to give legitimacy to his story. A president who, together with his friends and business partners, manages to mobilise a mere 50-55 percent of the society, is a monopoly at best, but not a leader without alternatives.

Vladimir Putin is an undemocratic leader. However, throughout his presidency, he has always insisted on sticking to established procedures, when necessary. In 2008, instead of changing the Russian constitution and running for a third term, he stood aside, officially, for four years. Instead of simply invading Crimea, Putin insisted to stage a sham referendum, following which the puppet leaders of the peninsula voted to become independent and then join Russia.

Putin also has a procedure this time: he will be elected, opposed only by the apathy of Russian citizens, and in 2024, he will most probably step down. The fact that the next six years may still look like an extended version of the grotesque scenes in The Death of Stalin tells scores about the greatest failure of his 18 years in power.


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