Putin’s endgame? Part 1: the problem of power

In the first part of No Yardstick’s series on the issues shaping Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term, we will first look at the core psychological question of the term: the projection of power in a period most think will be transitory. Vladimir Putin’s trust rating, according to VTsIOM, a state pollster has fallen by ten points between January and March. Turnout at the presidential election that confirmed, with a sweeping majority, his fourth term, did not live up to his advisors’ expectations, even according to official figures. Most importantly, Putin has faced challenges in two fields very important for his political persona, which seemingly caught him off-guard.

There is nothing that an authoritarian leader tries to avoid more than showing signs of weakness. Projecting an air of undisputed and uncompromised power can make even the staunchest opponents of a leader grudgingly play along or forget about alternatives. Supporters of authoritarian leaders are also very often drawn to power, especially if the regime lacks a core ideology or fails to produce desirable practical outcomes. Once cracks appear on the façade of absolute or near-absolute power, even core supporters may turn against an autocrat.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia does not sport a strong state ideology, despite the surge of orthodox conservativism in past years. And it has certainly failed to produce desirable outcomes for a large part of the population lately, especially when compared to Putin’s first two terms in power. But this is not the only reason for Putin to avoid looking weak. As long as there is a tacit understanding in the Russian political elite that Putin’s fourth presidential term (and fifth term as the paramount leader of Russia) will be his last, he needs to show that his only alternative is chaos: that he is the only person able to govern the country and the only guarantee of the survival of Russia’s political elite – otherwise those preparing for Putin’s succession will take matters into their own hands.

And Vladimir Putin’s fourth term in office could not have taken off to a worse start, two months before he is going to be effectively sworn in, on the morrow of the election where the official turnout, even with the enormous public pressure exerted on voters and documented falsification, has failed to reach the 70 percent desired by the Presidential Administration (and where the real turnout was quite possibly much lower). In the course of only a couple of weeks, the president had to face some sudden and uncomfortable challenges, for which he and his government were clearly unprepared. Worse still, he showed hesitation and weakness.

The tale of the good tsar and the bad boyars

Putin’s popular support, especially within his core electorate of countryside voters, greatly relies on the notion that the corruption and bad governance that Russians have to suffer day by day are the products of a rotten political elite, which surrounds a well-intentioned president who simply cannot be everywhere at once. Where he turns up, however – either on TV or personally – he reins in on bad managers and treacherous oligarchs. The pinnacle of this role was his performance in Pikalyovo, a crisis-ridden industrial town where in 2009 he publicly humiliated none other than Oleg Deripaska, the second-tier oligarch whose name the world has begun to learn in past months due to his business being targeted by American sanctions and ordered him to reopen the town’s cement factory. Countless similar scenes followed in later years, including on television. It was the source of great amusement when in 2016 following Putin’s answer to a call liver on air, in which ordered local officials to pave roads in Omsk, workers started paving the roads while the president’s Q&A was still on. It was essential for Putin to maintain this routine: while structural reforms were hardly possibly in Russia’s kleptocratic political system, performances like this helped to maintain the illusion that citizens did indeed have a key to solve certain problems if they remained loyal and reached high enough.

This myth was challenged in Kemerovo, a Siberian industrial city where on 25 March more than 60 people, most of them children, died in a mall blaze. It quickly became obvious that the tragedy was largely the consequence of the incompetence of responders and negligence of local officials. When real-life consequences of endemic corruption become so tragically clear, people often find the motivation to push for meaningful changes that they otherwise lack. Protests following a similar blaze in 2015 were the immediate cause of the fall of a government in Romania. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in protest against corruption and abuse of power by petty officials started the Arab Spring in 2011.

This will not happen in Russia. Yet, the anger of locals with the region’s arrogant leaders was palpable. Vladimir Putin who, in response to the tragedy, traveled to Kemerovo, did promise to punish those responsible and listened to the region’s governor, Aman Tuleyev, apologise to him (rather than to locals). However, he avoided meeting locals, most of whom wanted a word with president. In fact, as he left his motorcade to lay flowers in honour of the victims in a sealed-off, empty street, he seemed lonely, old and shaken – a shadow of his third-term self.

And then, the unimaginable happened: Tuleyev, one of Russia’s longest-standing governors, suddenly resigned. A Yeltsin-era heavyweight (he was appointed to head the region in 1997), he had been considered unmovable, and while his dismissal had been quietly and carefully prepared by the Kremlin, Tuleyev robbed Moscow of the opportunity to do it their way. His decision put his deputy, Sergei Tsivilyev in charge of the region as caretaker governor. Tsivilyev is not native to the region. He was appointed as an outsider – Varangian, as such officials are referred to in the Russian political lingo – to tame and balance out Tuleyev. He has clearly been the successor preferred by Moscow, however, last week he showed the same weakness that ultimately made Tuleyev’s position untenable: by accusing one of the grieving parents of “self-promotion”, he showed that he is also completely out of touch with locals.

Tuleyev was uncomfortably similar to someone much more important. He was appointed to head the region following an unrest in the coal-rich Kuzbass. He fashioned himself as an antidote to the “chaotic nineties”. He took the wind out of the sail of protest by generous handouts. He built a strong local patronage network by controlling access to the region’s market and requiring local business to support his political initiatives. He created a quasi-mythical political personality for himself and made everyone believe that due to his vertical and his personality, he is the only person capable of running the political entity, with which he was entrusted. Does it sound familiar?

But there was another, even more uncomfortable reading of the story. Never before had a leading politician in Vladimir Putin’s Russia forced out of office by protests against the president’s will. Tuleyev’s resignation thus possibly meant that the president was unable or unwilling to provide protection for high-ranking officials at all times; indeed, if he was now no longer immune to the anger of citizens, he was ready to pin the blame on his allies. This reading was definitely present, even if it was not what actually happened.

Putin’s problem is that similar tragedies are likely to happen in several other regions too. In fact, they are already happening. Citizens in Volokolamsk, a town in the Moscow Region, have taken to the streets after toxic gases from a local landfill caused a health crisis, again, harming mostly children. Local authorities, again, first tried to put pressure on protesters. This did not work. Protests continued and very soon, Alexander Shestun, the head of another of the region’s districts turned to Putin, accusing the head of the region, Andrey Vorobyov, of threatening him with prison over their dispute regarding waste shipments. Only days later, news appeared about the consolidation of waste collection in the region: RT Invest, co-owned by the state conglomerate Rostec, headed by Sergey Chemezov, a close Putin ally, won a 109-billion-ruble contract. It might almost seem as if certain power groups used the newfound confidence of local protesters to jockey for positions.

Vorobyov, as of today, is still governor. His future at the helm of the region, however, is questionable at best. Appointed to head the region in 2013, he is a typical example of the post-modern politician produced by the past decade who only appears on camera and manages a parallel reality but does nothing palpable in practice. Following his appointment, the number of employees of the local administration increased from a couple of hundreds to tens of thousands. A considerable number of the new recruits were primarily tasked with managing Vorobyov’s media persona and political PR, on which the governor spent more than a billion roubles of the budget of the affluent region. There are ample reasons to dismiss the governor or push for his resignation and there are many power brokers in Moscow who would be happy to see him go. But again, he is uncomfortably similar to a certain political ideal; and the short time between his eventual dismissal and Tuleyev’s resignation would be disconcerting to many.

Should Putin start firing governors and risk seeing that he is bowing to popular pressure, even if this is not always so? Or should he defend his underlings at all costs, and risk letting people connect the dots and make Putin responsible for the corruption that his system created?

The aftermath of Tuleyev’s downfall and the fate of Vorobyov will tell scores about the years that await Russia. For one, whether Tsivilyev succeeds or makes things even worse in Kemerovo may be an indication of whether Putin will have serious problems with increasingly restive regions in the coming years. The awkward similarities between Putin and Tuleyev as well as Putinism and Vorobyov may also prompt some in the Russian political elite to question the myths around Putin.

The foreign policy genius

The Kemerovo and Volokolamsk protests questioned Putin’s strength in front of two of his important audiences: Russians in the country’s industrial belt and officials that Putin’s system helped to form and raise. But Putin’s judgement was challenged in yet another way in the past month, which may yet prove costlier. The liberal democracies of the West have come up with an admirably strong response to the poisoning of the double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in London. Dozens of primarily EU and NATO countries decided to expel more than 100 Russian diplomats. This is a major foreign policy blunder to Russia, as well as a considerable blow to its foreign intelligence networks. The latest set of sanctions introduced by the United States for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election brought the aluminum giant Rusal to its knees and weakened the rouble. And despite Donald Trump’s reluctance to introduce sanctions on Russia for its role in the Syrian government’s chemical attacks, the Skripal sanctions are probably not the last ones that Russia has seen from the West. Countries have (so far) stopped short of boycotting this year’s FIFA World Cup in the country, but this is still in the cards. Angela Merkel whose government seemed to give green light to Nord Stream 2, a pipeline project coveted by Russia, has recently introduced important caveats into the deal.

Indeed, while a year ago, the talk in Western capitals was about phasing out sanctions, today they seem to be the new normal.

“I am Russia and I chronically underestimate the effect of my confrontation with the West,” is what Yevgeny Karasyuk, writing on Republic.ru recently suggested the representative of the Russian government should say at an imaginary “Developing Countries Anonymous” meeting. The belief that has helped Vladimir Putin keep grumbling elites at bay so far, amidst EU and US sanctions against Russia, was that in the field of foreign policy, Putin has it all figured out: that he will always know how far Russia can go without eliciting a strong response from a cautious and divided West. This came with spreading at least three illusions. Firstly, that since Russia is able to replace Western capital with Chinese capital, Western food with home-grown food, it is practically immune to sanctions. Secondly, that sanctions do more harm to the EU and the US than they do to Russia, and – thirdly – therefore the West has exhausted its toolbox of sanctions and Russia cannot be surprised any more. The remarkable unity of Western democracies following the Skripal assassination attempt and the obvious bite of the American sanctions showed that these are indeed only illusions. The first illusion, created for political purposes, did not only make the Russian economy more dependent on Chinese influence – something that a considerable part of the Russian political elite dreaded – but it has also stifled any honest discussion about the real effects of sanctions (e.g. that they contributed to halving Russia’s growth potential relative to other comparable emerging markets in the foreseeable future, or, as the former finance minister Alexei Kudrin warned, shaved at least 0.5 percentage points off of this potential), thereby contributing to the second illusion. Sanctions did not hurt the West more than they did Russia, only the discussion about their effect has been more open and more honest in the West than in Russia. The third illusion was shattered by the latest American sanctions – for reasons both good and bad.

For sanctions to bite, it might suffice for them to be surprising. For sanctions to make a difference, however, the causes and links between crime and punishment should be clear. And presently, as with the latest American sanctions, this is not always the case.  Driving a wedge between the effective selectorate – in Russia’s case, the political and business elite – and the leader is usually an effective way of influencing the leader. However, if the goal of sanctions is to trigger a certain change in behaviour, red lines should be clearly visible and sanctions should be automatic. The Skripal case was an appropriate red line. So would be Russia’s support to the Syrian government or any breach of the EU’s energy laws. Calling into question Nord Stream 2 – as Merkel now seems to be doing, albeit belatedly –, raising the possibility of a boycott of the FIFA World Cup in Russia and going after Vladimir Putin’s money in the West are all appropriate answers which could easily be linked to the problematic behavior. Extrajudicial killings should trigger diplomatic expulsions and seizing Putin’s assets. Foul play with energy pipelines should trigger scrapping building permits. Aiding chemical attacks in Syria should lead (at the very least) to humiliating the Russian government with a football boycott.

There are ways for Russia to deal with the sanctions. The central bank may turn the recently bailed-out Promsvyazbank into a bank servicing the defense sector that also faces international sanctions, thereby effectively creating dual economies. The government may introduce reciprocal sanctions as it has done before, for their political effects. The government may look for alternatives in the field of economic planning as well as financing, e.g. Chinese investments or an alliance with OPEC. And of course, it can further engage in denial. However, as it becomes increasingly clear that Putin’s judgement can be wrong and the diplomatic channels for keeping a dialogue with the EU and the US running are getting narrower by every new sanction, the Russian president may face the unpleasant choice of either showing weakness or going all-in and making it clear that as long as he is there to stay, so are the years of want.


This is Part 1 of a series of articles looking at Putin’s fourth presidential term.

In Part 2, I am going to be looking at the likely shape of the new government both in terms of composition and policies, with a special focus on two cases that may very well characterize what we are going to see in the next years: the embezzlement case against the Magomedov brothers, and the Russian government’s whack-a-mole attempts to ban the Telegram messenger.

In Part 3, I am going to zoom in on a country where Vladimir Putin might pull off an unlikely foreign policy victory: Armenia.

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