NY Dispatches: Putin’s pitch

As voting commences in Russia’s plebiscite on Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reform the president is making his safest pitch to voters. But Putin cannot avoid making the vote about himself and people whose cooperation he needs to keep governing will know the real result. This may change their calculus. To see what this means, look at Belarus.

The oddest twist yet in the Russian politics of 2020 may just be that at the last moment before a plebiscite on Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reform, the Kremlin seems to be trying to make the vote about a Putin who “gets things done” rather than about Putin the institution or Putin the protector of conservative values, the two personas that the Russian president seems to have perfected – to the detriment of his more pragmatic self – in the past couple of years.

Putin’s televised speech, for which he somehow managed to be an hour late even as the statement appeared to have been recorded two hours prior, certainly gave this impression. The president spent almost the entire speech focusing on measures to help citizens and businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic – most of which had been adopted earlier and were only extended – while only casually mentioning the referendum or the constitutional amendments. The centerpiece seemed to be the introduction of a new tax bracket for yearly incomes above 5 million rubles, with a 15% rate.

The 15 percent tax rate may end Russia’s flat-rate system, but it will not affect the overwhelming majority of Russians. Based on Rosstat’s data on wages we can estimate that less of 0.5 percent of Russians living on a salary will be affected. Putin himself estimated the fiscal effect of the new bracket at 60 billion rubles, about 0.3 percent of Russia’s planned budgetary revenues in 2020. Meduza calculated that depending on how the proposed amendment is written into law, its fiscal effect could be slightly higher than this, but it will likely have a moderate redistributive effect, since most of the differential would stay in the budgets of the wealthiest regions. In short, it looks more like a symbolic deed than an actually transformative policy.

And this is likely the point. The symbolic tax reform and the lengthy, boring details of federal support schemes, together with recent publicity around the referendum, which included Putin admitting that the “zeroing” of his presidential term count primarily serves to avoid instability as the political elite would otherwise jockey for positions, seem to send the message that even if the instability of the mad 1990s is not Putin’s only alternative, it is his most likely alternative. That he is the devil Russians know and therefore he is still their best chance to fix the injustices created by unfortunate events such as the breakup of the Soviet Union and by an ungrateful West – that is, not by Putin and his system – one two-percent tax hike at a time.  

Considering the situation, Putin’s pitch to Russian voters is not terrible. It is far from the glorification that he may have expected at the beginning of the year, but it is probably the safest bet at this point, and it is not surprising that a risk-avoiding tactician like Putin would take it.

One thing, however, Putin cannot change: he needs the vote to be about himself, even if that means a different self. And this puts him in an uncomfortable position.

We are at a point where most people in the political and business elite will be looking at a time horizon beyond Putin. Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, for example, had to know that his opposition to Putin’s plans to reopen the capital ahead of its time, will put him in a difficult position, yet he went as far as he realistically could without turning on the Kremlin openly. Sobyanin’s ratings may be falling now, but he, like many others, are in for the long haul.

While it seems unlikely that the official result of the plebiscite will be significantly different from the Kremlin’s expectations, the officials whose cooperation is vital to maintain the semblance that the system is working, will know the real result of the vote and they will therefore know how significant a task they will likely be asked to accomplish, should Putin decide to run again in 2024 – or earlier. The vote will inform the political elite and public servants about the feasibility of Putin actually running for another term.

They are already experiencing a growing pressure to prioritize Putin’s pet projects over common sense: to hold Victory Day parades even as the pandemic is sweeping through the regions; to register hundreds of thousands of people to vote electronically and monitor if they actually vote, even as this immediately reflects badly on them; to popularize Putin’s hack job of an essay abroad, even as they and their audience probably both know better. And some are politely objecting.

Depending on the real results of the plebiscite their calculus might change. What might happen when this calculus changes is unfolding in front of our eyes in Belarus, where due to growing problems with the government’s economic model the calculus has been changing for years; and where, shortly before a presidential vote in August, informed rumors spread that Alexander Lukashenko’s real rating was around 3%.

Unlike Belarus, Russia will probably not erupt into protests before or after the constitutional plebiscite. But just like in Belarus where Lukashenko recently appointed a government composed entirely of siloviki and relied heavily on his security service, the KGB to crack down on his presidential rivals, growing doubts about the acquiescence of public servants and civil leaders in Russia will almost certainly lead to a growing clout of the security elite. And some of them, as if by coincidence, have recently felt it important to signal openly that they shared Putin’s view of the world.

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