With presidential elections looming on the horizon, the Kremlin faces difficult choices about how to preserve social and economic stability without overreaching its authority.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the meeting with the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

Hundreds of Russians took to the streets last week in central St. Petersburg to protest a controversial decision of the local authorities to hand over an important city landmark, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site and an important museum since 1917, to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the minds of many Russians, the takeover sends a symbolic message to society: the Kremlin plans to step up its policy of social and religious conservatism.

This issue is particularly relevant for Russia in 2017 as it attempts to deal with an economic crisis at home, geopolitical instability abroad, and the looming presidential election in 2018. Given the number of political variables, say some experts, the state may start to take a more active role in spheres such as religion and culture in order to assert some sort of stability in society.

This was a recurring theme at the recent Gaidar Economic Forum in Moscow, where participants addressed the country’s political challenges and the relationship between the state and the population. One of the discussions, organized by the Valdai Club and the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), outlined current and future social trends in Russia and assessed to what extent the authorities are ready to respond to the current challenges.

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It’s here that the example of St. Isaac’s Cathedral is particularly instructive. By handing over the landmark to the church, the authorities may be seeking to appeal to traditional values, while implicitly calling on Russian citizens to shy away from Western values and liberalism. The government appears to be going ahead with its decision despite the fact that the St. Petersburg activists gathered at least 160,000 signatures on a petition to revoke the local government's plan to hand over the cathedral.

This case is a vivid manifestation of how the Kremlin sees current domestic policy, and the state’s willingness to sign off on the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church might give some hints as to how the Kremlin will frame its political agenda in 2017.

The social compact between state and society

One of the problems currently facing the Russian government is defining its relationship with society: What does it give to the people and what does it take or require from them? In a best case, of course, there would be a balance in this relationship. According to Valery Fedorov, the head of WCIOM, defining this relationship should the key question for the authorities and their success depends primarily on the ability to maintain a balance and satisfy the population.

Framing the nation’s identity is crucial in this regard, because it mobilizes people around the leader and contributes to maintaining the balance. Without the clear understanding of one’s identity, a country is likely to collapse, Fedorov argues. Andrei Fursenko, a presidential aid, agrees. The government should come up with clear goals and guides and convey them to people, he said.

No wonder, then, that the Kremlin strongly promotes a conservative agenda – in many ways, it is meant to help the nation cope with an identity crisis and reconfirm the traditional values that many Russians have been yearning for since the annexation of Crimea. Amidst the conservative surge, Russians are starting to identify themselves as part of a great nation that is ready to sacrifice well-being and economic prosperity for the sake of abstract national pride, according to numerous experts.

That’s why economic challenges and the looming possibility of the Kremlin failing to fulfill its social commitments to the population haven’t affected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public approval ratings. It is also the result of the population’s demand for a strong leader and the surge of populism within the country.

Learning to spot the signals of discontent

However, all these trends might mislead both the population and the authorities. First, it suggests that government cannot keep the balance between what it gives and what it takes. Sooner or later, domestic challenges (ranging from low quality of education, poor healthcare and rampant corruption) might lead to dissatisfaction.

Maintaining the nation’s pride by imposing the idea of Russia being a great country might result in a backlash if the expectations of the population won’t be met in a timely manner. In the language of economists, it could be a case of short-term planning and a narrow planning horizon.

The problem is that the authorities prefer to make rational, if short-term, moves. Yet such short-term thinking create many long-term challenges and risks, said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics (HSE), during the Gaidar Forum. Populism might win tactically, but it could fail strategically

The ghosts of 1917

At the same time, attempts to focus purely on the political agenda and public opinion polls could leave the authorities unaware about the real problems and moods of ordinary Russians, as a number of experts at the Gaidar Forum highlighted. They warn against increasing inequality in the country, which might complicate any policies of the government.

Andrei Bezrukov, an associate professor at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University), compared the current situation to the one in 1917, before the great revolution in Russia, when inequality was approximately the same.

Marine Voskanyan, the international links coordinator at the Moscow Economic Forum, is even more pessimistic. Quoting numerous research reports and experts, she said that today inequality in Russia is bigger than before the 1917 Great October Revolution.

It results from the fact that the authorities failed to satisfied the demands of the population. What is in demand in today’s Russia is social justice, she said.  As a result, the state turns into a sort of political hybrid: Ostensibly, it is attractive and prosperous, yet in reality, “people live here like in a jungle,” Voskanyan warned.

Many participants of another Gaidar Forum discussion, “Political Trends – Assessment, Analysis, Forecast,” echoed her view. Georgy Satarov, a politician and a former aide of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, says that during a crisis of governance, sociologists cannot “track down all changes” occurring in society. And this is almost impossible in the current political environment in Russia, where the media frames all events so that they reflect the views of the authorities. According to Satarov, all inconvenient facts are passed over in silence or whitewashed.

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The growing split in Russian society

According to Vladimir Gelman, a political expert and a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, the key reason why experts and politicians fail to understand public opinion or predict incidents is the fact that “we are inclined to overestimate the moves of some political figures” while underestimating the background of the events, the environment, global trends and shifts.

Indeed, the agenda of the political elites overshadows public problems and the challenges of ordinary people. Their agenda is comparably underrepresented, which could increase the risks of “important and deleterious processes,” said Tatyana Vorozheykina, a political scientist, during the Gaidar Economic Forum.

“Likewise, one hundred years ago, nobody expected the catastrophe [of the revolution],” she warned, while clarifying that it doesn’t mean that 2017 will necessarily bring another upheaval.

One of the key challenges is that Russia is divided, yet this split is dormant in its nature, with the Kremlin dismissing it as unreal, because it relies on public opinion polls.

And the results of the 2016 parliamentary elections imply that many Russians, basically, those living in the country’s “European part (Moscow, St. Petersburg and other big cities), don’t support Putin, while those in the Eastern or southern distant regions mobilize around the Kremlin, according to Dmitry Oreshkin, an political expert and a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions Development and Human Rights. The low turnout is a clear sign that the population is increasingly disappointing the policy of the authorities. Oreshkin describes this state as a “dormant domestic asymmetry.”

What happens to the status quo?

Amidst such rising pessimism, Leonid Gozman, a well-known Russian democratic activist and politician, expresses concerns about the fact that Russia’s authorities are unable to objectively and realistically assess public opinion and their approval ratings. At the same, the authorities fear any changes in the country’s political system and possess a lack of real confidence about what might happen, he said.

That is probably why the authorities are reluctant to make any hasty moves that could lead to grave mistakes. Instead, say experts, they prefer maintaining the status quo, especially in 2017, which marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October revolution.

Andrei Kolesnikov from the Carnegie Moscow Center argues that those at the helm prefer “to maintain the political equilibrium” without unnecessary moves, because they are afraid that “something wrong might happen.” Thus, they stick to the wait-and-see approach, at least until the 2018 presidential election in Russia.

“2017 might be a year without significant domestic events,” Kolesnikov said during the forum. “This year will be the year of preparation for the events in 2018.”

Political options for the Kremlin

To maintain political balance and bring people together, the Kremlin might reinvigorate a witch hunt against opponents, tighten the screws or intrude into people’s privacy. This is especially true if it fails to establish chemistry with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and fails to achieve its goals on the international arena, Gozman and other experts warn. Bringing people around such an agenda is dangerous: It is “bad consolidation” because it creates the illusion of stability, Kolesnikov said.

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Vorozheykina echoes and further develops this view. By focusing too much on the Chechen wars, fueling the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and launching the Syrian military campaign (i.e. the bombing of Aleppo), the Kremlin seems to have legitimized violence as a tool in foreign and domestic policies to maintain the authoritarian regime in the country. In fact, this helps the authorities divert people’s attention from economic problems, she concludes.

In this regard, the ideas of Bezrukov are indicative. Amidst the increasing unpredictability in the world, rising inequality and the risks of economic crisis and social upheavals, the state is likely to step up its domestic control, which, eventually, will lead to what he describes as “the dominance of the state” in all fields. It will inevitably create a conflict between privacy and state control. The challenge for the authorities today is to persuade people to accept this dominance and justify the right to interfere, said Bezrukov.

So, it remains to be seen what steps the Kremlin will undertake in 2017. Will it take subtle and cautious steps, or will it take a more forceful role in claiming its control over society? The most intriguing question is how society will respond, as one is about to see with the example of St. Isaac’s Cathedral.