Despite the Kremlin’s lack of strategic thinking and economic difficulties, Russians are still supporting President Vladimir Putin. To explain why, experts have advanced a number of different scenarios and theories about the way Russians view their country after Crimea.
In 2009, 22 percent believed that Putin’s strong point was improved living standards, but 6 years later, the number has plummeted to 12 percent. Photo: AP
Russians tend to focus on President Vladimir Putin’s achievements in office rather than his failures, according to a new poll released by Levada Center, an independent Russian pollster, last week.
Levada presents a list of fields where the Russian president has either succeeded or failed, according to the Russian people. Among the top 10 most successful fields for Putin are defense and military reform (33 percent see it as Putin’s major achievement, while 7 percent view it as a failure); domestic political stability and order; Russia’s strengthened international record; the improvement of living standards and wages and, paradoxically, the country’s economic development.
However, if one looks at the people’s assessment of Putin in retrospective, it is easy to see that, from 2009 to 2015, there has been an almost two-fold drop in the percentage of Russians who believe that increased living standards and wages can be attributed to Putin. In 2009, 22 percent believed that Putin’s strong point was improved living standards, but 6 years later, the number has plummeted to 12 percent.
At the same time, the Levada poll pays attention to the number of skeptics of Putin’s domestic policy. Those who point fingers at Putin’s failures are outpacing his supporters in the following four fields: fighting corruption (29 percent vs. 14 percent), curbing the oligarchs (16 vs. 12), increasing morality and spirituality in the country (10 vs. 5) and improving relations with the West (9 vs. 7 percent).
Without any long-term strategy, there is only inertia
Nevertheless, in general, the Levada poll indicates that most Russians are still supporting Putin despite his flaws and mistakes. This data is even more relevant in the context of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s presentation of the report “The Russian Regime in 2015: All Tactics, No Strategy” that took place on Sept. 9 in Moscow.
In contrast to ordinary people, many economists and political experts are raising their eyebrows at Putin’s economic policy. And one of the manifestations of Putin’s inability to conduct effective economic policy is the lack of strategic thinking, they argue.
For example, Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov, the author of the report, sees the Kremlin’s current policy rather as “tactical, not strategic.” He is concerned that this policy doesn’t live up to reality and that the Russian president doesn’t have a vision of the future after 2018.
According to Kolesnikov, Russia is going to face gradual and long-term economic depression and a decrease in economic and political freedoms – a combination that he describes as the “inertia scenario” of Russia’s future development. In addition, he warns against any strengthening of the anti-Western vector of the Kremlin.
The Kremlin’s “inclusive strategy”
In contrast, Dmitry Orlov, general director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communication, sounds more optimistic. He sees 2015 as a sort of crossroads that might determine the future development scenario of Russia. He expresses hopes that the Kremlin will stick to its so-called “inclusive strategy” that is based, primarily, on the support of Putin’s conservative majority. However, he doesn’t rule out the involvement of the skeptical minority (socially active citizens who seek to improve the situation in the country).
One of the major characteristics of such a strategy is the intention to attract investment and maintain an open-door policy, Orlov argues, pointing out that the anti-corruption agenda and increasing patriotism will remain as major trends.
At the same time, the Kremlin is aware of the risks of the inclusive scenario: the unpredictability of the socially active minority amidst the inertia of the conservative majority. And this asymmetry does matter, according to Orlov.
The besieged fortress is still a powerful metaphor for Russia
Another scenario is the besieged fortress scenario. According to Kolesnikov, the metaphor is still relevant for Russia.
“As long as the authorities are maintaining a half-cold and half-hot hybrid war and sanctions exist, people will feel that they are living inside of this fortress,” Kolesnikov said in an interview with Russia Direct. “ And it is important for the mobilization of the people around the authorities”
However, Orlov pins hopes on the inclusive strategy. There is demand for future development and an alternative political coalition that will bring together an active minority, he points out. One of the indications of this demand is the attempt by Russian intellectuals to come up with a long-term approach to the future, known as Strategy 2030.
In contrast, Leonid Gozman, a democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, is skeptical about the emergence of an independent new coalition that will be a game-changer, because this is not beneficial for the government. At best, the authorities will foster such a coalition and then dissolve it.
However, Orlov is also realistic, because he doesn’t rule out the besieged fortress scenario as well. “The authorities are still undecided,” he said. “They were at a crossroads last spring, and they are a crossroads this fall. ”
Meanwhile, Vasily Zharkov, head of the political science department at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, is skeptical about the Kremlin’s capability to think strategically despite its previous (Strategy 2020) and current (Strategy 2030) attempts to resolve this problem. He sees these documents as declarative: The authorities set goals, but then don’t fulfill the tasks to reach these goals.
At the same time, Zharkov argues that the inertia scenario played a positive role in Russia, given Russia’s turbulent history for the last 100 years (the 1917 revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Empire). According to him, the inertia strategy is relevant during times of oil booms and sharp vicissitudes of fortune.
Russia as the sick man of Europe
One of the reasons why Russia doesn’t have a strategy is what he calls the “catastrophe syndrome” - the doubt of the Russian political elites that any strategy will be able to save the country from disaster.
In addition, Zharkov believes that Russia has a problem with its self-identity, ”We don’t really know who we are.” This brings about psychological trauma. He calls Russia “the sick man of Europe, who is under a medicine dropper,” due to its memories about its great history and the collapse of the Soviet empire.
And during the Ukraine crisis, which was accompanied by the incorporation of Crimea, this “sick man” fell from the hospital bed. While most international players were aghast at this fall, the sick man himself was in a state of euphoria that resulted from his distorted perceptions about himself and imperial yearnings.
With this, Zharkov states, the previous balance achieved with the West was undermined by this surge of newfound patriotism. This balance that Russia held when it came to the West, he believes, is one where Russia was “able to have a dialogue with the West” but “did not join the coalition.” Moreover, he sees the Crimean conflict to be “unsolvable on the international stage.”
The inclusive strategy might help Russia from plunging into imperial dreams and minimize the impact if the Ukrainian impasse. He warns the Kremlin against taking irrational decisions based on its perception of historical justice.
Kolesnikov echoes Zharkov and argues that the Kremlin should avoid decisions based on history and emotions, something that is very difficult to do in the current political and psychological atmosphere. As Gozman says, the Russian political elites feel themselves very offended by the West, a factor that should not be underestimated.
“Revanchism for them is a psychological rescue,” he said, implying that the Kremlin might isolate itself to a greater extent in the future.
Russia searches for myths and symbols after Crimea
In this situation, Kolesnikov expresses concerns that the Kremlin’s decisions might be replaced by mythological clichés. And Crimea’s incorporation into Russia has been seen as a symbol or a myth that mobilized Russians around Putin. Crimea provides for the Russian people a “symbolic foundation” for the legitimization of the nationalistic and anti-Western rhetoric advocated by the Kremlin.
But soon this myth might lose its mobilizing effect, as Kolesnikov warns, and the authorities will have to look for other myths to help maintain society in a state of psychological euphoria. That might drive the authorities to find a new symbol and Kolesnikov assumes that the “Arctic mythology” might be used as a new symbol: exploration of the region and defending Russia’s interest there might become a source of pride.
Another myth that the Kremlin might come up with is the symbol of Russian as a great international stakeholder that resolves global problems, Kolesnikov argues. And its recent policy in the Middle East and, particularly, in Syria, is a sign of such shifts. And the myth of an economic miracle might also be used as an attempt to grant a sense of optimism to ordinary people. But Kolesnikov sees this model as utopian because of Russia’s economic challenges.
These new mythological clichés and anti-Western sentiments are directed to meet the demand of the people, but such tactics might result in a backlash. The reason is that, post-Crimea, the typical Russian individual is “a man of impatience,” to quote Orlov. And any attempts by the authorities to play up to this impatience could be dangerous.
As Russia’s well-known sociologist Aleksei Levinson, head of Levada Center’s Analytical Department, and other speakers who attended Carnegie Moscow center’s discussion noted, now Russian society is almost living in a state of war, while still clinging to the motto “Just avoiding the war.”