July 14 – The strategies of both Western governments and Russian opposition leads are predicated on the assumption that there are individuals or groups in Moscow which have strong influence on Vladimir Putin, but two new reports suggest that such assumptions may be problematic and that the Kremlin leader now acts on his own without much regard to anyone.
On the one hand, a new survey shows that almost three out of four Russians believe that they have no responsibility for what the Russian government is doing because they have no influence over it. And on the other, a Russian commentator argues that there are ever fewer people in the elite who have any influence over Putin either.
If these reports are even approximately correct, then at a minimum it is time to retire the old mantra that Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka is “the last dictator in Europe.” Putin represents serious competition for that role; indeed, the Kremlin leader appears to be far more a dictator in the usual meaning of that word than Lukashenka is.
But more generally and importantly, it means that Western leaders have to face up to the fact that putting pressure on the Russian population or even on Russian elites may not have the impact on Putin that such governments hope for and that Russian opposition leaders must recognize they are now confronted by someone they can’t influence but can only hope to replace.
According to a new Levada Center poll, 73 percent of Russians, nearly three out of four, say they are certain that they cannot influence the situation in the state and thus do not feel responsible for it, a number that has increased by nine percent since November 2015 (levada.ru/2016/07/13/otvetstvennost-i-vliyanie/).
A much smaller share – 22 percent – say there is some possibility to influence the Russian government, but only one in 20 – five percent – says that he or she has a significant possibility to do so. The survey found that far higher percentages believe they have an impact on local governments, the workplace, and families and friends.
And in the course of an interview with Radio Liberty, Russian commentator Stanislav Belkovsky argues that the capacity of members of the elite to influence government decisions in general and Putin’s choices in particular has fallen to new lows both in terms of the numbers of people involved and the issues of their concern (svoboda.org/content/transcript/27853669.html).
The Kremlin leader has lost interest in domestic politics, the commentator says, and Putin does not conceal his boredom in this regard when he meets with regional officials or others, a measure of the extent to which he acts without reference to anything they might propose or disagree with.
Asked whether there is now nonetheless a nomenklatura of key people as in Soviet times, Belkovsky dissents. He says that any nomenklatura is a group to which a leader listens and that has “a certain status as an intellectual subject.” There may be one around Putin, but it is getting smaller and smaller.
Today, he argues, it “consists of the very closest friends of Putin, although the number of such people who are capable of influencing the president is becoming ever smaller” because even they are trapped by their own understanding that Putin is “the anointed of God” and thus someone who acts as he wants to regardless of what others say.