Staunton, July 26 – Two anonymous sources “close to the Presidential Administration” tell the Znak news agency that Vladimir Putin plans to fight “the struggle against poverty and social injustice” a centerpiece of his re-election campaign in order to mobilize Russians against local and regional elites.
But Znak commentator Yekaterina Vinokurova warns that this program may backfire if Russians focus not as Putin wants but on the Moscow elite in general, Putin’s immediate entourage and even the Kremlin leader personally (znak.com/2017-07-25/putin_sobiraetsya_sdelat_stavku_na_borbu_s_nespravedlivostyu_no_eto_opasnaya_tema).
The Kremlin has been trying to come up with some agenda for the campaign that will allow him to pose as the people’s champion against entrenched elites even though he has been in power for 17 years and is responsible for the division of the spoils among elites and the increasing impoverishment of Russians.
Vinokurova notes that experts with whom she has spoken agree that “the demand for social justice and the struggle against poverty really exists in society,” but they warn that “if the powers take this up, it is not certain that they will be able to keep it under control.” Indeed, they say there are real risks that it could lead to a social explosion.
Tatyana Stanovaya of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies says that protests five years ago were about politics and human rights. “Now at the foundation of protest is the problem of social injustice.” Consequently, “even if ‘the sauce’ remains the same – ‘the struggle with corruption’” it has an immediate rather than long-term political meaning.
“Six years ago, this concerned the issue of equal opportunities and prospects,” Stanovaya continues, but now” it is about what the country can do about a closed elite of “new ‘Putin oligarchs,’” when there is no clear signal from the top as to what can be done about that to benefit the bottom part of society.
Moreover, she says, “if earlier the powers were inclined to underrate the problem of social injustice and tried not to notice it, fearing the growth of social expectations and demands, then now it is just the reverse: the powers are trying to seize the initiative from the non-systemic opposition.”
According to Stanovaya, “now we are witnessing ‘how over the strategy for the development of the country are involved not so much economists as political technologists.’ However, there is a risk: recognizing social injustice may increase its social and political sharpness.”
Other commentators agree about the risks. According to political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, “if Putin is able to show that he is seriously involved” in trying to address poverty and injustice, then people will believe him. However, the credit of trust he has is not infinite” and could run out.
The problem, however, is this, he says: such a use of this theme is “the last line of the Kremlin’s defenses against growing general disappointment.” If Putin makes promises and then doesn’t or can’t deliver, his credit with the population will be “exhausted,” and there could be an explosion in two or three years.
Aleksey Makarkin, vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, says that Russians traditionally have “gone to the tsar” to get justice, but the current powers that be “don’t want to disturb the situation in the elites.” They can arrest low-level officials but only if these don’t have ties close to the Kremlin.
“The struggle for justice,” he continues, “is the reverse side of settling accounts because of economic competition,” but how that can be done under conditions of “systemic corruption” is a large and still open question. “The opposition has it easer: it can criticize the entire system.” For the incumbents, that is dangerous as “the Uzbek affair” proved in the late 1980s.
And finally, Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Politics Foundation, said that Putin had always made the struggle with poverty part of his program, even though he has surrounded himself will billionaires. What is going on now, he suggests, is that people around Putin are trying to force him to run again, something he hasn’t made a final decision about.
That is because a fourth term could prove dangerous for Putin given that those pushing him forward now want to “transform Putin into the successor of Putin who will simply sign papers put in front of him.” Running again would thus be a mistake, even though there is no doubt Putin would win. One thing is clear: Russia’s poor aren’t going to be among the winners.