Staunton, June 17 – For most of his 20 years in power, Vladimir Putin has set the agenda, defining the course of events; but in the last six months, he increasingly has been reacting to events that have arisen beyond his usual control, a shift that in and of itself changes the nature of his regime, Nikolay Petrov says.
That means that these events rather than Putin’s plan will increasingly define what happens in Russia even while the Kremlin leader remains in power because elites and the population will change their assessment of what he means to the country and the way it operates, the Russian commentator says (carnegie.ru/commentary/82086).
Putin set as his task this year the extension of both his time in office and the operation of his political system. He will likely achieve the first via the constitutional amendments set to be approved by the July 1 referendum, Petrov says; but while he will stay in office, he will no longer play the same role he did earlier.
The pandemic and the related economic crisis came to Russia at just the moment when “the latter was trying to shift to the future,” Petrov argues. “All old and already weakened institutions … were out of the game, but new ones of the Big President either weren’t launched … or were not capable of acting on their own,” at least not yet.
“The battle with the epidemic and with the technogenic catastrophe near Norilsk showed the impotence of the current system of administration at various levels,” he continues. Because of this, one can expect a relative growth in the powers of the prime minister, corporate grounds and regional ones as well.
And Putin’s own inability to control events means that he will lose some of his ability to act as an arbiter between elite groups and that other structures within the regime, like the interior ministry, the Investigations Committee and the FSB will gain in power, a shift that may now be done without fanfare but a shift nonetheless.
Most people are focusing on the referendum, but that is a mistake: at best it is “icing on the cake, but the cake itself in fact already does not exist.” As a result, whether Putin squeaks by or wins convincingly, he will not recover what he has lost, at least not by that means, the Russian analyst says.
The situation in Russia “has changed radically. The crisis has changed the foundation, the balance between leader, elites and citizens which had existed” since 2014. And if this isn’t corrected quickly, the system will continue to degrade ever more quickly and even potentially spin out of control.
“The political geometry of the regime, above all the pyramid ‘leader, elite, masses’ is changing.” The masses are in motion and the leader and elites must change. Unfortunately for the system as it has existed, Putin isn’t changing, although the elites are beginning to, thus unsettling things still further.
At the top, the system lacks an understanding of what is happening or the ability to redesign itself in the near term. And that means, Petrov argues, that “there will inevitably be cracks” between the various parts of this geometry, first between the citizens and the elites, and then between the elites and the leader.
Those are already emerging in conflicts between regions and the Kremlin, Petrov continues. And that is raising the question as to how the system will be “capable of ensuring the loyalty of administrative and business elites.” Repressive measures alone will work only so long, and without carrots as well as sticks, they are likely to prove counterproductive.
Indeed, they may deepen the cracks between leader and people and leader and elites and accelerate the collapse of what has been the Putin system. This will be first and especially visible in relations between Moscow and the regions both generally and especially in the always restive North Caucasus.
“The weakening of the petroleum dependence of the Russian economy not only will undermine the political economic base of the regime but lead to its inevitable decentralization when the self-standing of corporations and regions will increase, possibly to a return to the model of ‘the wild 1990s.’”
If that proves to be the case, Petrov concludes, “then the 20 plus years of Putin’s rule will have taken the country full circle or even down a deeper spiral especially since colossal foreign policy problems are adding to its domestic ones.” It is possible the Kremlin will find a way out because of its experiences; but that is only a possibility, not a certainty.