Thursday, June 5, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin has Put Together a New and Different Majority, Bunin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 5 – Having seen his original social compact with the Russian population become shaky – deference to his unrestricted power in exchange for a guarantee of rising incomes – Vladimir Putin has assembled a new majority, according to Igor Bunin, head of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies.

            The wave of protests that hit Russian cities in 2011-2012, Bunin says, showed that Putin’s original compact was insufficient to guarantee his position and consequently the Kremlin leader embarked on a three-stage plan to put a new majority in place on which he can rely.  That has now happened (

            The first step in this process, the Moscow analyst suggests, took place during the presidential campaign when “the authorities mobilized their supporters under the slogans of order,” positioning Putin and themselves as an alternative to continuing unruly demonstrations in the streets.

            The second stage involved the promotion of “a conservative wave” that was based on “fears about a new time of troubles” among “the traditionalist segment of society,” separated “the moderate modernists from the opposition,” and had the effect of marginalizing the opposition groups of all kinds.

            Exploiting the fears of many Russian parents that their children were being harmed by exposure to “mainstream western trends,” the Putin regime was able to prevent “the demobilization of the Putin majority” achieved during the elections and redirect it toward a broader range of moral issues.

            This conservative wave, Bunin continues, “created not only a positive (defense of traditional values) but also negative agenda, connected with the formation of an image of the enemy” in the form of the West and “Russian ‘westerners.’”

            And the third stage, which is taking place now ‘is directly connected with the annexation of Crimea and the conflict with Ukraine.”  Those actions have added “new groups to the Putin majority,” the Moscow analyst says. “Among them are modernists who are skeptical about the basic components of the conservative wave, but who want to be ‘with the people.’”

            Another addition consists of the supporters of Soviet values who believe that Putin’s actions point to the rebirth of the USSR.  Left wing groups who had until recently been “clients of human rights organizations now accuse them of ‘national betrayal’” and back a war for the Union.

            In the case of these groups, “Soviet identity has turned out to be stronger than the traditional opposition dislike of the authorities.” That dislike continues “only in part of the elite and intelligentsia circles which traditionally have many resources,” but who now have watched as “their influence on public opinion has been minimalized.”

            All this has increased “the collective consensus” of Russian society because it has played on the sense many have about what they see as “the revision of the geopolitical results of the Great Fatherland War, the key event in all of Russian history from the point of view of the majority of Russians.” 

            The future stability of this new Putin majority depends on four things, Bunin says. First, it depends on the social-economic situation. As long as that remains relatively stable and the costs of Crimea and Western sanctions are not too high, this majority is likely to hold together.

            Second, it depends on how well the regime can balance the demands of its various parts.  Thus, “the soviet patriots call for a further advance in the East of Ukraine and will be disappointed if Russia stops and doesn’t create at a minimum a new Transdniestria.” But the modernists will be upset if that happens and new sanctions are imposed.

            Third, it depends on the Kremlin’s ability to continue to use the media as a mobilizing tool as effectively as it has over the last several months.  In the nature of things, the impact of such campaigns wear off with time, and that may spark new questions about what Putin and his regime are doing.

            And fourth – and this is “a deeper global problem,” Bunin suggests – “the Putin majority is consolidating and mobilizing on the basis of defensive and conservative values directed at the protection of it on identity, defense against foreign and domestic threats from Bandera to Concita.”

            This is the first time in a century that Russia has found itself in that position, the Moscow analyst says. Earlier, regardless of the leadership or ideology, Russia thought itself of being a country moving “along the path of progress” only to see that blocked by war or revolution or decay.

            Now under Putin, however, “a bet is being made on an approach that is different in principle, on the combination of power with conservative and defense values which make use of phobias and defensive reflexes.” Such an approach may be “tactically successful,” but in today’s more global context, one has to ask whether it can succeed strategically for very long.

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