Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Reaction to Pension Reform Far From Only Reason for United Russia’s Defeat, Stanovaya Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 25 – Most commentators in Moscow view the vote against the ruling United Russia Party as a popular protest against the regime’s plan to raise pension ages, Tatyana Stanovaya says; but in fact, there are deeper and broader reasons for its defeat, including changes in Vladimir Putin, changes in the Kremlin and changes in the country’s party system.

            Indeed, the Moscow commentator argues in a lengthy article for Moscow’s Carnegie Center that the election shows that the regime in Russia has ceased to be “Putinist” in the ways the Russian regime and the Russian people had understood to be the case until recently (

            “This new normal,” she says, reflects the fact that this year and especially as a result of the presidential vote earlier this year, “Vladimir Putin has ceased to be ‘the people’s president.” At that time, Stanovaya argues, “for the first time in 18 years, [Russians] voted for Putin not because they were for him but because they were not against him.”

            It was “precisely from this time that it become clear that the Kremlin was unprepared to offer society any positive vision or image of the future” and instead was focused on its own “foreign policy mega-projects,” expecting the people to go along with anything it wanted because they had in the past, she continues.

            The reshuffling of officials in the Kremlin to make them less political and more technocratic managerial contributed to this process; and it was confirmed when on August 31, Putin did not cancel the pension reform but finally supported it with only minimal modifications, modifications too small to matter.

            “Since the middle of 2018,” she says, “the evolution of the image of Putin has moved into a new stage. The anti-crisis manager of the early 2000s, the national leader of the end of the second term, the national hero after 2014” all are in the past. “From 2016, [Putin] has gradually been transformed into an independent historical actor who doesn’t need electoral approval.”

            According to Stanovaya, “the presidential elections of 2018 made Putin not only someone for whom there was no alternative for the regime. They created conditions under which the entire system was exclusively directed at the satisfaction of the needs and demands of the chief of state.”

            As a result, “Putin’s status as a superman, in which by the way the entourage of the president believed, thus is creating a situation when the political leader is ceasing to be a rational choice and is being transformed into something divinely given; that is, into something they do not choose.”

            That in turn means, Stanovaya continues, that Putin’s support for this or that candidate does not automatically guarantee the latter’s victory; but because most candidates from the powers that be believed otherwise, they did not engage in the kind of campaigns they needed to in order to attract support. Indeed, without a directing leader, they could hardly do so.

            At the same time, there has been a change in the systemic opposition and its role in the system. “Up to 2007 and after 2012, there was a mixed electoral arrangement in Russia, one that gave more opportunities for the systemic opposition.” And “from 2014,” a new tendency made its appearance, one that gave them still more.

            The Kremlin continues to talk about democracy and real competition, “but in reality, the elections showed only one thing: the entire mechanism of legitimation by ‘electoral’ appointments created in recent years cannot and will not work under conditions of the fall in the ratings of the authorities themselves.”

            As a result, the Kremlin faces a difficult choice between two ways forward. On the one hand, it can adopt “a harsh anti-democratic response to ‘the popular revolt,’ by eliminating direct elections, intensifying control over social and political life, restricting the opportunities of the real opposition and reducing freedoms.” There are many in the Kremlin who support that path.

            Or on the other, Putin and his regime can “adapt and pluralize,” not as much as their opponents want but as a result of “fear of new failures, an understanding of the problem of the growth of protest attitudes, and the erosion of the Crimean consensus.” That would give the systemic opposition new chances, soften the rules of the game and “preserve the Putin regime.”

            “But the choice of such a scenario would mean,” Stanovaya concludes, “that from September 2018, the regime would cease to be exclusively Putinist. The regional elections showed that Russian society is ready to solve its problems without Putin and this means that a new political demand is being formed,” something that limits the Kremlin’s freedom of action.

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