Staunton, December 29 – There is mounting and incontrovertible evidence that Russians no longer love or respect Vladimir Putin, Rosbalt commentator Sergey Shelin says; but the Kremlin leader and his regime are not yet threatened by that alone and can therefore survive for a long time to come unless something else happens.
Indeed, he says, they can remain in power as long as “they fulfill at least the minimum of administrative tasks, do long allow their subjects to be completely ruined, disorganize in a planned fashion any anti-systemic opposition, maintain a strong defensive apparatus and do not divide among themselves” (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2018/12/28/1755873.html).
Many who are currently talking about “the transit of power,” the euphemism for thinking about the exit of Putin and the arrival of some other leader, often forget about that reality, focusing instead on developments that are ultimately superficial in comparison with these critical functions, Shelin continues.
It is certainly the case that Putin has lost his charisma and probably done so irretrievably. None of his presentations this year generated much attention or interest, and many provoked cynical responses. The same thing is true of the behavior of his subordinates who seldom got much attention except when they become scandalous in their words and deeds.
“This is one of the main causes of the general loss of authority of the powers that be,” the commentator says; but while that has occurred, something else has not. When the authorities take an unpopular decision, there is no broad wave of protest, even on occasions such as the pension reform where the Kremlin expected it.
The reason for that, Shelin continues, lies “in the sharp intensification of the repressive nature of the system.” To maintain itself, the regime is prepared to come down hard on anyone it seems a problem. “The rules have changed” over the last year. But this shift from “’pro-people’ to ‘anti-people’ style of rule is not a sign of “the critical weakening of the system.”
The population isn’t starving and it isn’t in the main suffering either, Shelin says. Any attempt at organizing an opposition is suppressed almost at the start. “The power vertical as before imitates the fulfillment of orders from on high. And “open resistance is exceptionally rare. The foundation of the power of Vladimir Putin is thus quite firm.”
Some Russians are very dissatisfied, but they haven’t been able to organize, in large measure because the regime counters with force any steps in that direction. There are no independent regional actors: Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov stands out only as “the exception who proves this rule.”
Nor is any split in the central administrative machine visible, Shelin argues. “Yes, there are there ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ and still more unprincipled lobbying clans which fight among themselves over specific decisions. But when it comes to it, when the leader gives his final word, they fulfill that which is ordered in a friendly fashion.”
These groups, he says, “can be in conflict or even open fights only with one another but not with the leader from whom their positions, material well-being and even personal freedom depend. Nothing like this was true among the members of the Brezhnev Politburo, each of whom had an independent status and could at times oppose” the leader. “We don’t have that” now.
The same thing is true among the rich. They too fight among themselves but not against Putin either singly or even more collectively. They are too dependent on him to do either. And they can’t leave in massive numbers because that would cost them much if not all of what they possess.
Summing up, Shelin says the following: “Yes, in 2018, the authority of Vladimir Putin significantly fell in the people and in part even in the administrative machine. But his strength as a leader did not contract as much namely because the system closed ranks and began to defend its interests against the broad masses by its fists.”
“And that means,” the commentator continues, this group “needs tough leadership even more than it did earlier” – and that is just the kind of leadership Putin still can and does offer. For that to change, there will have to be crises “much more serious than those which occurred in 2018.”
These can’t be excluded, but they aren’t a certainty, Shelin says, adding that in his view, “the regime is fully capable of rotting peacefully for long years if 2024 were not approaching.” That is because to make the changes to allow Putin to stay in power requires “popularity” and that he no longer has.
And to arrange for a successor “always raises questions about the unity of the upper reaches,” something that will inevitably divide “not only the nomenklatura but also the masses as well.” Putin’s power declined in 2018 but not as much as many think, except in one area: “the search for a resolution of the 2024 problem which is becoming ever more important.”
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