Staunton, April 24 – Like the leaders of all personalist regimes that have built their authority by de-institutionalizing their states, Vladimir Putin is in important ways trapped by the system that he has created. He has to constantly be seen as the demiurge; and when he doesn’t appear for a time, that alone leads to speculation that he is being pushed aside.
The Kremlin leader finds himself in particular trouble in this regard now. It is obvious that he wants to shift responsibility away from himself onto governors so that he can avoid becoming the focus of popular anger about the unpopular measures that they must take in response to the pandemic.
But it is equally obvious that his pulling back from being the constant public face of the state not only gives other officials more running room but also guarantees that some commentators will choose to interpret Putin’s withdrawal from his accustomed role as an indication that he is under attack and may be politically gelded or even about to be overthrown.
Among the many who are making such apocalyptic predictions is Anatoly Nemiyan, who blogs under the name El Murid, and who, having suggested that Sobyanin’s anti-pandemic is challenging Putin, now argues that a state of “dual power” already exists in Moscow (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5EA2826DBA08D and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/04/anti-pandemic-council-on-its-way-to.html).
El Murid’s argument appears to take into account the known facts, but two prominent Russian analysts, Vladislav Inozemtsev and Yevgeny Gontmakher, are correct that such suggestions do not allow for the likelihood that what is going on is a struggle over powers within the system rather than an incipient coup (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5EA2826DBA08D).
To say that Putin does not face a coup, however, is not to say that he does not face serious problems that include not only the troika of the pandemic, the collapse of oil prices, and a serious recession but also the inability of a de-institutionalized system to handle all those problems at one and the same time.
The system Putin has created works well for him when there are no crises or at least no crises that he did not create; but it doesn’t work well when the crises are beyond his ability to manage via the media and when the absence of institutions with the capacity and authority to take the necessary steps.
Putin may survive: he controls the media and the security services, and most of those being pointed to as candidates for a challenge to him are people he appointed, controls by kompromat or other means, and has made sure do not enjoy any independent power base that might be used against him.
But if he survives without moving to create stronger institutions, that may prove to be an even worse fate for Russia, delaying its recovery from the three challenges that country now faces and putting off a reckoning until the consequences for all concerned are likely to be far larger than a change now would be.