Staunton, June 26 – Vladimir Putin decided to have a referendum on the constitutional amendments as a way of renewing his special ties with the Russian people and thus serving notice to members of the establishment that they dare not challenge him or think about the future, Tatyana Stanovaya says.
Formally, he will get his preferred result at the polls, the Russian commentator continues; but elites may not read this outcome the same way he does and instead of being intimidated once again see Putin’s moves as an indication of his own sense of his growing weakness and look beyond him even more intently (carnegie.ru/commentary/82177).
That does not mean that Putin will soon face serious opposition from the elite to his continuation in office, Stanovaya says. The elites are still overwhelmingly loyal to his person. But it does mean that they will increasingly be thinking about what is best for their own futures at a time when the Kremlin leader seems focused more on geopolitics and the past.
“Any ruler bases his power either on a contract with the people which permits him to impose his decisions on the elite or on a contract with the elite which helps him to control the people,” she continues. Putin first relied on the former, but ever more frequently, as the elites have been filled with his own people, he has relied on the latter instead.
That carries with it a danger: those on whom he relies insist on the defense of their own interests; and their interests may be at odds with his. There has been much discussion of the growing divide between Putin’s agenda and that of Russian society, Stanovaya continues; but the divide between his agenda and that of his “oligarchy” has been deepening no less quickly.
“The Putin elite has become so large and that already cannot allow itself not to have its own corporative priorities, which do not always correspond with the priorities of the state.” That doesn’t mean the elites are out of control; but it does mean that they are becoming “ever more autonomous.”
“By providing their services to Putin, they make him dependent on their success,” she says. “This sense which is gathering strength among the elites cannot but concern the president,” however loyal to him they may appear, because it represents a limitation on his freedom of action.
Thus, Putin wants to relegitimize his unique position with the population in order to show the elites the limits of their ability to act independently even if they are not acting specifically against him. Putin himself has made this possible by shifting his focus away from domestic economic issues to geopolitics. The elites have filled in where he has left a gap.
“But having cast aside routine affairs,” Stanovaya says, Putin “has begun to lose the sense and intuitive link with what is going on. That makes him simultaneously more suspicious and more subject to manipulation.” Conflicts he was prepared to tolerate earlier have now become intolerable for him.
Over the last six months, Putin has repeatedly warned against looking for a successor; but by prohibiting that, the Kremlin leader in fact is telling elites that they must not think about their own futures given the links all of them have to the existing system of power. His attempt has had exactly the opposite effect to the one he has intended.
Putin decided he needed a new popular mandate, and he will get one. “But the problem is that the presidents and the elites may understand the level of legitimacy of this mandate differently and interpret the real firmness of public support for Putin.” The Kremlin leader may see the vote as overwhelming; the elites may see his need for it as signaling the reverse.
“The referendum was planned as a form of blackmail of the elites, but its legitimacy is not obvious,” Stanovaya says. “Wishing to put the clans in their place, Putin unilaterally has put down for them new red lines which will make the relations between him and them more pragmatic and less commanding.”
And she concludes: “By conducting the referendum, Putin wanted to cement his post-Crimea world which in reality has already long ago been subject to serious erosion;” and his focus on the past is “frightening many not only in the ranks of the opposition but also among the establishment where there is a desire to move forward.”
These feelings are not yet a movement against him. They rather reflect “the instinct of self-preservation” of elites at a time when the institutions around, because they are not working, “can no longer guarantee stability.” And that trend will only be exacerbated by the outcome of the vote no matter how big a victory Putin proclaims it to be.