The Week In Russia: Minneapolis, Minsk, Moscow, And The Future Of Putin's Rule
By Steve Gutterman June 12, 2020
Within a few weeks, barring the truly unexpected, Vladimir Putin will have the option of seeking two more six-year stretches as Russian president after his current term expires in 2024, meaning he could remain in the Kremlin until May 2036.
So why does talk of a post-Putin era -- a prominent topic after his election two years ago to what was supposed to be his final term, at least until 2030 -- persist?
For one thing, there are his poll numbers. For many world leaders, they remain enviable, but if they were once unassailable, that does not seem to be the case any longer.
Putin still outpolls other Russian political figures in most cases, but the results of two recent surveys by the independent Levada Center point to declines that cannot have gone unnoticed by the Kremlin -- and in one case clearly did not, as the state has lashed out at Western media outlets that published its results.
One Levada poll showed Putin's job-approval rating at 59 percent in April, the lowest it has been since he was a novice prime minister in 1999. In the other poll, in May, exactly one-quarter of the respondents named Putin when asked to name politicians they trust -- far below the 59 percent who named Putin when Levada began asking the question in 2017.
Putin's result was much higher than second-placed Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, at 14 percent. And the government has pointed out that, when respondents are asked simply whether or not they trust Putin, his ratings are substantially higher.
But with 25 percent of the population naming Putin when asked which politicians they trust, it might be hard to argue that there is no alternative.
And that essentially was Putin's argument, implied if not stated outright, for the option of seeking reelection in 2024 and again in 2030: Late last year, he started talking about the need for stability going forward -- remarks that some analysts saw, accurately, as hints that he was not necessarily going to stick with the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.
A new Levada poll seemed to strike another blow at the idea that there is no alternative to Putin.
Asked to name Russian public figures who inspire them, 8 percent named Putin and 4 percent named one of his best-known foes, Aleksei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and opposition politician who is ignored or vilified by state TV, whose name is rarely uttered publicly by top officials, and who was barred from challenging Putin in the 2018 election due to convictions in criminal cases he contends were fabricated.
But Navalny edged out Putin among people aged 40-54 and the two tied among people aged 25-39.
Some of Putin's poll numbers have been falling for a few years, but they appear to have taken an additional hit from the coronavirus, as Russians question the state's response to the pandemic and worry about their future economic security.
In a move that may have been influenced in part by concerns that the public mood might not improve much in the coming months, Putin has decided that the nationwide vote on constitutional changes -- including the one allowing him to seek two more terms reelection -- will be held on July 1.
It had been planned for April but was postponed -- like the Red Square military parade marking 75 years since the Nazi defeat in World War II, which will now be held on June 24 – due to the coronavirus.
The vote, which is not required by law, appears aimed at putting a stamp of public approval on the possibility of two more terms for Putin -- and by extension on the idea that he is indispensable.
But for some Russians, it seems certain to damage his legitimacy rather than deepening it.
When Putin faced term limits in 2008, he played by the rules, stepping aside into the prime minister's post for four years and steering Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency. When he announced in 2011 that he would seek to return to the Kremlin the following year, Russians hoping for change were dismayed if not surprised -- and he weathered their anger, cracking down on a wave of protests and using a combination of popularity and levers of power to win another term in 2018.
'Gone Too Far'
This time, instead of playing by the book he is rewriting it: tailoring the constitution to fit his plans rather than the other way around.
"Since the very beginning of the constitutional reform back in January, the state has been making up the rules as it went along, ignoring established procedures," Tatyana Stanovaya
a political analyst and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a June 9 article.
"I'd venture to predict that this vote will be a turning point when it comes to Putin's perceived legitimacy in Russia," journalist Leonid Ragozin wrote on Twitter on June 10, adding: "Gone too far."
Another upcoming vote -- not in Russia but in neighboring Belarus -- may also be giving Putin something to worry about, at least going forward.
Ahead of an August 9 vote in which he is seeking a new term, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is facing a perhaps unprecedented challenge to his authoritarian rule since he was first elected in 1994.
Belarus is about the closest thing Russia has to an ally. They have close military and trade ties and are long-time partners in a Union State that exists mainly on paper and in some offices.
Relations between Moscow and Minsk are often strained, and tension has been high in the past few years, as Lukashenka has sought to resist Russian pressure for closer integration -- suggesting that Putin wants to curtail his Belarus's sovereignty.
But, if Lukashenka is voted out or driven out of the presidency and replaced by someone "brought to power by the people," it would be an "unimaginable blow to the current Russian regime," according to Vladislav Inozemtsev, an economist and director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Post-Industrial Society.
"The events in Belarus are being underestimated in Russia at the moment, and that's a mistake," Inozemtsev wrote in an article in the Moscow newspaper MK on June 7, comparing developments there to the protests that swept entrenched leaders from power in Ukraine in 2014 and Armenia in 2018. "They show, in my view, how unstable post-Soviet authoritarian regimes are in this fast-changing world."
Events in the United States are also making waves in Russia, where many are airing their views about the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police in the Midwestern city of Minneapolis on May 25, and about the protests against racism and injustice that have ensued nationwide.
"A culture war like the one that has been waged in the United States for 30 years or more, between 'conservatives' and 'liberals,' has unfolded for real in Russia," journalist and commentator Konstantin Eggert wrote in a June 9 column in the online media outlet Snob.
"I don't believe that the current regime is irreplaceable, and I believe that it will soon leave the stage," Eggert wrote.
Russian responses to the U.S. developments "have revealed that a fierce ideological war for the future of Russia after Putin has already begun," he added. "At the moment, it's hard for me to imagine that it will end in a compromise."
Stanovaya, whose article was headlined "Putin's System Has Run Out Of Ideas," suggested that Russia's leadership is adrift but still has staying power -- making for an uncertain future and raising the prospect of "permanent destabilization."
"The regime appears increasingly precarious, but this is not to say that it will collapse: it still has plenty of resilience, and the public is disoriented and fearful of things getting worse," she wrote. However, she added, the state "will be unable to enter into dialogue should the public start to become politically active, and it is losing its consolidation, making it unable to speak with one unified voice."
"There is a risk that battling a public challenge will turn into a form of survival for some power groups, while others, amid the lack of unity, will move closer to those who are discontented and turn contact with them into an asset," Stanovaya wrote. "All of this will lead to a change in priorities. For much of the elite, a situation of permanent destabilization will no longer be a major threat, but a survival tactic."
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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