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The Legitimacy Crisis


President Dmitry Medvedev (back) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wave to delegates at the United Russia congress on November 27.

President Dmitry Medvedev (back) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wave to delegates at the United Russia congress on November 27.

So the coronation has begun in earnest.

Amid deafening chants and thunderous applause, United Russia this weekend formally -- and unanimously -- nominated Vladimir Putin for a third term as president. The once-and-future national leader was, of course, in rare form, taunting the opposition, warning the West against trying to influence the elections, and announcing some populist initiatives.

But as several commentators have pointed out, this time the bluster carried a whiff of desperation. The ruling party's numbers are clearly falling precipitously, as are the tandem's -- albeit less so. Civil society is waking up from its long slumber and the opposition is getting increasingly surly.

That said, the Kremlin has more than sufficient resources -- administrative and otherwise -- to assure a victory for United Russia in the December 4 State Duma elections and for Putin in the presidential vote in March. (For anybody interested, "Vedomosti" had a fascinating piece recently about the mechanics of fixing elections in Russia.)

But then what? True, the authorities will have secured the formal legal basis to keep Putin and the current elite in power at least through 2018 -- if not 2024. But will they truly have a mandate?

An recent editorial in Gazeta.ru says no:

There is no unanimity regarding Putin's return to the throne in any audience other than one of specially selected zombies from United Russia. And the decline in United Russia's approval rating following the announcement of the shuffle at part one of the congress on September 24 and the drain of capital from the country, which accelerated after this, and the business of the booing at the Olympic Stadium are vivid confirmation of the citizenry's weariness with the new old regime.

Moreover, in the coming year, Russia's rulers will need to make some very unpopular moves -- most notably, reforming the country's social services, pension fund, and health-care system. Money will need to be found to upgrade Russia's creaking infrastructure. A way to diversify the economy away from its perilous dependence on commodities will need to be found.

Tough decisions will need to be made, but, as Gazeta.ru points out, there is thus far no indication that Putin or anybody else is ready to talk to the electorate about these things:

It is indicative that although the regional leaders and pro-power politicians evaluated Putin's speech at the congress as a program speech, not a single fresh idea was heard in it. General talk about justice, promises to raise taxes on the wealthy and ease the tax burden for small business (the regime has for 10 years done the exact opposite), and empty propaganda cliches as far as the traditional charge against some foreign states of attempts to influence the outcome of elections in the Russian Federation. The problem is that even these abstract promises are being made by a politician who has been ruling the country for more than 10 years now, has practically wiped out any opposition, and, in addition, spent his first two presidential terms under uniquely favorable conditions for Russia of the constant growth of the world prices of energy sources. Putin's speech not at the congress but shortly before it--at the final full sitting of the outgoing Duma--sounded particularly amusing in this respect. This speech contained two main propositions: first, United Russia handled the crisis splendidly, second, a new crisis, which none but the present regime can handle, is impending. The second proposition is directly refuted by the first.

The one person who was willing to talk about the difficult choices facing Russia's rulers, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, is now out of government.

So while the Kremlin tends to use elections as a legitimizing ritual, this time around elections -- regardless of the results -- are unlikely to provide the authorities with the legitimacy to govern effectively in the current economic and political climate.

In an insightful piece in Gazeta.ru last week, Grigory Golosov, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, asks a useful question. Where Russia's current rulers derive their legitimacy to govern?

What is the prevailing form of legitimacy in today's Russia? It certainly is not electoral legitimacy, of course. In the first place, the majority of citizens do not believe the elections are fair. In the second place, even the ones who do believe elections are fair do not regard elections as the actual way people rise to the top. This is confirmed by every public opinion poll. The decade of the current regime is to blame for this, of course, but so is the extremely unsuccessful 'democratic' experiment of the 1990s. In particular, Russian citizens remember one incident in 1996, when a politician with a 3-percent rating stayed in office after the election. To hell with these elections, the citizens concluded.

So, if it's not elections, what then is the source of Putin's legitimacy?

Putin's claim to be uniquely effective has always been the main source of the legitimacy of his regime. This claim has become less convincing in the last year or two, of course. Things kept moving along smoothly for a while, but then they suddenly stopped, and this is difficult to ignore.

The term 'unique effectiveness,' however, presupposes not only the ability to handle problems, but also the assumption that someone else would handle them less successfully than the current regime. That claim has not been refuted yet. The majority of our citizens believe there is no alternative because they do not see any alternatives.

And the only alternative people have to compare the current elite is the erratic presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the chaotic 1990s. And as Golosov points out, the regime has made the narrative that Putin and his team rescued Russia from this modern "time of troubles" -- when the Kremlin was the plaything of scheming oligarchs who pillaged Russia's wealth -- part of its legitimizing myth:

The Russian regime also has ideological legitimacy. It is far from totalitarian, of course. It has no binding ideology, but it does not need one. It does, however, have a set of theses the media constantly communicate to citizens: Russia is getting up off its knees, Putin is a tough guy and that is why Russia is respected, Putin will stand up for the people of Russia, and so forth. This is a moderate form of imperial nationalism, which strikes a chord in the hearts of our fellow countrymen, we must admit. This is especially true in view of the fact that the opposition leaders, as Putin himself once pointed out, only want power and money and are hanging around foreign embassies like jackals. Putin is protecting our national hydrocarbon resources from Western predators, is selling them at a good price, and is using the money from these sales to raise pensions. Two sources of the regime's legitimacy are combined at this point, forming a fairly convincing pattern.

But what will happen to this veneer of "unique effectiveness" when the Kremlin is faced with the budget crunch Kudrin says will come next year and lacks the popular mandate to address it? Running against the bad old '90s, the oligarchs, and the chaos worked fine for the past decade. But for many Russians, particularly the younger generation, the wild Yeltsin years are a distant -- and fading -- memory.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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