Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Power Vertical

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 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 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 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

Tags: Vladimir Putin,United Russia,2011 State Duma elections,2012 presidential election

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Comment Sorting
by: Jack from: Hibbing, MN
November 29, 2011 16:29
This reminds me of a nice legitimacy piece you all did a few years back:
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
November 30, 2011 12:40
As I would expect from RFE, an anti-Putin piece, but a fairly reasoned one (unlike some of the other more propaganda-like stuff one reads here at times). I think that a Putin return to the Presidency is still the best alternative at this point-- as long as he can make progress and quit after one term. He has done a lot of good for Russia, but the limitations in the system that he created have become more apparent since 2008. As is admitted above, however, there are no attractive alternatives to his return.
In Response

by: Jack from: Hibbing, MN
December 01, 2011 10:26
The old "there are no attractive alternatives" line is pretty tired, Marko. Of course, Russia is a closed political system where everything is managed, the media are controlled, elections are nothing but political theater and all legitimate avenues for expressing alternative political programs are closed. So, of course, there are no attractive alternatives. This isn't an accident or a misfortune or a shortcoming on Russia's part. It is the design of any authoritarian system and one of the biggest arguments that Putinism is a fundamental failure. And 12 more years of Putinism is only going to increase that failure.

by: Paleo from: England
December 01, 2011 09:21
Why doesn't Putin be honest and declare himself Autocrat of All the Russias? It's not as though he doesn't act like one...
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
December 01, 2011 12:25
OK Jack, enlighten me. As I see it, there are three main alternatives to the current regime. Nationalists who would set off a plethora of ethnic wars within Russia, communists who are passe and out of touch with 21st-century realities, and liberals who are in the pay of foreign governments and almost destroyed the country in their last go round in power (and who have no other plan but to repeat that failure). Great alternatives there-- sheesh... Besides , one can also look at the world currently and determine that Putin's system (for all its flaws) works better than many. Who is in better shape now-- the West with its unsustainable debts, "tails we win heads the taxpayers lose" out of control financial elites and dysfunctional politics? India with its chaos, caste system, and starving underclass. China, with its inflexible, truly authoritarian system (Russia is far freer hybrid)? Globalization has produced a troubled is all about finding that narrow path to negotiate the difficulties. Simple, one size fits all approaches do not work in such circumstances-- read the stuff this morning on Egypt's elections and learn.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
December 01, 2011 22:42
Yes, the West has unsustainable debts, but Russia's debts are only just beginning. Russian debt is expected to increase dramatically by 2015. Firing Kudrin was the worst mistake the Kremlin could have made because he was one of the few pushing Putin to avoid unsustainable debts. Russia also cannot guarantee foreign investments will be safe in the country and it is having trouble diversifying away from commodities. I'm supposed to believe this is a better system of government? No way! Russia continues to bleed people and capital to other parts of the world.
In Response

by: Jack from: Hibbing, MN
December 02, 2011 09:54
OK, Marko, I'll enlighten you. There are no "main alternatives" to Putin in Russia. The nationalist/communist/liberal pseudo-choice that you outline is a script written by the Kremlin to give the appearance of unattractive choices. Of course, you know that. If Putin allowed an open political system and fair elections, real alternative programs would emerge. Russians are perfectly capable of forming rational parties and promoting sensible politicians, as they showed in the only relatively free elections they have ever had, both following the 1905 revolution and in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Saying that Putin or nationalism or communism is the best thing that Russia can produce is simply a demonstration of gross contempt for Russia. Saying that Russia must choose only between authoritarianism and chaos, to my mind, is a sign of someone who really hates Russia. Keep trying, Marko.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
December 04, 2011 23:50
Sing it loud, Marko. When Russia gets as expert at rigging elections as the political operatives in the United States - the world's model democracy - are, let me know. One of them - Allen Raymond, well-known for having masterminded the phone-jamming scheme that took out the Democrats' phone lines on election day in 2002 - even wrote a book about it. "How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative". Hmmmm.. not a lot of grey area there.

It would seem to me that the GOP in America would have suffered from a "Legitimacy Crisis", but apparently not; they're still campaigning, and their candidate-designate appears to think he's qualified to lead the country despite his business experience in the private sector having consisted of buying companies, breaking them up and selling them off, putting Americans out of work. He seems to believe he has the legitimacy to govern, and God knows he's paid enough from his personal fortune for his crack at the presidency, not to mention campaigned for 6 years.

I give full marks for their deafness to irony; "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)..." What audience is that complaint destined to move? Certainly not the United States, where income inequality between rich and poor has ballooned since the mid-1980's and now stands at an all-time high. is owned by Alisher Usmanov. Alisher Usmanov is the 18th-richest man in Russia, and 35th-richest in the world. This is his modest country place in England.

England must be bigger than I remember, if they can afford to sell 300 acres of it to Usmanov. Anyway, just between you and me, I find arguments from Usmanov's newspaper that Russia is going easy on the rich while putting the screws to the little guy kind of comical.

And now, Putin has no new ideas. Well, I suppose there's something to that. Well, Europe and the west are full of leaders who had all kinds of new ideas. You might want to try their formula. Doesn't seem to be working for them very well, but you never know.
In Response

by: Myself from: The world
December 02, 2011 13:09
Whats the differance between David Cameren
& Putin?
Both are loaded, Both can invade anywhere in particular.
I guess you could claim the same of both sides
The world isn't free
Russia is no more demcratic then the Uk
both have their ways of bending the rules
to suit themseleves.
The world would be a safer place if
Russia & the Uk were allies in it together
WoW well people can only dream.
David Cameren will probly ruin the Uk.
The mistake the The Conservite party made in Uk
made was giving up it's industry & selling it off in the 1980's
for a more profitable commerse banking system
which looked great in the 80's but now the commese banking system has come to a stop
things don't look great for the Uk in debt of
994 billion hitting the Trillion mark next year.
In Response

by: foma from: moscow
December 02, 2011 21:27
I suppose much of the backlash could have been avoided if Medvedev had held on to power. What anyways was the "logic" behind Putin's return to the Presidency? The Tandem was a very stable system and gave the regime and air of legitimacy. Now it's been compromised. Suffice it to say that the next six years don't look promising…

Then again, who are we to question the political skill of Putin & Co. of whom the Tandem was their brainchild? I'm sure they've got something up their sleeve. Whether it is capable of effectively managing the country remains to be seen. Unless, that is, people (including Putin) think that the Tandem has NOT been compromised and is still a viable political framework? I have my doubts though.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 04, 2011 13:18
Are you really so ignorant that you are unaware that Britain has seen power change hands between rival ideologies many times? Tony Blair was a socialist and Margaret Thatcher was a capitalist. Britain has a real court system with judges who act without regard to what the nation's ruler wants. And MANY people in other countries criticize Britain for having state-controlled media. Meanwhile, the per capital GDP of Britain is FAR higher than that of Russia, and it's people live far longer. Your comments make you look like a neo-Soviet gorilla, the same type we laughed at before the USSR collapsed, repeating propaganda lines fed to him by his government like an ignorant animal rather than thinking on his own. Is that really who you are?

by: Mark from: Victoria
December 06, 2011 03:57
"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?"

Kudrin, Kudrin, Kudrin. Kudrin the amazing psychic, whose every word - now that he's on the outs with the Kremlin - takes on the significance of prophesy. You mean the Kudrin who dug in his heels and said throwing more money into benefits and salaries would wreck the economy? That Kudrin? Oddly enough, he thought throwing money at benefits was a great idea in 2005, when it was his idea.

The Kudrin that Zyuganov - now a darling of western interests himself as he looks like the most solid opposition to Putin - demanded be fired back in 2008 for his supposed poor response to the financial crisis? That Kudrin?

I'll make you a friendly wager, Brian - a drink of choice from the loser to the winner, to be decided by agreement - that there will not be any "budget crunch" for Russia next year. With oil already up over $100.00 a barrel again, the U.S. recovery beginning to pick up steam in spite of Republican obstructionism, the crisis with Iran (world's third-biggest producer, if I remember correctly) ratcheting up daily and the unsustainability of Saudi Arabia's unilateral pumping increases, I feel pretty good that there's still growth for Russia in energy revenues. What do you say; are you in?

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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