July 29, 2015
Analyst looks at realities, challenges of «post-Crimea» Russia
Tatyana Stanovaya, chief of the Centre for Political Technologies analysis department, Russia faces challenges of post-Crimea reality
The geopolitical crisis, the fall in world oil prices, sanctions and the fall in the value of the rouble have created a set of consequences that are having a negative effect on the living standards of the Russian population. Moreover, these consequences are both happening now, and may have a delayed effect too.
Set of social risks
Paradox: television against refrigerator. As of today, we can assert that from the financial point of view, the lives of the population, particularly the most unprotected strata, have started to deteriorate markedly. A poll by the Public Opinion Foundation shows that half of those polled have started economizing on food since the start of the year. Equally, we can assert that so far this has had no obvious political consequences for the authorities: ratings have been steadily high (or a rise in the approval rating for Vladimir Putin’s activity to a record 89 per cent is even in evidence). This imbalance will undoubtedly be of a temporary nature, but it is not likely to be eliminated in the next few years. The moment when social discomfort and uncertainty about the future develops into political demands may occur in the medium term, since in the short term the mobilizing «besieged fortress» effect will continue to operate.
Until this moment comes, we can expect a rise in the number of local protests of a social nature (for example, against individual reforms, as was the case with the health care reform, if usual concessions are withdrawn [for example, the partial withdrawal of concessions to pensioners in Moscow Region], against the rise in housing and municipal services tariffs, and so on). Such protests will hardly be on a mass, nationwide scale, but if they are acute, they will be able to get onto the federal agenda.
There is a possibility of the emergence of new social irritants of a political nature. For example, regarding the living standards of top managers of major state corporations. An anti-corporate trend may be among the political demands from ordinary people.
If social demands are transformed into political demands, the authorities’ ratings will inevitably fall. First and foremost, this will concern the ratings of institutions: the parliament, the government, elections, the party of power and the systemic opposition. Second, it may also entail a drop in Vladimir Putin’s ratings, although this process will be of a protracted nature. The president’s persona is for many Russians «pivotal», and without it, the existing «world view» will be subjected to serious testing. Moreover, whereas in the «pre-Crimea» period, Russians considered the possibility of alternatives to Putin (although not very actively, reckoning that these alternatives would be proposed to them «from above» and presented with the help of television), then now they have rallied around the leader.
The systemic opposition has stepped its activities, primarily the CPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation]. The adoption of state decisions, which pass through the State Duma, may become more politically controversial.
Post-Crimea reality: New Russia finding itself
A separate group of risks concerns the gradual depletion of the consolidating effect of the return of Crimea. The year 2014 was a year of a patriotic upsurge in the country and of society rallying around the president. Meanwhile, the real opposition, which was already weakened as a result of the «conservative wave», was pushed out to the margins. The post-Crimea effect in itself is the basis for the following array of risks:
The accumulation of social aggression, which is the consequence of the militarized media rhetoric that has been dominating the information area (which remains to a considerable extent controlled by the authorities). Aggression against the West, the «junta» and «fascists» in Ukraine, NATO and «foreign agents» and an increase in a kind of new «holy war» against Western ideology, Western interference, blasphemers, and so forth. This aggression will seek an outlet.
A crisis in the substance of the post-Crimea social contract. The victorious rhetoric of the return of Crimea has been replaced by the bellicose rhetoric of patriotism. However, such a replacement cannot fill up the substance of dialogue between the authorities and society fully and for long. The authorities can no longer offer the «pre-Crimea package» either: stability and a rise in wages and pensions. They are limited in putting forward an anti-corruption agenda (the Kremlin is forced to come to the defence of the government, bureaucracy, and major companies more often). But as June’s Levada Centre poll shows, 42 per cent are prepared to give up freedom of speech and a right to travel abroad freely only on condition that normal wages and decent pensions are guaranteed. And 49 per cent feel negatively about such a «deal».
The patriotic agenda, when set against social demands, loses strategically in a situation where society comes out of the «besieged fortress» mentality. As things stand now, social grudges against the authorities have not gone anywhere, but have been «stifled» by the domination in public awareness of the agenda connected with confrontation with the West (indeed both in the geopolitical sphere and in the moral sphere) and the Ukrainian events. However, if this is exhausted, the authorities have no new agenda which would be attractive to society.
Strategic impasse. Even before Crimea, the Russian authorities could not fully formulate their strategy in domestic and foreign policy intelligibly, or indeed in their economic policy. After Crimea, this has become even more difficult. A lack of a strategic view of the direction the country should be travelling in will lead to ill-considered and poorly researched decisions, and haste and opportunism in elaborating state policy.
Among the elites, there continues to be a call for reforms (statements by high-profile experts, including some made at the St Petersburg Forum, are evidence of this), but amid an extremely low level of faith in the existence of the authorities’ political will to carry them out. It is unclear how the Kremlin sees the country’s development in the case of the West’s sanctions policy being in place for a long term. This will further aggravate the low quality of the system of state administration.
An increase in conflicts within the elite. Differences of opinion will grow between the state and corporations ([Andrey] Belousov against [Igor] Sechin) and reformers against conservatives (the problem of the call for conducting reforms).
Array of conservative trends in domestic policy
The conservative wave started with the arrival of Vladimir Putin in the post of president at the beginning of 2012. However, the return of Crimea and confrontation with the West have intensified this trend many times over.
An increase in the number of legislative initiatives aimed at the conservation of the regime and its protection against external and internal «enemies» is to be expected. Furthermore, such initiatives may affect increasingly routine spheres of the citizens’ private lives (for example, this may concern regulating abortions, social networks and so on).
A tendency towards the spread and expansion of the repressive apparatus of the state can be observed. The police and special services are obtaining additional powers and this process will not be of a one-time nature, but will be a permanent process, steadily gathering momentum.
The tightening of control of political processes is taking place. Political expediency is devaluing the law. This has already been expressed in the adoption of the decision on moving the elections of the State Duma deputies from December to September 2016. To a certain extent, this decision really makes it possible to form the lower chamber of the parliament in more comfortable conditions (and this means the composition will also be more loyal, all other things being equal). At the same time, this approach means a change of the usual «rules of play», which suits the authorities and may set a precedent for the future.
In the long term we can expect the emergence of signs of a crisis in the regime’s traditional institutions. This means a crisis of confidence in the institution of governors, the majority of whose representatives are essentially Kremlin stooges. A rise in the number of regional political crises is likely, which may be connected either with the collapse of the governors’ ratings or their electoral incompetence, or else with internal conflicts in the elite between governor and mayor or governor and major regional player. A crisis in the institution of the party of power is also likely. At the beginning of 2012 One Russia was on the brink of reform and rebranding. However, after a drop in protest activity, its position remained stable, which does not guarantee a peaceful life for it in the future, if political turbulence intensifies.
A growth in the aggressiveness of the «protectionists» and a growth in the number of conflicts in the intellectual, scientific and civil spheres. The conflict over the opera Tannhauser was exceptional [the culture minister sacked a theatre director because the modern interpretation of the opera offended members of the Russian Orthodox Church]. However, if the country continues to move with the same momentum, such conflicts may become more frequent and painful. Furthermore, politically neutral representatives of society, such as, for instance the depoliticized cultural intelligentsia, politically inactive citizens, scientists and public organizations may increasingly be the victims of such conflicts, initiated by the «protectionists» (members of the Orthodox Church, conservatives, security agencies and so on). Such conflicts are fraught with risks of the formation of a split within society, excessive polarization within it and the radicalization of opinions.