The elections will be soon but the regime is clearly impeding the drawing up of the new post-Crimean agenda, which should formulate the political proposal directed towards the future. The Kremlin is busy with foreign policy, it has left the economy to the theoreticians who are notorious for being incapable of reaching agreement among themselves, and in domestic policy a struggle is underway between its own people: for positions and not for ideas. The elections, it seems, are becoming a planned, routine operation where whoever wins will be a Putin man. There is neither the money nor the interested parties to devise things, to invent grandiose plans or projects. This is not just an agenda crisis; it is a program vacuum.
Officially it can of course be said that the regime is proposing a traditional agenda: patriotism, sovereignty, the meeting of social commitments, the May decrees (which they suddenly remembered), a cautious fight against corruption, and even a development strategy for the next 20 years. This is what the ruling Putin elite has taken to elections over the past four years. Let us add to this the relatively recent “Crimea is Ours” and import replacement. The people like this. Officially, of course, this is the agenda. But in fact it is not. The ideology of the “besieged fortress”, isolationist tendencies, concessions over Ukraine, bargaining with the West from a position of weakness, alongside increasing jingoistic rhetoric – all of this is a form of adaptation by the elite to a new reality, in which virtually no place remains for the ordinary people.
Literally the entire declared agenda so far relates to matters of state and not private interests. Strengthening the state, not ruining the country, consolidating society, developing institutions – all of this is quite right, but what is the regime de facto offering in the elections today to the imaginary grannies and grandads, workers and peasants, public sector workers and entrepreneurs? The real agenda is proving to be anti-social, conservative, in parts repressive, and focused on the interests of the elite, something that is quite obvious both from the public stances on controversial issues and from the actual decisions.
The new political proposal that the regime is already taking to the elections is dictated by circumstances and the objective reality, in which the ruling elite is forced to exist. The key points in this proposal also comprise the contract between society and the regime, which has been rewritten by history.
The first point in such a contract is social asceticism. “There is no money but you hold on there,” – the completely non-coincidental outburst by Dmitriy Medvedev, immediately supported by Vladimir Putin. The indexation of pensions – in line with the residual principle, the increase in public sector salaries – at some point in the future. A food economy is useful, it is the Russian way, it is even patriotic. First Channel reports how Western consumer society, with 70 percent of its population overweight, is rotting. “Eat your pineapples, chew your grouse; your last day is coming, you bourgeois louse” [quote from the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovskiy] is about Russia today. There is and there will be no money – the regime is sending this message to the people, without any shame at all, or even camouflaging it in finer forms. So far the people are responding with a willingness to be patient.
The second point is the Putinization of the elite. Until 2014 the power structure of the regime was based on there being Putin on the one hand; as the only identikit ruler legitimizing the entire system on his own, and on the other – the people who agreed with this. After 2014, when sanctions were introduced against Russia, “Putin” was transformed into a phenomenon that was not personified but systemic. The “politically responsible elite” and Putin’s patriots were added to the national leader.
Seeking to defend his associates from sanctions, Putin had to share his legitimacy with an appreciable section of his entourage: The Rotenbergs, the Kovalchuks, Timchenko, Roldugin. Those who until 2014 were relatively in the shadow (it was primarily those who studied politics professionally who had heard of them) became an important phenomenon in the public, social sphere. And now the regime, in advancing a proposal for the elections, is automatically demanding the support not only of Putin but also of his associates, who are becoming part of the regime structure. Unofficially they are a mandatory appendix to the national leader, and this is not a forced but an entirely deliberate and desired decision by Putin, who is willingly and without regret sharing his legitimacy with those who may soon turn into reputational devourers of the successes of the Putin era. It is like marrying a woman who later suddenly has five children turn up demanding food and lodging. For the ordinary person the unilateral re-writing of the social contract also has a completely practical point expressed, for example, in the appearance of the Platon system, which has been publicly and unambiguously supported by the president.
Third point – war: the undeclared hybrid war against Russia unleashed by the countries of the West, America and their weak-willed allies. This would appear to actually relate to the interests of the state. But that is no longer the case. The state has firmly come to the defense of the interests of each ordinary Russian, protecting him from pernicious Western influence. Restrictions on going abroad, accounting to the tax service for foreign accounts, making liability for taking part in protest actions more severe, criminal proceedings for reposting on the social networks, dismissal from work for political views, closure of access to the websites of the non-system opposition, critical narrowing of choice in the field of quality business and political journalism: the war is slowly but surely moving from the television into the private lives, if not of everyone, then of many people. Yes, the majority today do not want to protest against Putin. But five years or so ago they did not want to, but they were able to. The majority today despise the liberals, but five years ago they could have a media choice between the jingoistic media and the quality press. Such a choice has been narrowed today, not voluntarily but by force.
The fourth point – the self-improvement of the system created instead of changing it. Putin is convinced that everything in Russia is okay. The economy is about to rise, we have slid across the bottom (and it was not our fault at all), and inflation is falling. The democratic process of developing competition is in full swing in the political sphere: between the All-Russian People’s Front and United Russia, United Russia and United Russia, the All-Russian People’s Front and Putin’s self-nominated candidates, and between self-nominated candidates for Putin and United Russia. An almost perfect political system, an almost effective economy. “Everything is okay in our country,” that is what Putin has been saying to the people for the past three years.
Some people may think that reforms are on the agenda, but that is a mistake: Kudrin’s inclusion in the Economic Council (which Putin was not even able to name correctly, calling it the Expert Council) is no more than the search for politically attractive ideas, and not a manifestation of the will for change. Objectively there is not a single signal nor the slightest hint that Putin is willing in practice to embark on a transformation of the system: judicial reform, protecting private ownership rights, developing the institution of economic competition, de-monopolization, real privatization (and not the selling-off of minority holdings to friends and allies). The conservative trend is not only not yielding to a reforming trend but is actually becoming stronger.
The tentative self-improvement is easily paraphrased in a more mundane and simple form for the ordinary Russian, and it means more or less the following: nothing fundamental will change in your lives, do not count on the state. They are even recommending that people save for pensions themselves, that is, there is competition between different scenarios of counter-reforms of the pension system. And the promised support for entrepreneurs (in the form of United Russia’s entrepreneurial initiative) is in practice turning into trite lobbying for a softening of monetary policy, moreover that has arisen as a competitor to the liberal platform in the same party of power. The entrepreneurial lobby is becoming less and less liberal – another peculiarity of the regime.
Finally, point five – the simplest and best known: fools and roads. The fools are the agreed “scape goats”, whose public and criminal liability will help the regime to jettison ballast. These are the prosecuted governors, arrested mayors, and businessmen fined for delaying salaries. In addition, as the icing on the cake, there will definitely be the arrest of “criminals” – for example, the son of the vice president of Lukoil. These local and exceptional cases are artificially elevated to general ones, characteristic of the regime. But this is not the case: the regime is not only not ready for a systematic fight against corruption, it considers it dangerous.
Roads remain. But in combination with fools, you do not get a pretty picture: it is not only Western-type democracy that does not take root in Russia, but also asphalt. However, this does not prevent road repair from being declared the main national idea of 2016, although the scale of course is growing smaller (in 2007 they were “national projects”, in 2012 – the May decrees). And if it were not for the protests against Platon they would not even have got to the roads: it was the reaction to the unrest that was the reason for the road fever that has seized the regions today. After Putin’s hotline, where road repair was finally confirmed as the latest fixed idea, the demonstration of zeal in this field has become an important condition for the political survival of regional and local bosses. There may perhaps not actually be any roads, but there will be repairs everywhere.
A peculiarity of the 2016 elections will be the fact that the regime is embarking on them with a program to defend the interests of the state (the regime), which almost entirely supplants private interests. There are no longer any voters or their problems either: it is becoming dangerous even to complain. And the actual agenda has been replaced by a meagre “field ration”, which meets minimal political requirements.
But in line with tradition, much will be promised, generously, and, most importantly, abstractly. A favorable business climate, social protection, accessible services, and all sorts of other nice things: the public rhetoric will diverge more and more from practice. The year 2016 is becoming the year when the difference between television Russia and real Russia forms so clearly; between the declared agenda and the agenda that is objectively taking shape. That is how the moral wear and tear of a regime begins.