The federal and regional elections were seen by the elite as a kind of line beyond which the meaningful discussion of modernization projects would begin. However, following the end of the election season, the reverse trend is being observed…
The closure of Jock Sturges’s exhibition “Without Embarrassment” at the Lumiere Brothers Photography Center was a major scandal, while [Federation Council member] Yelena Mizulina’s proposal to withdraw abortions from the system of compulsory medical insurance proved to be the subject of the week. The latter was also supported by the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. At legislative level, documents on banning baby boxes [hatches at hospitals where unwanted infants can be left] are also being prepared. All this has generated broad public discussions, provoking pessimistic feelings regarding the direction of the country’s development.
The conservative political trend became the mainstream in 2012, and now it is maintaining and even strengthening its dominance. The State Duma elections not only did not moderate its influence, but rather the reverse — they created the right conditions for a more aggressive conservative agenda. The new composition of the parliament is ideologically more paternalistic, anti-liberal, and markedly patriotic. But it is precisely that parliament that has to adopt unpopular social decisions and take responsibility for the government’s policy amid shrinking resources.
At the same time, unlike in the 1990s or even in the first half of the 2000s, the current parliament is completely politically dependent on the Kremlin, and no problems should emerge with the adoption of the necessary laws. However, it is important to prepare for the fact that this kind of forcing through will inevitably provoke political polarization between the social-conservatives in the loyal political field and the executive authorities. Plus, differing interpretations of socioeconomic priorities and banal bargaining over budget expenditure will overlap with the emergence of ideological confrontation. It is possibly too early to talk about this, but difficulties in relations between the State Duma leadership and the cabinet of ministers cannot be ruled out either, given the election of Vyacheslav Volodin to the post of speaker of the lower chamber of the parliament.
It is also worth drawing attention to the fact that the ideological disputes which in previous years were relatively marginal and corporate (for example, they were relayed as a viewpoint regarding a narrow social stratum) are now rising to a higher state level. In particular, the discussion of the subject of the possible withdrawal of abortions from the medical insurance system has become meaningful. In response to the proposal of the Russian Orthodox Church and a number of conservatives within the authorities (and children’s ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova and Yelena Mizulina can be categorized as such), Vice Premier Olga Golodets suggested first of all to remove the reasons why a woman would terminate a pregnancy rather than restricting abortions. And Ministry of Health head Veronika Skvortsova admitted that withdrawing abortions from the system of compulsory medical insurance may create a threat to women’s health.
The conservative ideology that is associated with the authorities and that puts forward traditional values and patriotism is also becoming institutionalized. Its political role is also growing: Adherence to traditional values is becoming a sign of political identification in the system of coordinates of pro-Putin — anti-Putin forces. Hence the non-random stratification between the opposition community, where liberal feelings prevail, and the pro-authorities groups, which fiercely (and sometimes aggressively) defend a conservative agenda. The intensification of this ideological stratification may lead to a situation whereby the supporters of liberal reforms will be seen even more as a hostile destabilizing force (although this trend already exists now). Let us note, however, that a large proportion of the Russian elites looks at such trends cautiously or with hostility. This is notably connected with the desire to protect the private life to which they are accustomed, in which the conservatives are interfering increasingly frequently (both careerists who wish to advance, making use of the trend that is taking shape, and bluenoses who believe in conservative values). Another reason for the hostility on the part of the elites is a reluctance to experience rivalry from the active conservatives.
Another important feature is that the institutionalization, spread, and dominance of conservative ideology in the pro-authorities strata is occurring without any direct intervention from the Kremlin, but with its tacit agreement. The conservative trend is gaining increasing momentum in this connection, and becoming increasingly less controllable. This was clearly visible in the situation surrounding Jock Sturges’s controversial exhibition. The photographer, who specializes in photographing nudists, really does have a very mixed reputation (in the United States attempts were made, although unsuccessfully, to find proof against him of pedophilia), but his works have already been acknowledged as classics of world photographic art. Natalya Grigoryeva, director of the Lumiere Brothers Photography Center, who in fact brought over his works, told [cultural website] colta.ru that Sturges’s photographs are “classics which today are seen as conservatism.” The conflict arose after the famous pro-authorities blogger and provocateur Lena Miro wrote a post in which she accused the organizers of the exhibition of propaganda for pedophilia, demanding that the law enforcement organs should close it. Children’s ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova, Yelena Mizulina, and also Anton Tsvetkov, leader of the Officers of Russia movement and member of the Public Chamber, immediately responded to this, sharply condemning the organizers of the exhibition. After Tsvetkov visited it, the exhibition was closed.
However, the conflict itself flared up in an unexpected way, not between the liberals and the conservatives, but between the “protectors” themselves: After visiting the center, Tsvetkov eased his stance considerably, accusing Lena Miro of provocation. As it turned out, the exhibition was showing photographs of adults, and there was no violation of Russian law. In her interview with colta.ru, Grigoryeva pointed out that she started experiencing pressure and receiving threats of reprisals in the complete absence of any response from the organs of power: Neither the Ministry of Culture, nor the law enforcement organs asked her to adopt any measures. The exhibition was closed solely as a result of pressure from the “protectors,” operating outside the legal framework.
Incidentally, Lena Miro herself soon assailed Yelena Mizulina with criticism for her initiative to ban baby boxes. At the same time, according to Kommersant’s information, the government supported the ban, although the conclusion of the cabinet of ministers is being interpreted very broadly and leaves room for compromise. Anna Kuznetsova also advocated a ban on baby boxes, but then the representative’s apparatus clarified that the children’s ombudsman is not “a supporter of the policy of bans,” and advocates preventive work with women. Vice Premier Olga Golodets’s public statement about baby boxes also “can be interpreted variously,” the official’s apparatus reported to Kommersant, without elucidating what she said. The Russian Federation Presidential Council for Human Rights called the proposal to ban abortions “cynical and out of touch with life.”
As we can see, the conservative trend, which is increasingly pronounced, and is also being displayed in lawmaking work, is nevertheless already coming into conflict with its own restrictors. Both the subject of abortions and the subject of the ban on baby boxes have generated the widest discussions, in which there has been no agreement even among the bearers of “traditional values” themselves. It is important, however, that as the conservative wave grows, the overall strife in the political sphere and the aggressiveness of the players may intensify. At the same time, for the authorities, excessive activeness by the ideological conservatives presents a considerable risk — from the outset, they have been using the conservative wave as a tool and are not interested in the emergence of red guards from conservatism, who could level moral accusations against the authorities themselves. In certain cases this is already starting to happen — thus, an orthodox activist from Novosibirsk, Yuriy Zadoya, in May demanded the dismissal of Governor Vladimir Gorodetskiy, accusing him of insufficiently protecting traditional values. It is not surprising that the authorities “are calling to order” the conservatives who have gone too far — the sharp change in Tsvetkov’s stance on the exhibition is evidently a consequence of this.
The situation regarding Patriarch Kirill’s anti-abortion stance is also interesting — last week he signed a very radical appeal demanding a ban on abortions without any exceptions (the document prepared by a group of orthodox fundamentalists did not even talk about the possibility of abortion in the case of danger to the life of the woman). At the same time, Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the synodal department for mutual relations between the church, society, and the mass media, explained that the Russian Orthodox Church does have a sharply negative attitude to abortions, but understands the “prevailing situation in society and the state,” and at present insists only on withdrawing abortions from the compulsory medical insurance system. Thus, the church in its own way is also trying to “feel about for” a compromise, although to a number of state departments its stance looks too rigid, while to conservative activists it looks excessively soft.
At the same time, a reformist trend has also existed throughout 2016. In its first months the legitimization of establishment liberals was observed. Aleksey Kudrin joined the presidential council for economic development, whose work was unblocked. He also started getting actively involved in work at government level and taking part in government conferences and sessions. The authorities are convinced of the need to improve the system of state management, which Dmitriy Medvedev publicly admitted 30 September. “We must admit that the criticism that is being voiced about the state management system for being insufficiently flexible and having a low level of efficiency is absolutely just. The machinery of state is indeed unwieldy (…). The ideas that could advance the country in the most varied spheres are simply being dashed against the walls of administration. And it is clear that the laws that are being adopted do not work as they should,” the premier said. The alarmist statements on the finite nature of the reserves of sovereign funds, on the need for rapid privatization, on the growing problem of the budget deficit, and the pension problem, which has not been resolved for years, and so on, are also making a far greater clamor.
This kind of situation also creates the need for more progressive mechanisms of state management, budget planning, and the formation of administrative levers of influence on the economy and business. However, side by side with this agenda, in practice, practically all initiatives remain at the level of experts’ discussions. Thus, large-scale privatization is being postponed definitively: The Ministry of Finance is only putting 40-50 billion rubles [R] into the 2017 budget as revenue from privatization. There are no serious blocks of shares to sell, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said. The sale of state blocks of shares in Rosneft and Bashneft is planned for 2016, which may bring in R1 trillion, but the privatization of these blocks of shares is too politicized and is stalling. Medvedev’s assurances of 30 September that privatization will be conducted by the end of 2016 seem unconvincing. It is also telling that the work of the presidential economic council looks suspended again — it has not met since May (under the updated provisions, sessions should be held at least once a quarter).
The reasons for this slowdown are well-known by now: First and foremost, it is a lack of political will, President Putin’s lack of involvement in resolving budget tasks, the bureaucratic weakness of the government (although now this situation has started changing somewhat, and a certain strengthening of Medvedev’s position can be observed). We must add to this the factor of the conservative trend, which, in spite of certain restrictors, remains very serious.
The authorities’ need to reduce expenditure is also leading to the adoption of unpopular decisions (freezing the indexation of maternity capital, the raising of excise duty on gasoline, and so on), and a considerable proportion of them are yet to be adopted. But the authorities are dragging their feet with conducting the reforms, and Vladimir Putin has directly asked the government to give up on shock therapy. The authorities’ fear of social and political destabilization coinciding with the growth in the conservative trend is essentially blocking the political will for changes, and raising the risks for any reformist agenda: Because the more clearly expressed is the conservative political direction, the higher the political costs of conducting the reforms, promoting them, implementing them at legislative level, and normative and legal provision for them, will be. At the same time, the conservative trend is being backed up increasingly frequently by personnel policy, while the liberal trend by an acute need for reforms. The intensification of awareness of the inevitability of institutional reforms and a liberal economic policy is coming into conflict with the rise in the conservative trend.