The 26 March protest can be seen as landmark. Drawing a sort of line under three years of Crimean consensus, it presents a new sociopolitical challenge to the regime. Amid social renewal it will be necessary to conduct a presidential campaign, the basic format and content of which, to all appearances, have not yet been finalized. What direction the public mood will develop in, and what the dynamics of support for the regime will be — these are things no one can predict right now. But there are at least three indicators of the emergence of dangerous threats to the stability of the regime’s rating.
For a very long time, right up to 2014-2015, the regime was bolstered by high personal support for Vladimir Putin among the population. At critical moments it declined, and at times of success it rose, but in any situation Putin as the main source of political legitimacy performed the role of cementing the entire system. From 2014-2015 the situation began to change. Observers have grown accustomed to blaming this on the geopolitical crisis, sanctions, and the fall in world oil prices. But what has actually been behind it is the process of formation (politicization) of a new oligarchic class. It is during this period that Putin’s entourage, having accumulated major assets and financial resources, has begun to turn into an oligarchy, an oligarchy very closely linked to the state, state companies, and the budget.
Putin’s elite, having remained for a very long time in the shadows, has begun to play a noticeable public role, and the president has to identify his attitude to it, inevitably a protectionist one. And whereas in the 2000s Putin could afford to lead the antioligarch trend, and all his close associates behaved discreetly and quietly, from 2014 he himself has been on the other side of the barricades — in opposition to the people’s anger. The formal grounds for this defense were the sanctions: Putin had to publicly stand up for those who had been «offended» by the West. But soon he had to shield his «friends» for quite different, domestic political reasons too: Arkadiy Rotenberg (the problem with the Plato system [new taxation system that led to truckers’ protests in 2015]), Igor Sechin (wages, bonuses, dachas and yachts), Turchak (the beating up of [journalist] Oleg Kashin). The new oligarchy — in which the population includes not only the head of state’s business friends but also all his proteges within the «vertical of power» — has prompted the beginnings of the first marked expression of social negativity.
The clearest sign of this so far has been the fall in the rating of Dmitriy Medvedev, who has become a «suitcase without a handle» for Putin. In March the Premier’s approval rating fell straight off by 10 percent — from 52 percent to 42 percent — and reached its lowest level for the past 10 years — a likely consequence of the distribution of the film made by Aleksey Navalnyy’s Foundation for Combating Corruption. At the same time, Putin clearly does not intend to abandon Medvedev, at least not yet. Confidence is also falling in regional leaders and the State Duma, and also in the regime as a whole. And the number of people who are convinced that corruption has struck the organs of power from top to bottom has increased by 7 percent in a year.
In fact, the attitude to corruption is interesting not from the viewpoint of whether the population recognizes its existence, but from the viewpoint of emotional perceptions of it. So long as the public responds to the issue of theft in a routine manner («everyone steals and will go on stealing»; «nothing can be done about it»), the problem will remain depoliticized. But when acts of corruption begin to arouse negative feelings, the issue will become political. To all appearances, this is what is happening now: The contrast between people’s assessment of their own position and of the position of the elite is becoming increasingly striking from the viewpoint of social justice, and perceptions of this are becoming increasingly negative and distinctly emotional. This is giving rise to that political energy whose accumulation leads later to increased activity from below and the return of the street factor to domestic politics.
Another particular feature of the current period is the routinization of Crimea. Russians’ general attitude to the incorporation of the peninsula remains stably positive and high, but there has been a fall in the number of people who reckon that Crimea and Sevastopol’ should receive a greater amount of aid from the federal budget than other regions: Such people currently account for just 10 percent, as against 23 percent in March 2014. Positive emotion and euphoria are gradually being displaced by rational arguments. Crimea may be ours, but not at any price. The slogan «Crimea is ours» is acquiring a new meaning — given to it by the people rather than by Putin.
This may be why the Kremlin is now making an effort to reduce the emotional «Crimean excitement» coming from below, realizing that playing on emotions can cause harm and give rise to irritation. Thus, Putin did not attend the celebration of the anniversary of the incorporation of Crimea, and the status of the main celebratory event was also reduced somewhat.
The Levada Center’s last poll confirms that Russians are «getting used» to Crimea. On the one hand, there is historical justice, in accordance with which an overwhelming majority believe in the importance of the peninsula’s return. On the other hand, a sense of social justice has arisen, based on domestic nonacceptance of what appears to be the privileged status of the new Russian Federation component and of the Crimeans.
All this will significantly complicate efforts to use the Crimean factor as a means of mobilization — in support both of the regime as a whole, and of Putin in the context of his election campaign.
Finally, there is another challenge here — the contradiction between the «Crimean agenda» (which remains chauvinistic, rigidly conservative, even isolationist) and the real agenda dictated by the financial-economic crisis and the continuing desire to get on, if not with the United States, then with certain Western leaders. However rapidly Russia moves away from the West and the Western model of democracy, the main deterrent against «Lukashenkization» — Putin’s fear of the role of pariah — remains topical. Moreover, it is important to note that the concept of «pariah» is dangerous for Putin not from the viewpoint of the degree to which he is not accepted by the leaders of major powers, but from the viewpoint of the risk of a decline in his real influence on international issues. In this sense, the «Crimean agenda» overheated and began to play a negative role, prompting the formation of an aggressively autonomous class of reactionaries, who are geared toward preserving «values» rather than Putin, and who are influencing the demonization of Russia.
Experts, political analysts, and journalists are, admittedly, slightly tired of sociological polls. This is a worldwide phenomenon, but it has its own particular characteristics in Russia: Comments like «how many!» (people support Putin), «all polls are fixed,» and «is Russia’s revolution coming soon?» (in a month or at most two?) can be heard regularly. But the question now is not how many people actually support the regime, but how stable Putin’s high rating is. This can be assessed only by very indirect signs, which serve as markers of the Kremlin’s potential problems in the future. One of these markers may be Russians’ distancing of themselves from the regime. The proportion of citizens who are definitely not prepared to take part personally in politics has reached a record level for recent years — 52 percent. The proportion of respondents who avoid contact with the regime and «rely solely on themselves» is 61 percent.
Aloofness from politics is not a new phenomenon. And even the record figure does not actually represent a fundamental change (in 2006 and 2012, 49 percent were not prepared to take part in politics). But it makes it possible to understand the nature of the social support for a regime that derives its legitimacy from the delegation of political functions to the «national leader.» This delegates to him not governance, as in a classic democracy, but the performance of legitimizing functions, those same functions that in the Constitution are assigned to the people. Putin is permitted to elect parliament, to appoint governors and senators, and in this situation even elections seem superfluous, or rather, a duplication of effort.
The danger for Putin in such a situation is that this privilege of performing political functions of legitimization on behalf of the people has been given to him personally. Neither Medvedev nor United Russia has this legitimacy, enjoying «support» as Putin’s agents. But when Putin starts introducing into this system Rotenbergs and Kovalchuks, Sechins and Chemezovs, these latent powers of Putin’s are devalued. A more marked aloofness from politics in these conditions could signal declining confidence in Putin’s real ability to significantly improve the quality of life and living standard of the population, but meanwhile his rating may remain stably high. Support for the President is becoming ritualistic, reflecting not a positive (active) attitude toward him but a passive attitude toward what is happening, and fear that things are going to get worse.
If 2016 saw the start of active adaptation to the new reality by the regime (personnel shakeup and new style of governance), in 2017 transformations will begin in society. The increase in activity will indeed be bottom-up, and this will hardly be thanks to the opposition, which will have to confront growing competition, both from among the nonsystem forces and from system forces trying partly to offer the regime their arbitration and communication services. Both the elites and the population are beginning to test their abilities in a situation in which a certain landmark in the consensual moratorium on activity has been passed. Soon a new landmark will emerge between the increasingly technocratic (neutrally mechanized) regime and the increasingly lively public and business environment. And if the dynamic of these processes proves to be high, the time of change may arrive before the date of the vote for new Putin term.