As Russian history repeats itself, Putin becomes Yeltsin

For the first time, President Putin has assumed full personal responsibility for an unpopular decision that directly infringes on the lives of most Russians. The effects are already visible in the slumping popularity of President Putin, who could be looking for an electoral out as he follows the downhill path of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin celebrate Independence Day in 2003
As President Vladimir Putin opens his fourth term, Russia’s increasingly creaky political regime is starting to resemble the latter years of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • For the first time, President Putin has taken responsibility for unpopular fiscal policies
  • Kremlin candidates then fared poorly in some direct elections for region governors
  • Elites are starting to debate whether to use elections to manage political succession
  • These seemingly minor developments may portend more sweeping, sudden changes

That Russia’s retirement pension reform – which centers around a radical increase of retirement age – would have major political repercussions was obvious the moment it was announced in the spring of 2018. However, the consequences have occurred sooner and turned out to be more serious than one could have expected. While the situation is still developing, some conjectures about its future course can already be made.

The decisive event was President Vladimir Putin’s address to the nation on August 29, when he explicitly endorsed the reform. In the address, he considered and rejected other means to plug the hole in public finances, such as switching to a more progressive scale of income tax, bigger state levies on petroleum income, and asset sales of state property.

He did not discuss curbing corruption and improving state management as possible savings measures, nor mention the pension privileges of military and state officials. Likewise, he made no attempt to redress the moral trauma of the reform, which may have inflicted political damage outweighing its economic impact. Mr. Putin’s closing phrase – “I am expecting your understanding” – caused a powerful surge of rage among ordinary Russians.

Mr. Putin’s adjustments to the reform were either predictable (no one doubted that the retirement age for women would be raised by five years, not by eight, as for men), cosmetic or absurd. Introducing criminal liability for employers for “unwarranted dismissal or refusal to employ” people within five years of retirement age only means that any sane employer will regard older staff as toxic. Any worker approaching this key age bracket will become virtually untouchable on the labor market. This will provide a good illustration of the economic law of unintended consequences. Unfortunately, however, the damage goes much deeper.

Predecessor’s path

For the first time ever, Vladimir Putin has assumed full personal responsibility for an unpopular decision that directly infringes on the interests of most Russians. The role of “kamikaze warrior” who sacrifices political prestige for ambitious and unpopular policies was traditionally assigned to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and it was expected he would play it again. We were wrong. Mr. Medvedev remains an important prop to the regime, but apparently, he lacks the political weight to shift the scales of raison d’etat. State propaganda tried for several months to present the pension reform as purely government business, taking heat off the president and raising public hopes that he would get involved to stop or at least soften it. These hopes were dashed, and Mr. Putin himself has become the kamikaze.

Before Russia’s shock therapy began in 1992, Boris Yeltsin could draw on almost inexhaustible public support.

Recent polls show that public support for the president has subsided to pre-Crimean levels, showing that the unifying effect of annexing the peninsula have faded. Mr. Putin’s approval ratings, which fluctuated between 60 percent and 70 percent in June, have plummeted to the 45-47 percent range. His August 29 address did nothing to improve this standing, as the anticipated therapeutic effect failed to materialize. From a “president of hope,” Mr. Putin long ago transformed into a guarantor of stability; now, he is associated with a steady and inevitable deterioration of living standards. This is exactly the path traveled by Mr. Putin’s predecessor, President Boris Yeltsin – though Yeltsin did so in less than half the time (1991-1999).

These days it is almost forgotten that before Russia’s “shock therapy” began in 1992, Yeltsin could draw on an almost inexhaustible reservoir of public support. He won the first presidential elections by an honest landslide, with 57 percent of the vote against 17 percent for his closest challenger. This political capital was entirely spent when Yeltsin plunged into painful economic reforms. His loss of authority was not immediate, but Russia’s political scene changed immediately and became a great deal more competitive. It appears that something similar is happening now.

If the analogy to the 1990s holds, other interesting conclusions can be drawn. But first, let us consider the broader political context.

Four hard cases

On September 9, less than two weeks after President Putin’s address, Russia held legislative (17) and gubernatorial (22) elections in many of its 85 regions. These ballots had long been considered routine events rubber-stamping the ruling United Russia (UR) party and whatever candidates had been endorsed by the central authorities.

But this time, something went wrong. In 10 regions, the UR lists received less than 50 percent of the vote; the opposition Communists won three elections outright. More dramatic were the gubernatorial races in four regions, where the officially favored candidates failed to win in the first round. Each of these cases is instructive and deserves a brief description.

Primorsky Krai is the crucially important region on Russia’s Pacific coast that plays the leading role in Mr. Putin’s idea of a “turn to the East” as an alternative to cooperating with the West. The campaign favorite was acting governor Andrei Tarasenko, one of the president’s handpicked “young technocrats” and a recipient of lavish official support. However, Mr. Tarasenko fell just short of a first-round win with 47 percent, ahead of Andrei Ishchenko, nominally a communist but actually a local businessman, who garnered 25 percent of the vote.

Local voters were so enraged that the Russia’s Central Election Commission was forced to annul the election.

Things got stranger in the runoff. The voting took place just a week after the first round, but even so, Mr. Putin made time to fly to Vladivostok and personally stump for Mr. Tarasenko. On election night, as the votes were counted, Mr. Ishchenko led throughout by a significant margin. Suddenly, however, after 98 percent of the ballots were tallied, new data from the voting precincts stopped coming in, and by morning Mr. Tarasenko had been declared the winner. Local voters were so enraged by this blatant falsification that the Russian Federation’s Central Election Commission was forced to step in and annul the election; a new vote was scheduled in three months’ time. Mr. Tarasenko declined to participate and resigned his temporary governor’s post.

Khabarovsk Krai is the second strategically important region of Russia’s Far East. Here the favorite was acting governor (since 2009) Vyacheslav Shport, whose campaign publicity stressed he was on “The President’s Team.” His sparring partner was Sergei Furgal, a businessman and lawmaker from the “tame” opposition (Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party). Both candidates got 36 percent of the vote in the first round; two weeks later, after the Primorsky Krai scandal, the Kremlin candidate was simply overwhelmed in a vote closely monitored by the Central Election Commission. As an added humiliation, Mr. Furgal’s tally of 70 percent was better than Vladimir Putin polled in the March 2018 presidential elections (66 percent).

The Republic of Khakassia is a tiny, economically depressed area in southeastern Siberia. Its strategic importance is virtually nil, but lately it has become known as a favorite vacation spot for President Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The Kremlin’s candidate was the republic’s acting (since 2009) head of government, Viktor Zimin, whose pithy campaign slogan was “Supported by the President.” In the first round, Mr. Zimin was outpolled (32 percent to 45 percent) by a young communist, Valentin Konovalov. Two days before the runoff, the incumbent abruptly withdrew, forcing the vote to be rescheduled to November 11. However, the runoff looks shaky since the remaining two candidates in the first round have also withdrawn, leaving Mr. Konovalov as the only name on the ballot.

Vladimir Oblast is a poorly developed region in Central Russia. Here the favorite was another acting governor (since 2013), Svetlana Orlova, who received no explicit endorsement from President Putin despite displaying complete obedience to him. She was opposed by a Liberal Democrat, Vladimir Sipyagin, regarded as a purely technical candidate who barely even organized a campaign. In the first round, however, he received 31 percent of the vote, just behind Ms. Orlova’s 36 percent. In the second round, according to multiple independent reports, the ballot-stuffing and falsification machine was running full speed. Yet it did not help: Mr. Sipyagin knocked out Ms. Orlova, winning 57 percent to 37 percent.

Logical scenario

Certainly, these can be regarded as local developments – small, easily reparable cracks in the regime’s facade. Until recently, however, that edifice had been regarded as impregnable. It is clear now that internal pressure on the political regime has reached a critical threshold. Recent history, including Russian history, teaches us that ignoring such signals is dangerous – those who disregard them are later swept aside by a groundswell of change.

Vladimir Putin’s new role as a kamikaze gives credence to persistent speculation among Russian political observers about a “transfer of power” – in this case, an unspecified change in Mr. Putin’s legal status, most likely achieved through an overhaul of the constitution. Even if it is not imminent, the transfer would most likely take place well ahead of the next presidential elections in 2024.

By initiating reforms and taking popular anger on himself, Mr. Putin could let his successor start with a clean slate.

Assuming this theory is correct, President Putin’s behavior appears logical. By initiating difficult but unavoidable reforms (the fiscal pressures on the government are remorseless), he would take popular anger and disillusionment on himself, allowing his successor to start with a clean slate and a smaller backlog of unsolved problems.

Of course, this vision of Vladimir Putin voluntarily renouncing supreme power seems improbable. But in the 1990s, no one seriously believed that Yeltsin would resign, either – let alone before the expiration of his second term. Lodged in my memory are the words of political operative Gleb Pavlovsky, a spin doctor closely aligned with the Kremlin at the time, blurted out during an expert seminar I was moderating in November 1999: “The whole scene we have been observing could change completely. There could be an idea, for example, to reshuffle the leading roles: the president could be gone and a new master installed; and all this could happen by January.” Back then, no one paid any attention, perhaps due to some sort of subconscious psychological repression. Just a few months later, I happened to read a transcript of the session and could not believe my eyes.

Electoral transfer

With such a scenario in mind, the central authorities’ strange respect for elections seems easier to explain. Yes, democratic elections are an institution that has been despised and prostituted for many years. An effort to clean up the process and make it more credible was announced several years ago, but did nothing to change the main quality of elections a la russe – the predictability and certainty of their results. But now, this rule no longer applies.

One explanation could be that the impending transfer of authority is to be realized through elections and not by exotic means. That makes sense. After all, President Putin’s legitimacy essentially derives from the ballot box, and all talk of his turning into a tsar or “sacred leader” is nothing but idle fantasy on the part of his fervent supporters or nightmarish delusions from his equally fervent opponents.

The Kremlin candidate in Primorsky Krai, Oleg Kozhemayko, campaigns on a Harley
Oct. 6, 2018: Oleg Kozhemyako (C), the Kremlin’s choice for governor of Primorsky Krai, climbed aboard a Harley-Davidson to court the biker vote at the close of Vladivostok’s riding season. © dpa

It follows, therefore, that the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin’s successor can only be of an electoral nature. Russians have a peculiar idea of democracy, of course – according to many sociological studies, they consider its main essence to be safety and material wellbeing, not civil liberties and human rights. But the right to elect the head of state (even if only the president and no one else) has become an ingrained belief among the Russian public.

Electoral transfer, however, poses significant risks. The September 9 elections showed that President Putin’s political capital is nontransferable; he can no longer select a random person and deliver popular support. Yeltsin, too, cast around for a long time for a successor who could be elected, not just appointed. This requirement creates a very uncomfortable situation for many Russian political actors. Instead of relying on a single method of problem solving (say, obeying orders from above), they are being forced to develop the ability to think and act independently without having acquired the requisite education or experience.

Fragmentary behavior

The contradiction between these two modes of behavior (hierarchical and autonomous) has led to an increasingly evident fragmentation of the regime. Glaring examples were provided in the recent regional elections. For example, on the eve of the second round in Khakassia, the press secretary of one of Russia’s most powerful people, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, hosted a local television program that described a kind of global conspiracy against Russia, Khakassia and the local Kremlin candidate, Viktor Zimin. The same evening, Mr. Zimin announced his withdrawal from the runoff elections, an action that must have been approved by the Kremlin. And later that night, the head of Mr. Zimin’s campaign staff, Vladislav Nikonov, took to his Twitter feed with a load of insults and threats directed at the Internal Policy Directorate of the Presidential Administration. In terms of Russian politics, this was insanely insubordinate and an unheard-of breach of protocol.

Mr. Putin remembers that the transfer of power in 1999-2000 allowed Yeltsin to leave the Kremlin on his own terms.

Signs of regime breakup are visible elsewhere. One of the key figures in Russia’s security establishment, National Guard commander Viktor Zolotov, recently uploaded a personal video response to allegations of corruption by opposition leader Alexey Navalny. The podcast, full of vulgar threats and a bizarre challenge to Mr. Navalny to fight a duel, was not approved by the Kremlin. Not only did it make Mr. Zolotov a laughingstock; it also defied an unofficial ban on senior officials mentioning Mr. Navalny by name. The podcast referred directly to the opposition leader’s presidential ambitions, which only gave him added weight.

In this context, we should also consider President Putin’s strange advice that the two men accused of poisoning former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal – Messrs. “Petrov” and “Boshirov” – meet with the press: “I think it would be best for everyone.” This was language couched as a suggestion or a threat, but not as an order. It is not quite clear who Mr. Putin had in mind by “everyone.”

Elites and citizens

The electoral transfer idea would have a lot of powerful opponents. Back in the Yeltsin era, in the spring of 1996, Russia was at a crossroads between elections and a coup, with the latter being urged by several of Yeltsin’s close associates, including his chief of security, Alexander Korzhakov. (Viktor Zolotov was Mr. Korzhakov’s subordinate at the time.) These officials lobbied for a coup because they no longer believed that Yeltsin could be reelected.

In the end, they were ignored because President Yeltsin heeded the advice of his political consultants and decided he would win. Whether the “electoral” or “anti-electoral” coterie prevails this time remains to be seen. After the disastrous events of September 9, many experts assumed that the authorities would react by calling a halt to direct elections for governorships, restoring the ban of 2004-2012. Mr. Putin, however, has not confirmed these expectations and has publicly described the situation as “normal.” He certainly remembers that the electoral nature of the power transfer in 1999-2000 gave Yeltsin a chance to leave the Kremlin on his own terms, with pomp and circumstance, and spend the rest of his days in safety and comfort.

Many factors could interfere with an electoral handover – a schism in the Orthodox church or a new foreign crisis. But the tug-of-war over the method of succession has already started. This time its outcome may be decided not by feuding power elites but by ordinary citizens, provided they use the opportunities for political participation offered by Russia’s constitution.

The defeat of these officially favored candidates sent an important message to the rest of the country.

These opportunities are surprisingly broad, even though the previous social contract never anticipated them being used. Now, as the regional elections showed, citizens are beginning to act. In all four “problem” regions, turnout in the second round was much higher than in the first. This indicates that people believed their votes could make a difference. Primorsky Krai set the tone, as voters saw they could prevent the election of a Kremlin-designated candidate. This set off a domino effect, as opposition candidates more than doubled their support in the Khabarovsk, Khakassia and Vladimir regional runoff elections.

The defeat of these officially favored candidates sent an important message to the rest of the country: “Yes, we can.” It was experimental proof of Nietzsche’s dictum: “What is falling should also be pushed.”

Sinking feeling

The first beneficiary of rejuvenating elections in Russia would be the so-called “system” – the Communists and Liberal Democrats in the servile opposition. It is not that these parties will become genuinely popular (the public has no illusions about them), but they are a natural destination for “no” votes against the powers that be, or even against President Putin’s clearly indicated preferences.

So far, the opposition parties have been justifiably cautious about exploring their political options, sticking to those which the authorities have deemed legitimate. Much will depend on the behavior of the newly elected governors. Their ability to make real changes in their regions is meager. In modern Russia, the regional authorities have few resources of their own and must constantly balance and negotiate between local vested interests and the federal center. Moscow can still easily suppress any unwanted activity, but there is always the risk that the newly awakened protest movements could then seek less palatable and potentially more dangerous outlets.

Russia’s next test of internal stability comes in mid-December, when Primorsky Krai must repeat its canceled elections. The Kremlin’s replacement candidate is the former governor of Sakhalin, Oleg Kozhemyako, a boxer and biker known as a tough, efficient politician. He has already been designated temporary governor of the region, giving him time to take the controls of the local political machine.

Mr. Kozhemyako’s candidacy, however, is being no means considered a sure bet. While he started his career in Primorsky Krai, he left many years ago to serve as a crisis manager in other Far East regions (including the now disbanded Koryak Autonomous Area and Amur Oblast). He has a demonstrated ability to discipline local elites, but appears unskilled at communicating with the wider populace. On Sakhalin, his unexpected departure was greeted with rejoicing in the streets.

This is not to say that the Kremlin’s designated candidate will lose in Primorsky Krai. Mr. Kozhemyako will be promoted relentlessly. Yet if he fails to win the first round by a significant margin, it will be a signal that the local situation is not under control. And the rest of the country will not fail to notice.

One broad conclusion can be drawn: Russia’s political regime can no longer be called stable. That is a familiar feeling from Yeltsin’s days.

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