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Before COVID became the center of international news coverage, much attention was being paid to Vladimir Putin’s sudden reorganization of the Russian government and proposed overhaul of the Constitution, which has seen little change since 1993. Naturally, Vladimir Vladimirovich did not attempt to bring about these changes with a spirit of liberal democracy and healthy regime change in mind (indeed, some would say that it is very unhealthy to even think about regime change in Russia). The spread of the virus, though, which he was unable to halt even after closing the Russian border with China in January, put a wrench in his plans.
Russia is still, right now, the third most affected country in the world with at least half a million cases (this is data compiled and released by Putin’s government, after all), and a health system that is not up to the challenge in a multitude of ways. Putin was well aware of this, which is why he closed the border so early and implemented a strict lockdown when the situation started to deteriorate. But now, more important concerns are at hand. The President has pressured the Moscow government into lifting restrictions, and, after a holiday celebration today, has planned a concert for tonight in Red Square. These moves come in plenty of time to get people comfortable with going outside and attending rallies ahead of a July 1 vote on the changes.
It says something that the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, has discouraged people from participating in the events or significantly changing their routine from those they have followed in lockdown, declaring the changes a significant risk to the health of Moscow residents and their families. Sobyanin, a member of United Russia, has little to gain from such a stunt, and much to risk, considering that after he so quickly dropped Dimitri Medvedev in the wake of corruption allegations, Putin seems to have little sentimental attachment even to those that have been for him from the start. (Indeed, the mayor may want to have someone start tasting his food if radiation isn’t normally on his menu).
Which poses a question: почему? Putin has been typically vocal about how popular the measures, which include an overhaul of term limit rules that would let him remain in power until 2036, when he is 83 years old, and puts the Constitution in precedence over international law, are and how easily they will pass. I have very little doubt that the measures will pass, mostly because Russian elections are about as on the level as in any thinly veiled tyranny, but combined with his decreasing popularity, Putin’s insistence on getting people out to vote suggests that he does not feel altogether confident in the state of his regime.
There has been a slow, steady decline in Putin’s overall popularity and his trust rating among prominent Russian politicians, over the last few years. And Levada, an independent polling agency, has also noted a sharp rise in the number of citizens ready to take to the streets to protest declining standards of living. The police and the FSB, by and large, are in Putin’s pocket, so there is little doubt that even if protests got out of hand, he could ultimately regain control. With the assured contraction in the Russian economy because of COVID, though, and the losses already beginning to be suffered because of increasing oil and gas independence from the country, he faces a serious problem.
At its core, Putin’s support is based on a desire in the country to see a strong, assertive Russia on the world stage and a coherent society at home (hence his cozying up to bishops and anti-LGBT actions). Even Vladimir Vladimirovich is constrained by financial reality, though, and he cannot afford to start taking military action against neighbors, especially when it might invite sanctions, to boost support and provide government assistance to raise living standards after the damage the economy has suffered recently. He is lucky, or rather more likely has made his own luck, in that with the death of Boris Nemtsov there is no one figure who symbolizes opposition and an alternate path to him. But the mounting problems remain.
The other thing that I think Western observers have to consider in this situation is that Russia is a country that has never really made a successful go of democracy. Opposition leaders like Gary Kasparov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky face a good deal of ridicule, and certainly they don’t command a huge deal of popular support in Russia, but having the backing of an educated, urban elite in a country that still struggles with adopting the cultural aspects of democracy might be enough to present a real blow to Putin. Russia already has a brain drain problem and compounding that at the same time Russia desperately needs development in other sectors as revenues from oil and gas diminish would not be pretty.
There is little doubt in my mind that Putin, just as he has managed to win every election since 2000, will get his wish with these Constitutional reforms. At the same time, serious thinkers and diplomats in the West should pay real attention to the stress points in his power base, and start considering how it may unravel, or weaken when a successor comes (if he makes it that far), vs. how they would like to see it come apart. Russia post-Putin, no matter how that comes about, is bound to be messy, but I think there is also an opportunity there for creating a more successful partnership that we did after 1991. After so many people, in the former USSR and the West, dedicated their lives to delivering that region from the horrors of communism, it would be gratifying to at least see Russia on a slow path to greater freedom.
*For any Russian-speaking Ricochetti, this episode of Mikhail Sokolov’s current affairs show is a good, in-depth discussion of the issues in my piece. I will try my best to find something similar in English, or with English subtitles (because I don’t have anywhere near the will to try to add subtitles to that entire hour-long interview; I’m sorry for being so lazy).Published in