MOSCOW BLOG: What to do in the next decade? The Kremlin and the people are confused and unsure

MOSCOW BLOG: What to do in the next decade? The Kremlin and the people are confused and unsure
Russia has made enormous progress under Putin, but the Levada Center has found that neither the government nor the people are sure what should come next
By Ben Aris in Berlin November 12, 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree last week giving retired presidents immunity from prosecution. The decree was followed by reports that Putin is suffering from Parkinson's disease and will retire next year – reports widely pooh-poohed as ridiculous but that ran in the Daily Mail anyway.

More seriously, following the important regional elections that were won in a landslide by Kremlin-affiliated forces, the Russian ruling elite is thinking ahead to the crucial 2021 Duma elections and further out.

But Denis Volkov, the deputy director of the independent pollster, the Levada Center, in a commentary for the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, says the Kremlin does not have a plan. Moreover, after running extensive focus groups with three groups – “loyalists,” “traditionalists” and “liberals” – he says the Russian people also don't have a clear idea of what they want next and there are few policy choices that unite the three groups.

After two decades of Putin the population is getting weary of its perennial leader. The economy has been stagnating and the people have largely been locked out of the political process.

Aware of the slowly rising social disillusionment that will eventually lead to widespread social unrest, the Kremlin has launched the 12 National Projects programme that is designed to “transform” the Russian economy.

But thanks to the latest crisis, the deadline for the completion of this work was pushed out from 2024, when Putin’s term nominally comes to an end, to 2030. The success of the National Projects is key to the ruling elites’ continued grip on power.

The former president Boris Yeltsin also launched a competition to determine the “national idea” that would unite Russia in its effort to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but which also failed to come up with a definitive concept.

“The so-called “national goals” promulgated by the authorities hardly inspire the broad masses, if they really know anything about these goals at all. The tasks themselves seem to be impracticable for example, a significant increase in the population of Russia or a halving of the poverty level,” said Volkov.

“Insiders in the government argue that the president's position boils down to the fact that the main thing is to have a goal. Its achievement is of no fundamental importance. Not to mention the fact that the implementation of the goals has been shifted beyond the horizon of 2024 to 2030. These are the tasks, most likely, of another government and, perhaps, another president,” Volkov added.

The Kremlin’s main problem is attitudes in Russia have changed a lot since Putin took over in 2000 and the Kremlin hasn't kept up. A middle class has emerged that is increasingly satisfied with their material position and wants instead more and better services from a government to which it pays its taxes. When Putin took over the population was simply relieved the chaos of the Yeltsin-era had come to an end and Putin managed to provide some stability. However, at the same time the population is terrified of losing all the gains they have made thanks to Putin’s stability and so are very unlikely to rise up in some sort of coloured revolution.

The second problem is there is now entire generation that doesn't remember the Soviet Union and have known no other president than Putin. These younger people have abandoned state TV as their main source of information, are widely travelled, speak English and have seen other Former Soviet Union (FSU) states around them go through revolutions and in the case of Central Europe, make enormous strides in terms of human rights, political freedoms and economic prosperity. They want the same things for Russia. This generation is disillusioned with the Kremlin, which has little to offer them other than patriotism.

The Kremlin is unsure how to proceed, says Volkov. It’s facing the same dilemma that Lenin addressed in his famous pamphlet “What to do?”

“The question arises: what, in fact, next? The authorities have no answer, and they do not even raise the question, not seeing the need for it,” says Volkov.

First, after several experiences in writing strategic programmes, of which only one was implemented to some extent – the so-called Gref plan that Putin launched shortly after taking office in 2000 – little progress has been made on modernising the economy since.

The Kremlin’s task has been made harder by the constant string of crises it has had to face. There was a mini-banking crisis in 2004, a global financial crisis in 2008, an oil crisis in 2014 and now the double whammy of a combined oil crisis and global pandemic this year. The last big attempt to reform the economy began in 2007, when inflation rates fell to single figures for the first time in modern history and Putin announced a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan – about twice as much money as is going to be spent in the current National Projects plan. But that lasted little over a year before the Kremlin was forced back into crisis mode following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Since the 2014 annexation of the Crimea, the economic war with the West, and the US especially, has escalated and the Kremlin has abandoned grand economic plans and has built a “fiscal fortress” instead that makes Russia impervious to sanctions, and that has required Russia to run austerity budgets that keeps growth and investment to a minimum.

“The planning horizon of the current government is getting shorter over the years: key efforts are reduced almost exclusively to replenishing the revenue side of the federal budget and redistributing expenses. In this sense, the country has a budgetary policy, but no economic policy,” says Volkov.

That leaves the Kremlin in the middle ground of trying to use its state capitalism model to transform the economy but at the same time keep tight control over the major economic actors and preserve its massive financial resources. The population’s desires play a small role in this process, as the Kremlin’s goal is to prevent social unrest rather than deliver prosperity.

How do the Russian people see this task ahead? Levada held several focus groups to try to gauge the mood and desires of the population that included: “loyalists” (who want to see Putin stay on as president after 2024); “traditionalists” (who combine extreme left and right views); and “liberals” (who are against Putin staying in office and favour a Western-style government).

Below are the key findings of the study as reported by Volkov:

1. The authorities do not have a clear picture of the future, but society does not formulate its wishes too clearly, not to mention the ways to achieve the set goals. In loyalist and traditionalist-minded groups, projective thinking is especially poorly developed. In this, in addition to ideological differences, they differ from the “liberal” respondents, who more clearly describe their preferences and the image of a democratic free Russia, often relying on the retrospective standard of the Russian Federation of the Yeltsin era. The “loyalists” and “traditionalists” find models of the future mainly in the historical precedents of the socialist project.

2. All focus group participants noted the uncertainty of the prospects. At the same time, many respondents, despite serious differences in political views, were pessimistic about the future of Russia.

3. Even those who voted for the "zeroing" of the presidential term of office, in the majority are NOT ardent supporters of Putin and associate possible changes with his departure. They voted for the Constitution in a purely mechanical and ritualistic way, considering it their duty to support the government's proposals. Anti-Putin sentiments are what often unite (for different reasons, of course) "traditionalists" and "liberals". The motive of fatigue from the president, who has been ruling the country for more than 20 years, was predominant in the sentiments of the respondents who participated in the focus groups: if changes begin, it will most likely be after Putin's departure.

4. "Loyalists" and "Traditionalists":

  • make a demand for an even more significant than under Putin increase in the role of the state in the economy up to the complete nationalisation of all enterprises;
  • insist on continuing the interventionist foreign policy;
  • put an equal sign between the development of the country and the restoration of Soviet territories.

They are characterised by an adherence to statism and paternalism in the most extreme and archaic manifestations.

5. A liberal project is:

  • compact state-arbiter, state-service (as the respondents expressed it, "state is software");
  • free competitive economy;
  • an independent court;
  • friendly business environment;
  • fair competitive elections;
  • free civil society, separated from the state;
  • openness to the world.

You can, of course, evaluate such a "programme" as declarative. But these statements belong not to liberal ideologists, but to the most ordinary citizens of Russia, who, moreover, each time substantiated their point of view.

6. The little that unites various groups, regardless of ideological predilections, is:

  • the idea of a welfare state that comes to the aid of the unprotected;
  • positive attitude towards small business;
  • accumulated irritation with bureaucracy.

Respondents in all groups said that it is possible and necessary to force the authorities to work and listen to people.

7. The options for the transit of power in the opinion of the respondents are not too diverse. Basically, it all comes down to the next Operation Successor: citizens are offered a politician-heir, they vote for him.