There is a lot of talk in Russia about the “2018 problem”: a phrase that usually refers to the presidential election. The election, however, will not be the problem. The real issue will be far more significant—and long-term.
President Vladimir Putin will win next year’s election. The only possible alternative is if, for some reason, he declines to run. The secretive nature of Russian politics means that such a scenario cannot be ruled out, but even then, the ultimate result would not change: the successor would inherit all the power resources and the blessing of his predecessor, which would suffice for victory under current conditions.
For now, let us assume that Putin will run. His approval rating is very high (82 percent as of March 2017, based on data from the independent Levada Center pollster), and there are no indications that the situation will change markedly over the next year. The Kremlin has the means to continue fulfilling its key social obligations, as the Reserve Fund has not been depleted.
The public mood is supportive: Russians are tired and disheartened, but unlikely to become radicalized enough over the course of the next year to change their attitude toward the president, whom they are used to seeing as a stability factor. Therefore, through 2018 we can expect Putin to retain the image of a good tsar who is not responsible for the actions of the bad boyars, or elites, an image so traditional for Russian history.
Second, the ballot list is fairly predictable, and none of Putin’s rivals are seen by voters as viable candidates. Even many of those who support the perennial contenders Gennady Zyuganov (Communist Party) or Vladimir Zhirinovsky (LDPR) don’t actually expect them to win. Prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny is unlikely to be able to take part in the election, but even if he makes it onto the ballot by some miracle, voters still don’t view him as a future president.
Third, the election will likely be viewed as something of a referendum. A vote against Putin by Russians is paramount to withholding support from their own country in its struggle against the West. This is the besieged fortress mentality, whereby one does not squabble with the commander in combat conditions. Anyone who dares to take a real stand against the commander (rather than simply act as a sparring partner in an electoral exercise) may be accused of working for the enemy.
But even if the presidential election goes smoothly, that doesn’t mean that we won’t see other problems in 2018. The real challenge will be the mismatch between the expectations of the Russian people and the decisions that the regime will have to make after the election. The expectations are not unreasonably high: Russians do not envisage mountains of gold, but they do expect their material standing to at least not deteriorate, and ideally improve. The outlook for GDP growth (or, to be more precise, economic stagnation) and the fiscal situation, however, are such that anything other than deterioration appears unlikely.
The administration seems to be doing everything it can to survive until the election without making unpopular decisions. The period of seemingly endless economic growth of 2005–mid 2008 is now a distant memory. Experts no longer argue about whether the retirement age should be raised, only about when and by how much. However it is done, it is bound to leave all population groups disgruntled.
It’s impossible to avoid harsh economic measures, and they will most likely need to be applied in the second half of 2018. In addition, there is a strong prospect of higher rates in taxes such as VAT and the personal income tax, meaning a new spike in prices is likely as businessmen seek to pass those costs on to consumers.
However, the key to understanding the political prospects is the president’s approval rating and, more precisely, the stability of this rating. No serious threats to the rating can be expected in the period through the election, and even if the rating declines, it has a considerable buffer. After the election, however, several important issues that can already be observed may come to the forefront.
First of all, Putin’s support no longer guarantees peace of mind for the elite the way it did in 2014, when the ratings of all government institutions soared on the coattails of Putin’s sky-high rating following the annexation of Crimea. The public reaction to Navalny’s exposé of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged corruption in early March 2017 was a good illustration. Until then, similar investigations had not produced a serious public reaction, but the situation has changed. According to the Levada Center, Medvedev’s approval rating dropped by 10 percentage points to 42 percent between February and March. The respondents who withdrew their support for the prime minister weren’t fans of Navalny—those fans already had a negative attitude toward Medvedev. They were loyalists who continued to support Putin, but heard about the exposé through the grapevine and drew their own unforgiving conclusions.
Second, Putin has not always had a tsar-like image. That status only crystallized early in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and entered a confrontation with the West. Now, both the elites and the public are undergoing gradual demobilization. In late 2016 and early 2017, it was interesting to observe the euphoria of many in the ruling elite about U.S. President Donald Trump’s ascent to power. They hoped that Russia’s relations with the West would return to the relatively blissful state of the mid-2000s. Reality did not meet their expectations, but it’s interesting to note the strong desire to return to “normalcy,” as the elite saw it.
The general public is also demobilizing. Until recently, Russia’s refusal to broadcast the Eurovision Song Contest because of the host Kiev’s rejection of the Russian contender would have catalyzed a wave of emotional nationwide support. Now, a Levada Center poll showed that the public was split: 40 percent of respondents approved of the decision and 41 percent disapproved.
Two years ago, as Moscow denied accusations that Russian soldiers were fighting in the supposedly internal conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Levada Center asked a different question: “Are there Russian soldiers in the Donbas?” The responses were interesting: 37 percent of respondents said that there were not, while 38 percent selected a different answer—that even if Russian soldiers were there, it should not be talked about. In other words, 38 percent of survey participants did not fully trust national television channels and the official version of events, but they believed that lies were acceptable in pursuit of the greater good.
As the demobilization of society continues, this section of the population will begin to have doubts, as evidenced by the attitude toward Medvedev. When the besieged fortress effect becomes minimal (which may be the case after 2018 if there are no extraordinary developments in the international arena), the commander will no longer be off limits for criticism.
Finally, the difficult socioeconomic decisions that the Putin regime will have to make in his fourth term could prompt the public to lay blame not only on the boyars but also on the tsar, albeit—at least at first—to a lesser degree. If so, then the political risks may gradually increase after 2018. What really matters is not the election but its aftermath.
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