Putin’s successful foreign policy agenda is starting to lose its power to command public support in the face of growing domestic frustrations.
Public discontent over a plan to raise Russia’s pension age has revealed a critical flaw in the country’s political system: there is no political infrastructure that can function in crisis conditions. Only President Vladimir Putin can speak on behalf of the state. Without him, the vertical collapses. Russia desperately needs alternative connections between the state and the people. But virtually any political infrastructure project fundamentally undermines the country’s power vertical.
The events of the last four years in Russia show that its fabled stability and lack of change have stopped being the top political value. Today, the Russian regime is more ready than ever for transformation. Before, any decisions had to be approved by the president and were made at a snail’s pace because Putin had no time. Now, it’s the other way around: decisions are made quickly precisely because Putin has no time.
Vladimir Putin learned the art of political survival in the Kremlin of the 1990s. Little wonder that he has decided to keep on his former co-conspirator from that era, Valentin Yumashev.
The tradition of sport acting as a kind of hybrid war has seamlessly continued in Russia into the post-Soviet period. It is victory at any cost, because victory has political significance. It’s soft power, the face of the country, the image of an invincible nation ruled by a wise leader.
To predict what the Kremlin will do, we need look no further than the ambitious but unrealized initiatives of the mid-2000s, such as enlarging the regions and tax reforms. The same is true of the Kremlin’s staffing policy: even if there are some reshuffles, the positions of power go to experienced and well-known individuals. Vladimir Putin is comfortable talking to familiar people on familiar subjects. His closest associates are well aware of this fact and have adjusted to their boss’s preferences.
The regional unification of record-high presidential election results has closed the Kremlin bureaucrats’ eyes to the diversity of different parts of the country, their elites, and the preferences of their electorates. In this model, regional masters of balance and public politics are extraneous. But the expulsion of old regional barons is risky: the banner of public pushback and local patriotism could be picked up by new regional politicians who might be even less convenient for Moscow.
Now in his fourth presidential term, Vladimir Putin faces a succession problem: the constitution prevents him from running again in 2024. With few simple transition options available, Putin may choose a compromise: to hand some presidential powers to the prime minister, increase the ruling party’s role, and introduce a second center of power in the executive branch.
The political and administrative dispersion of governance is under way in Russia: regulatory functions are being scattered among government and near-government players, which will inevitably result in the formation of first moderate and then increasingly pronounced polycentricity within the state. Initiative will eventually stop being punishable.
The new Russian government will cease to be a place for formulating strategies and implementing policies. Instead, it will focus on creatively calculating and reporting Russia’s accomplishments to technically meet the president’s expectations.