Having lost his leadership, President Putin now has one chance to carry out major reform that would at least temporarily restore the status of national leader to him. The problem is that after twenty years at the helm, he needs to offer society something a little more solid than the national projects. His final reform must in some sense put an end to the way of ruling the president has adhered to since he first came to power: i.e., using brute force to rule the country.
Putin perceives growing discontent with the authorities as a purely emotional reaction, based not on real problems but on society’s failure to understand the true picture. This means that no significant revision of the country’s social and economic direction should be expected. Instead, the president and society will suspect each other of being unreasonable and not understanding what is really going on.
While the authorities used the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum to blame the United States for Russia’s problems, the forum’s main unofficial topic was the lawlessness and impunity of the security services, or siloviki. Faced with the question of what is preventing business and investors from developing in Russia, the authorities and the business elite had contradictory answers.
The Russian regime is less and less like a well-tuned orchestra with a confident conductor, and more and more like a cacophony in which every musician is trying to play louder and get more attention than everyone else. No one is focusing on the harmonious sound of the symphony. Instead, institutional and corporate priorities take precedence over national priorities, and are carried out at the latter’s expense. This political divergence has been provoked by Putin’s political absence, and fueled by a general fear of an uncertain future and lack of clarity regarding Putin’s plans.
Unlike Nazarbayev, Putin was not as strongly affected by the death of the Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov and the ensuing division of power which ended badly for late president’s family. Will Putin even leave behind much that will need protection? It seems that his primary concern will not be family or the family business, but problems of another dimension: what will become of Crimea, Russia’s presence in Syria, and the country’s ability to assert its sovereignty and withstand the confrontation with the U.S. and NATO.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin used to avoid the spotlight. Much of his work—the Russian internet troll factory, the Wagner private military company, and political research in Africa—required secrecy. But all that changed when Russian and Western media exaggerated his role in Russian politics and essentially forced him into President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
Putin’s press conference made it clear that for the president, the question of whether ordinary people want to participate in modernization is secondary to the fact that the government wants to carry it out, and that there are enough people around who are “full of optimism and ready to work.” The subject of optimism and the future epitomizes the problem of the gap between the modernization agenda and public sentiment.
The main takeaways from Putin’s end-of-the-year press conference are that he has less and less room to maneuver on foreign policy, and that his optimism about a “breakthrough” in the domestic arena is clearly divorced from reality. Circumstances are forcing Putin to turn from geopolitical problems to domestic ones, and that is proving difficult.
Sanctions have thrust Vladimir Putin’s inner circle into the public domain. In response, the state has lent sanctioned individuals a helping hand. While previously, they would get individual government contracts, the lucky few are now setting their sights on entire industries via the mechanism of public-private partnerships. The president sees state capitalists as patriotic businesspeople, and they realize that sanctions have made Russia the only place where they can make money.
At a time when the regime’s approval ratings are declining and discontent is growing, the Kremlin has embraced a new approach to governing Russia, best described as a fusion of Soviet and corporate managerial approaches. Championed by the presidential administration’s Sergei Kiriyenko, it has made the authorities look and act a lot like a corporation—for better and worse. On the one hand, they now invest more time and resources in training politicians and government officials, having them participate in brainstorming sessions and play business simulations; but ordinary Russians are still treated with contempt, dangerously widening the gulf between state and citizen.