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.
The narrative that Russia is under attack has long dominated Kremlin propaganda, with Vladimir Putin positioning himself as the commander of a fortress besieged. But Putin's latest attempt to "remind" Russians that they are being attacked is unlikely to work.
Amid painful economic choices, political elites and government officials in Russia are growing distant from the public. Meanwhile, the mainstream media’s coverage of social issues is becoming increasingly alarmist, a sign that the Kremlin is losing control over Russia’s social agenda. With its response to social issues a mix of contempt and indifference, it seems that the government’s new maxim and the defining principle of Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term is “the state doesn’t owe you anything.”
However resilient the Putin regime might look to an outsider, it isn’t ready and isn’t preparing itself for a possible decline in its popularity ratings, which may unleash consequences beyond the fall of individual governors and the ruling United Russia party. The Kremlin doesn’t believe that Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime as a whole could become unpopular, so it considers the current decline in support for the government to be a natural and manageable outcome of the recent increase in the retirement age.