In Russia, it may appear as if the ranks have gathered around the regime following the annexation of the Crimea. Nevertheless; is the consensus – or unity – surrounding Russia’s president Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime now about to crack at the edges?
The Editor-in-Chief of the independent newspaper Vedomosti, one of Russia’s most influential papers, argues that one can no longer take internal stability in Russia for granted.
- Putin has not changed, but the backdrop against which we view him is changing rapidly and in this context that Putin is fading, says Maxim Trudolyubov.
Kremlin always prepared
He does not believe that the populist wave that has swept a series of countries both in Europe and the rest of the world over the past few years will hit Russia.
It is quite unlikely that Putin’s system will be challenged by regular populism, because the Kremlin is well aware of this and tries to control it.
- The only visible political power in Russia today that is not associated with Russia’s political establishment, is Aleksej Navalnyi’s movement [Russian political activist, journ.note.]. That is the only challenger, however, it is too weak, says the Editor-in-Chief who is also author and writer for the New York Times.
Aleksej Navalnyj, who has a.o. headed several campaigns against corruption, was one of the leaders during the demonstrations in Moscow against the 2011 parliamentary elections. The Vedomosti Editor says Russia’s political system makes it both difficult and unlikely for Navalnyj’s political movement to get a breakthrough.
- The current political institution is designed specifically to prevent access for movements not controlled by the regime, he says.
The “Invisible” Russia
Nevertheless, says the editor:
- There are other and more chaotic forces in Russia, and I actually believe they represent the main challenge for the Kremlin.
- What I find interesting, and this is something I have always kept in mind in my attempt at understanding what goes on, is that the most important part of Russia is the one we do not see. The invisible is what is interesting. And what is “invisible” is the fact that at least half the Russian work force, roughly estimated at 70 million people, exist outside the Russian state institution. They do not pay taxes, or they only pay partial taxes, he says, adding that in these groups, there is also a natural exchange of money, though it happens in a rather different way.
The only way in which we can register this is through “measuring” the shadow economy or the power consumption. The State does not see this in its official statistics, as it is not something that appears on a piece of paper. However, in Russia we even have power systems and power lines, among others in small towns, whose ownership remains unknown to everyone – and that is a fact, Trudolyubov says.
Old men and a worn-out regime
Earlier this year, the Editor-in-Chief – who is also a senior researcher at the Kennan Institute in Washington D.C. – published the book “The Tragedy of Property: Private Life & Ownership in the Russian State”.
Trudolyubov argues that believing that an authoritarian regime grows organically is an error. It has to be fostered and defended, just like a democracy. And just like a democracy, it will often be taken for granted by those benefiting from it.
The Editor thinks the Russian regime is a worn-out regime that is now being taken for granted by Putin’s elites as well as the wider population.
At Monday’s seminar at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (NUPI), he problematized the fact that many of Russia’s top politicians are well into their 70s, and the fact that it appears they are having a hard time bringing younger politicians up to the top level.
Putin has, he says, when his current term in office is over, held the position of president for almost as long as Staling, who is the longest-ever ruler in Russia, and for nearly 25 years.
PR and media control
Already in the early 2000s, Putin took measures to establish control over “challenging” institutions that may be suspected of causing trouble for the country’s political regime.
- He [Putin, journ.note] started with the media and the TV channels, and gained control over all the important media. All major media outlets were placed under state control, one way or the other, he comments.
As for his expressed support of several right-populist leaders, the Editor argues it is worth noting that it is mostly rhetorics, not money involved, although a Russian bank was among those providing a loan for Parine Le Pen and her French nationalist party when she needed money during the election campaign.
- During the financial crisis, there were several countries that asked Russia for support, among them Greece. It was mentioned in the media, however, it never materialized in the form of concrete support, he says as an example.
- Populists arrive in Moscow believing they will get support. But in Moscow, they only face stubborn politicians who play the game of rhetoric while trying to gain something from the Europeans. It all boils down to nothing and is basically just PR, Trudolyubov says.
This article originally appeared in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.