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Is Putin Best Placed to Subvert a 'Russian Spring'?

Commentary, 8 December 2011
Global Security Issues, Europe
The anti-government protests following the Russian parliamentary elections on 4 December are indicative of a growing enmity towards the ruling elites. Yet, the ruling elites have opted to re-instate Vladimir Putin as President next year as they see him as the best candidate to shield them from widespread disenchantment unravelling before them

The anti-government protests following the Russian parliamentary elections on 4 December are indicative of a growing enmity towards the ruling elites. Yet, the ruling elites have opted to re-instate Vladimir Putin as President next year as they see him as the best candidate to shield them from widespread disenchantment unravelling before them.

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By Dr Igor Sutyagin, Research Fellow, Russian Studies*

8 December 2011 - On 4 December Russians went to the polls to elect its Duma, or lower house of Parliament. The preliminary results announced by the Central Polling Commission on 5 December showed a drastic reduction in support for the ruling United Russia party (49.52 per cent in 2011[1] compared to 64.3 per cent in 2007).[2] The following day groups took to the streets across Russia to protest alleged fraud during the election. Although this wave of anti-government sentiment may come as a surprise to some Western observers, there were many factors that indicated the election would be the first true sign that ordinary Russians are unhappy with the current socio-economic situation in the country. Moreover, the results will only serve to strengthen opinions, not just in Russian society, but also amongst Russia's ruling elite and those close to the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Despite the results and subsequent protests, the aim of this group remains the preservation of their own standing in Russian politics and society, which could have implications in the run-up to the elections in 2012.

One week prior to the elections on 27 November, United Russia officially named Vladimir Putin as the party's presidential candidate for the 2012 Presidential election. The 2011 parliamentary election would therefore serve as a litmus test for how ordinary Russians perceived this decision. But this test had already occurred when the Levada Centre published its annual survey on 25 November. It showed that only 31 per cent of the Russian population would vote for Putin.[3] Many Western observers tend to explain the Russian PM's renewed bid for presidency next March by way of Putin's unlimited appetite for power. However the reasons behind Putin's return are more complex and relate mainly to the domestic situation in Russia. In particular, the negative social conditions that currently exist within the country as well as the need of the ruling elite to shield itself against public anger that is likely to result from this - Putin, in their view, is the best person to preserve the status quo.

Growing discontent

In July, the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Sociology published a twenty year study charting the attitudes of the Russian population. Out of all respondents, 92 per cent of the population felt the status quo in Russia was unfair.[4] Though abstract, notions of fairness feature highly in the Russian psyche and has been been a key driver for all Russian upheavals and revolutions throughout its history.

Far less abstract is the poll result indicating that 78 per cent of respondents feel the current situation in Russia - be it political, economic or social - is unacceptable.[5] It is not surprising therefore that Russia's political elite take this specific result very seriously.

The study has also shown an alarmingly high level of latent aggression within Russian society. Over the last 15 years, sociologists have asked the highly provocative question: 'have you ever felt a desire to shoot the bribe-takers and profiteers who are responsible for what is happening in the country?' Last year, 72 per cent of respondents admitted that they felt that way.[6] The sentiment has resonance now as the United Russia party has become known in many quarters - and is acknowledged by Putin himself - as the 'party of crooks and thieves'. Nevertheless, such sentiments will not necessarily translate into a revolution tomorrow, but the sign is no doubt very alarming for the current ruling power. The most important point is that the percentage of people who are inclined to change the existing situation in a forceful way is the highest recorded in fifteen years (34 per cent). It is nearly one and a half times higher than the maximum observed during Boris Yeltsin's presidency (24 per cent), which is traditionally considered as the period of the highest anger towards the governing power (it was this anger that ushered Vladimir Putin into power under the slogan of 'restoration of order' in 2000). 

What are the explanations for this growth in anger and discontent amongst the Russian population? Even official Russian statistics recognise that 14.9 per cent of Russia's population (22.1 million people) lives below the poverty line.[7] Non-governmental experts estimate that this is in fact much higher, at approximately 20 per cent of the population. Meanwhile the 'level of poverty' in Russia is defined quarterly by the government in accordance with the UN recommendations for Asian and African developing countries - this represents an income of 6,505 Roubles (£134.32) per person per month (bills for a one-bedroom flat outside the Moscow region are approximately 3,000 Roubles [£61.95] per month for winter months). The average monthly income per capita in Russia stands now at a mere 19,991 Roubles (£412.78) (this figure includes the poorest to the very richest in society).The minimum monthly salary established by Government legislation in the second half of 2011 was just 4,611 Roubles (£95.21) or 70.9 per cent of the poverty threshold. It is possible to have a job in Russia now - and still be under the poverty line. These are troubling statistics for those in power and reflect a society where standards of living remain low while expectations are growing (especially as Russians become more aware of how other, more affluent, societies live). This could be a lethal combination and have a significant effect on the current social contract in Russia.

Social contract broken

The evidence above suggests the horizon will be cloudy for Russia's ruling elite. The social contract - which developed in the early 2000s between the ruling elite and the population - is likely to be affected. The contract was an unspoken understanding that the nation would give up its civil rights for a stable increase in living standards, provided in part by the ruling elites. Stable increase was the Russian interpretation of 'stability' and has remained unchanged for the last ten years. That is why even zero growth (stagnation) is perceived by Russian society as a violation of the social contract by the government. An improved or positive economic outlook could remedy any perceived violation but the current economic situation does not warrant this hope. Indeed, for the first time, the Medvedev-Putin government openly recognised this year the decline in real incomes after many years of growth.

Following on from the parliamentary and presidential elections, the years ahead do not promise positive economic growth. Russia depends heavily on the energy market: 46.5 per cent of the Russian state budget's income is a product of the energy sector including energy exports. Yet Russia lacks any real influence over oil and gas prices. According to a Gaidar Institute for Transitional Period Economy assessment, the 2011 government budget could be balanced with an average oil price per annum of $150 per barrel.[8] (It would be $100 per barrel without the additional defence and security expenditures planned by the Kremlin during the last eight months.[9]) Meanwhile OPEC stated in the World Oil Outlook 2011, published before the current wave of euro-zone turmoil, that there were significant doubts over the sustainability of very high prices from a demand perspective. It is assumed in the study that the OPEC Reference Basket's average price per annum, in nominal terms, eventually settles in the range of $85-95 per barrel for the coming decade and rises over the long-term to reach $133 per barrel only by 2035 (the current disturbances in the euro-zone may slow down this projected price rise). With these factors in mind, the continuation of a stable increase in Russia's prosperity (which underpins the social contract) is unlikely.

Upheaval is more probable than a 'colour revolution' 

If these social, economic and political factors continue to exist, and possibly worsen, then the potential for an increase in anger amongst the population is inevitable. The Russian government will have a fundamental problem in dealing with this increasingly disillusioned society. The government itself is comprised heavily of former and current high-ranking security service officers: at one point it was estimated that up to three-quarters of the 'inner government' of Vladimir Putin had some kind of experience in either the military or the intelligence services. Quite understandably, the state apparatus - over the last decade - has become increasingly adept at suppressing political opposition and marginalising all potentially popular opposition leaders. The government has succeeded in that aim - but this may create unintended consequences and unpredictable difficulties for Putin and his government.

The core problem is that there are no moderate, influential, opposition politicians on the Russian political scene. These moderate politicians could bring together groups who feel disenchantment and provide a platform to constructively vent frustrations and avoid a dangerous build-up in tensions. If this fails to occur, then social disorder and upheaval prompted by a lack of political freedoms and aspirations - as demonstrated during the 'Arab Spring' - will be the likely result from existing and developing socio-economic problems. The protests by thousands of people across Russia following the elections results are a manifestation of this. This is more likely in Russia's current climate rather than the 'colour' revolutions seen in Georgia or Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, respectively. No doubt Russia has a turbulent period ahead and Russia's ruling elite need a strong leader who can shield it against a mass of public anger.

Putin the Fire-fighter

Even after the negative results of the Parliamentary elections in December, Putin still enjoys a high-level of public support - a level any Western politician would be envious of. According to a Public Opinion Foundation survey of 27 November, 46 per cent of the population support Vladimir Putin.[10] According to the Democratic Choice opposition party, approximately one half of Putin's supporters stay with him just because they do not see an appropriate alternative and would readily migrate to a new leader would such a person appear. That is crucial as the current elite do not have time to create another 'Putin-type' figure. 

Hence Vladimir Putin's return to the helm was not merely an issue of one person's desire to possess almost unlimited power. It was the deliberate decision of the ruling group to return to full power the only person among them who currently has at least limited potential to deal with the possible social upheaval that could result from the various issues described above. More than anything, the political machinations involved to reinstate Putin as President were primarily about preserving Russia's current political elite, despite the uncertainties that exist within Russia. The election results will not shake the foundation of this core belief among the elite, nor will the protests by anti-government groups, the course is already set for the return of Putin, no matter what it brings for the future of Russia.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.  

NOTES

[1] Chairman of the CEC, VE Churov, announces preliminary election results, Russian Central Election Commission, 5 December 2011 , available at http://www.cikrf.ru/news/cec/2011/12/05/predv.html

[2] CEC releases the results of parliamentary elections, Vesti.ru,5 December 2011, available at http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=151257&tid=48472

[3] Presidential Elections, Levada-Centre, 2011 available at: http://www.levada.ru/25-11-2011/vybory-prezidenta

[4] 'Twenty years of reform' Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Sociology, November 2011 available at: http://www.isras.ru/files/File/Doklad/20_years_reform.pdf

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 'On the relation between money incomes with subsistence minimum and the number of poor in the whole of the Russian Federation in the II quarter of 2011', Federal State Statistics Service, September 2011, available at http://www.gks.ru/bgd/free/B04_03/IssWWW.exe/Stg/d02/211.htm

[8] Kirill Rodionov, 'A new growth model', Expert.ru, 1 September 2011, http://expert.ru/2011/09/1/o-novoj-modeli-rosta/

[9] Kirill Rodionov, 'What the authors forgot the "Strategy 2020"?', Forbes.ru, 7 September 2011, http://www.forbes.ru/ekonomika-column/vlast/73102-o-chem-zabyli-avtory-strategii-2020  

[10] http://bd.fom.ru/pdf/d4811.pdf

*Edited by Grant Turnbull, Image courtesy of www.kremlin.ru

 

 

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