By Rostislav Ishchenko
On March 8, 2018, Vladimir Putin won the fourth presidential election in his political career. He won with a triumphant result, and it would seem that we can rest on our laurels. I think, however, that this victory demonstrated not only the enormous personal authority of the Russian head of state, but also the serious problems facing Russia’s political system.
Let’s start with a simple analysis of the results. Putin, who scored 76.7%, received more than three and a half times more votes than all the other candidates combined. At the same time, he was the only one who acted as a self-nominee. The remaining 7 candidates were nominated by parties representing the entire political spectrum (from right to left, including radicals and moderates, patriots and compradors).
What does this result say, except, of course, that the Russian people absolutely trust the current head of state? It suggests absolute distrust towards the political parties. All of them. I suspect that it is for this reason that Putin refused to be nominated from a party, which would reduce, not increase his support.
This means that in the next six years, the solidity of the Russian government is not threatened and the support of its people will remain at a consistently high level – at the expense of Putin’s authority. And then there is the question of continuity.
I stress that a successor is not a problem. It is possible to change the Constitution and to provide to the acting President at least two more terms. He is in excellent physical shape and is able to lead the country until 2036. Or the Constitution could not be changed. Even now, Putin’s authority is so great with any successor he could act like Deng Xiaoping, whose advice meant more for Chinese comrades than the decisions of official bodies.
Nevertheless, all of these possible solutions aimed at the legal or actual extension of the powers of the current head of state are palliative – they postpone the problem, but do not cancel it.
Moreover, it can be assumed that the party structures will continue to degrade. Therefore, objectively, the situation will get worse, because along with them will degenerate mechanisms that ensure continuity of the elected political course.
I am absolutely sure that Putin not only understands the existence of this problem, but will focus on its solution in the coming years. Let me remind you that in one of his interviews, aired after the elections, he said he has been thinking about the problem of his successor (the question was raised) from the first day of his coming to power.
He has even already tried to solve the problem. During Putin’s first two presidential terms and the entire period of Medvedev’s presidency, the government not only supported almost all political forces (from liberals to Communists), but tried to actively help them in party building.
However, over these twelve years it has become clear that the party system is not working.
The liberal opposition can get into the Duma only if it is allocated a certain quota of seats. But with each election, liberal candidates have less and less of a chance to be elected. Not because they have no support at all among the people. They can count on the votes of about 10% of voters. Another 5% could be obtained through a competent election campaign. But because they are not able to put forward an adequate single leader, nor to gather into one political force, nor to offer the people an acceptable program.
In fact, all the liberals propose is to return to the 1990’s and argue only about which of them should lead this movement backwards. Since there is no serious social stratum in Russia that wants to go back to the era of stagnation (from which everyone can only lose), it is no wonder that liberals cannot mobilize even a third of potential voters.
Year after year, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which acted in the same 1990’s as a non-Communist patriotic alternative to the comprador regime, is being blown away. If not for Zhirinovsky’s personal charisma, the party would have already left the top league and lost seats in the Duma. Today, state power itself is a reliable barrier to the restoration of comprador government. Thus, the LDPR is turning out to be the fifth wheel in the cart.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has gradually exhausted the potential of nostalgia for the USSR. It, like the privatizers of the ’90’s who scrapped strategic enterprises, have lived for too long at the expense of the USSR and drawn from this resources to the fullest extent without investing anything in its modernization.
With the growth of living standards of the population and the authority of Russia in the international arena, the attractiveness of the USSR has decreased. The main resource of the country now is the generation of current 30-40 year olds who entered active life after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were between 5 and 15 at the time of the collapse. They staked out their places in the new system of coordinates. Finally, the current Russian government is pursuing a more thoughtful and consistent social policy than the communists are proposing.
Therefore, even though their candidate in the presidential elections was positioned as a “people’s candidate” and tried to win over not only the Communist vote, but also to get support from the right- wing (up to nationalists), the so-called patriotic forces, the result was not impressive. The party received less votes than it did in the 2016 Duma elections This is evidence that the Communist Party is facing a serious crisis, and there is no guarantee that the party will overcome it.
Given the marginality of all other left-wing projects, in the near future the left party flank will be as helpless as the right-wing flank.
Moreover, the possibilities for new pro-government party forces have been spoken to by the fact that Putin supported United Russia in the 2016 Duma elections, but did not run as its candidate in the 2018 presidential elections. The President is capable of collecting additional votes for the party, but the party is not capable of doing so for the President.
In general, Russia’s political parties have failed to become a reliable basis for the political system. For the last 6 years (2012-2018), the government has tried to experiment with broad national movements. However, this experiment was unsuccessful. Again, contrary to forecasts, Putin distanced himself from supporting these movements.
I think the problem is that they were conceived to address is to provide feedback and people’s control over the bureaucracy (something that parties could not provide). However, the weakness of such mass movements is their strength. They are strong by virtue of the direct communication between they afford between the people and the government. But such communication can only happen from time to time and is not able to replace regular work. The authorities need feedback on a daily basis. On a daily basis, however, only an apparatus can work. As soon as the apparatus begins to be created, it falls under party control or under the control of local authorities (and they act for the best intentions). But the take over of parties and bureaucratization instantly emasculate the idea of popular control. The party-bureaucratic apparatus cannot control itself, even if it concurrently starts to fulfill the functions of the apparatus of a popular movement.
Nevertheless, the urgency of creating strong political support for the current government capable of ensuring the continuity of the political course not for years but for decades to come, has only become more urgent. That is why, against the backdrop of huge international military and political successes, and against the background of advanced economic growth which even the sanctions could only temporarily slow down, the President has promised to focus on domestic political problems as the main issues over the next six years.
Indeed, from the experience of the fall of Tsarist Russia and the USSR (two failures of statehood in one century), we know that even the most outstanding accomplishments are not worth it, if their preservation and extension into the future cannot be guaranteed.
Today, Russia is linking its future to the personality of the current President. Putin can guarantee the stability of the country’s course for another six, 12, 18, or even 24 years. But human power is not infinite. In the next five to ten years, the composition of the highest echelon of the Russian ruling elite will be seriously updated. After all, many of those in office began not even under Yeltsin, but under Gorbachev and even before him.
The system of Russian statehood that Putin has established will be crowned with perfection only once arbitrary, subjective decisions can be assuredly guarded against.
What is needed is literally that very mechanism that provides direct feedback to the government and the people (in its most diverse social groups), which has not been successfully built over the last 18 years. These channels of communication between the authorities and society should ensure not only the prompt delivery of information, but also its objectivity. Increasing need for speed in adopting not only operational, but strategic decisions makes any, even the most minimal distortions of information, whether intentional or accidental, come at an extremely high price.
Russia has now effectively developed a multilevel system of electronic communication for authorities and society via internet pages for state structures, electronic forms, social networking pages for agencies, personal citizens’ accounts, etc. This allows the authorities to accelerate reactions to emerging problems. But this system has two drawbacks.
First, it is not free from subjectivity. Ultimately, decisions depend on the specific official receiving the information. This can be influenced only by a higher structure. A direct consequence and a vivid expression of this problem is the appeal to the President during his direct lines, with a request for solution to the simplest everyday issues that are within the competence of local authorities. This means that the entire vertical of power up to the level of the President has not been working despite all the possibilities of multi-level electronic communication.
Secondly, this system has no political legitimacy. The chambers of the Federal Assembly, the government, the President, and individual agencies all have a certain amount of powers enshrined in the Constitution and laws, and each structure must respond to the decisions taken within these powers. Electronic communication with the population has not yet been integrated into the political system. It conveys the existence of problems, opinions, and positions to relevant structures, but does not obligate them to respond.
Thus, there is no ready-made mechanism to ensure the continuity of policy and its extension into the century. Existing practices need to be improved, broken-in, and adjusting to working condition. It is this problem that will be the main one over the next six years of Putin’s presidency.
If it cannot be solved in six years, I would rather place faith in the fact that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who has pieced together the mosaic of Russian statehood over these decades, will extend his presidential authorities in some imaginable form, rather than allow himself to leave it to chance and the games of political passions and ambitions.
The task at hand is not trivial in itself. It is further complicated by the fact that within Russia there is a growing demand for a sharp increase in the standard of living, and in the international arena the confrontation with the US and its allies is on the rise. And there is no reason to believe that Washington’s policy will change significantly. This means that an active foreign policy necessary to ensure national security will continue to require significant resources.
Summing up the balance, we can state that we have the following liabilities:
- A complex international situation, trending towards further deterioration, requiring concentration on the foreign policy front and significant resources.
- The population’s demand for higher standards of living, requiring a concentration of resources on the domestic policy front.
- The need to complete political reforms in order to give the Russian political system completeness, continuity, and maximum independence from subjective factors.
The only asset we have is the unconditional trust of the people in President Putin which provides him with a carte balance to take any actions. This is a highly unstable and risky situation. Putin’s personality and the experience of his leadership over the past two decades are the only sources for optimism.
**Rostislav Ishchenko, translated by Jafe Arnold from Derzhava**