R.Politik CEO and founder, Tatiana Stanovaya, is regularly quoted by major Russian and international media outlets. She is available for commentary in Russian and English.
By Tatiana Stanovaya
Anonymous Russian Telegram channels, which over the past year have begun to position themselves as an alternative media source, suddenly last week launched a campaign against Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary.
Normally, this news wouldn’t be a very big deal. But as several credible investigations revealed, a large number of these channels are actually directly connected to the Russian government. This points to the attack against Peskov coming from within.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen such a conflict occur within the power “hierarchy.” Parliamentary Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, the only speaker in Putin’s regime who has managed to remain a prominent public political figure, has seen his place threatened recently as he does not fit into the new model of thinking presented by Kremlin’s domestic policy curators, notably Sergey Kiriyenko and Andrei Tarchuk.
These conflicts illustrate a new reality: an increasing sense of competition within the regime, rather than a carefully designed power vertical. This political scramble will define Putin’s final term.
In Peskov’s case, it seems that Putin’s spokesperson is being attacked for vague comments he made regarding the scandal surrounding Russian senator Rauf Arashukov. Arashukov, 32, was detained in late January during a live parliamentary session and has been charged with several crimes, including two murders.
When asked if Arashukov detention indicates a failure by Gazprom management (Arashukov’s father was an advisor to the head of Mezhregiongaz, a subsidiary of Gazprom), Peskov responded that so far Arushkov has only been accused and “his guilt will have to be proven during the trial.”
In the eyes of the investigation’s organizers — who managed to enlist Putin’s direct support and mobilize the entire vertical power structure to arrest Arashukov during a session of the federation council — Peskov’s cautious answer could have indicated his doubt in their actions, which led to a heated reaction.
This would be like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claiming that we need to prove in court that Ukrainian sailors violated the Russian border, despite the fact that the violation was unanimously recognized and strongly condemned by all branches of the Russian government.
What Putin so carefully built during his first two terms as president — the notorious power vertical — is gradually beginning to splinter from the inside.
The significance here is not that Peskov was trying to stand up for the Arashukovs (he did not), but that the prosecution’s initiators had dared to strike one of the figures closest to Putin over a carefully made statement.
And this is not an isolated incident — such practices are becoming increasingly widespread.
In St. Petersburg, political operators connected with Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s ‘Chef,’ constantly compete with political consultants selected by the presidential administration. In the recent scandalous regional elections in Primorsky Krai, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev’s political consultants stole the thunder from the political technologists sent by Moscow.
All of these mini-conflicts tell a very important story. First, they demonstrate that high-ranking officials feel uncertain of the future. With the possible exception of a very limited group of people, nobody knows how the country will develop after Putin leaves the presidency. This forces politicians to fight for their current prerogatives so they’ll have more bargaining power when the time comes to divide up spheres of influence.
Security officials and Volodin alike defend the broader powers of the State Duma alongside longtime Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov, who recently published an open letter highlighting the importance of preserving the existing model (and his own role in creating it).
Second, this uncertainty makes it impossible to make mid-term plans, not to mention long-term plans.
“Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow” is the motto by which the Russian bureaucracy and elite have begun to live by.
As the Kremlin’s horizontal overview shrinks, the situation allows for more brash and decisive moves from within the power vertical. This is enhanced by the weakening of arbitration control coming from Putin himself, as he’s grown tired of getting into these minor (by his standards) internal squabbles.
Third, and most importantly, the boundaries of what’s permissible are expanding. You can now arrest a senator during a federation council session even though this simultaneously destroys the reputation of one of the key institutions of any government — including Putin’s — the upper chamber of Parliament.
You can bluntly orchestrate and arrest the foreign head of the investment firm Baring Vostok, one of the oldest private equity firms in Russia, even if it further damages the investment climate of the country.
You can jail a minister if you don’t think he’s prepared to bend to the will of a powerful oil company and the almighty Igor Sechin.
In this new reality, Putin doesn’t have the time to deal with such disputes. He won’t stand up for the accused.
All of this has led to a completely new political climate that marks a return to the atmosphere of the ‘90s. Albeit without the acute criminalization and with a more healthy economic situation —though this too is headed towards demise.
What Putin so carefully built during his first two terms as president — the notorious power vertical — is gradually beginning to splinter from the inside, reducing the barriers to entry for a war of everyone against everyone which will ultimately make the regime less uniform and manageable.
MOSCOW – Moscow may soon leave the Council of Europe, depriving Russians of what activists call the last hope for justice and crushing efforts to integrate the country into the international rights framework.
Russia has been under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights — overseen by the continent’s top rights organization — for more than 20 years, becoming its biggest purveyor of cases.
But after the 2014 annexation of Crimea ties between Moscow and the Council of Europe reached a crisis point, and Russia may quit the rights body or be suspended this year, activists and observers warn.
“For Vladimir Putin, Council of Europe membership is certainly seen as being part of the civilized world and an exit has always been considered an unwelcome scenario,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, head of R.Politik, a Paris-based analysis firm.
“However there may not be another way out in the current circumstances.”
A Russian departure — dubbed “Ruxit” by the council’s secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland — would have far-reaching consequences.
Campaigners warn of a potential intensification of a clampdown on civil society, worsening abuse of prisoners, a new wave of emigration, and a possible reinstatement of the death penalty.
The news of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation as president of Kazakhstan has prompted discussions in neighboring Russia on the future of President Vladimir Putin. The Nazarbayev option — stepping down as president before the end of his term in order to head the security council — has been floated repeatedly in discussions on Putin’s inevitable power handover in 2024, when his term expires. Under this scenario, Putin would occupy a post that allows him to retain the functions of a strategic and geopolitical manager, and to exercise a veto right over the decisions of his successor. The Kazakh experiment is indeed relevant to discussions about Putin’s future, but in an entirely different context.
There is, of course, a certain similarity between what is happening in Kazakhstan and what could happen in Russia. Nazarbayev is no longer president, but he is not going anywhere. As head of the security council, his authority overshadows even the president and the government. He will also retain leadership of the ruling political party, and the lifelong status of Yelbasy: Leader of the Nation.
Nazarbayev can therefore step back from everyday affairs while guaranteeing his own safety and that of his family, and also shielding himself from potential mistakes by his successor. Even if the new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, proves a failure, Nazarbayev has insurance in the form of his daughter Dariga, who is waiting in the wings, having recently been appointed speaker of the Senate, making her second-in-command. Isn’t this what Putin dreams of?
Yet there are several aspects of the Kazakh experiment that make it less appealing to the Russian leader.
Putin and Nazarbayev may have shared a job title, but their roles are very different. Putin is a manager, a geopolitical entrepreneur, an opportunist, but in no way is he the father of the nation. To achieve that he would have to work much harder to be close to the population. Putin has not only distanced himself from human problems, he is visibly disconnected from his people and their needs.
He has also become disengaged from the Russian elites, having merged into one with the state like some kind of agentless machine whose self-preservation and expansion guarantee the well-being of both the people and the elites.
Another important difference is that the Russian leader lacks a crucial attribute of the Kazakh model: family. Nazarbayev has Dariga to step in as president if necessary, along with two other daughters and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren; a large family that is deeply engrained in the system of authority.
Putin is a lone wolf who divorced his wife several years ago. His daughters sometimes feature in opposition-leaning or Western media, but they are absent from Russian politics. So Putin could never have Nazarbayev’s kind of insurance, which would in any case look somewhat out of place in a modern Russian society.
Therefore, 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 the 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.
If Putin decides that he wants to stay in power, all he needs to do is scrap the law banning presidents from ruling for more than two consecutive terms, and that would not require any lengthy or particularly cumbersome reforms to the system of government. If he wants to step down, as he often says he does, then with loyal people around him, he will find a place and new status for himself in the system. Constitutional reform is inevitable, but Putin has always demonstrated caution in this regard, so even if some redistribution of authority is really planned, it is unlikely to be particularly radical.
The Kremlin will, of course, watch the Kazakh experiment with keen interest and learn from it. But the focus will be not so much on how successful the transition is for Nazarbayev himself, as on the elites’ behavior. How the siloviki fit in to the new configuration, how the business elites build their relationships with the new president, how the transition affects the ruling party, and how the public mood changes.
If anything, Nazarbayev’s resignation could postpone the handover of power in Russia: there is too much discussion right now surrounding Putin’s departure. In the near future, we may see signals that Putin plans to remain in power for as long as possible, but rather than indicating what to expect in reality, these signals will simply be put out there to curtail any expectations of a forthcoming power transition.
Judging by what Putin has said in recent years, there can be no doubt that in his eyes, the Russian political system works just fine without his day-to-day intervention. It’s external observers who like to talk about a system of manual control, in which only the president really knows what is going on. Putin has made it clear on more than one occasion that he sees things differently: there is a strong presidential authority, which is necessary for a country like Russia, there is a constructive, mature opposition, there is a politically responsible elite, and so on. It doesn’t seem that Putin is afraid that everything will collapse without him, so there is no reason for him to embark on radical reforms as a way of guaranteeing his future.
The focus of the Russian president’s attention, therefore, will be not so much on the system, which he believes to be fundamentally sound, as on choosing a successor. Whether that person will be a placeholder acting under the watchful eye of Putin or a full-fledged ruler is a separate issue, but the president is known for generally acting with caution. This means that his departure will be gradual and measured, while the real transition of power may only begin after Putin steps down as president, and will be undertaken by the successor.
There are many options for the inevitable power transition in Russia, but all of them are quite distant from what is happening in Kazakhstan, which has different political traditions, an elite and society with a different structure, and fundamentally different geopolitical conditions and ruling logic. But the process of the transition and its consequences could certainly influence which scenario is chosen in 2024, and could also impact on the choice of successor.
If Putin does decide to step down, there is a greater chance of a provisional new tandemocracy taking shape. Just, like the arrangement from 2008-2012, when Putin sat out a presidential term as prime minister under a trusted presidential seat-warmer, Dmitry Medvedev, in order to respect the constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms. Only this time, the tandemocracy 2.0 will have learned from previous mistakes.
Par Pierre Avril
ANALYSE – La démission surprise du président kazakh, à un an des élections, pourrait donner à réfléchir au président russe, dont la politique est de plus en plus contestée dans son pays.
En Russie, l’élite politique ne pense qu’à ça mais n’en dit pas un mot. Au Kazakhstan, Noursoultan Nazarbaïev a brisé le tabou. En renonçant formellement au poste de président un an avant les élections, cet autocrate, ancien apparatchik soviétique de 78 ans, organise sa succession et envoie un signal au-delà des seules frontières d’Asie centrale, et ceci jusqu’au Kremlin, où un certain Vladimir Poutine achèvera lui aussi – en 2024 – son mandat de vingt-quatre ans, inférieur de seulement quatre ans à celui de son homologue des steppes. Nazarbaïev a beau avoir prévenu Poutine de son initiative, il prend les devants et crée un précédent dans la traditionnelle sphère d’influence de Moscou.
« Poutine cet autocrate, ancien apparatchik du régime unique, et à rendre ne se voit pas en père de la nation mais plutôt comme un chef de corporation. Ce qu’il suivra surtout dans la transition au Kazakhstan, c’est la réaction des forces de sécurité, du parti dominant (dont Nazarbaïev garde la présidence, NDLR) et celle des oligarques », prévoit Tatiana Stanovaïa, analyste au Centre Carnegie.March 20, éà&ç
« Même si Chestoune n’est rien pour Poutine, ce dernier a probablement au moins donné son aval à ses collaborateurs de faire ce qu’ils pensaient être juste, analyse la spécialiste de la politique russe Tatiana Stanovaya, fondatrice du think tank “R. Politik”. Pour eux, Vorobiov devait être soutenu et Chestoune devait partir. »
Pour elle, « le président est de plus en plus vu par les Russes comme devenu faible politiquement, se reposant énormément sur son premier cercle pour les affaires intérieures ».
« Mais personne n’avait jamais osé faire ce qu’a fait Chestoune », continue la politiste, pour qui « cette histoire est dingue, digne des années 1990 » : « Il est pourtant aguerri, il connaît le régime, il devait bien savoir qu’en enregistrant à leur insu des serviteurs de l’État, il devenait automatiquement un ennemi de l’État. »
« La désertion de Vladimir Poutine des affaires intérieures au profit de la géopolitique a laissé un vide que le FSB s’est empressé de combler, estime la politologue Tatiana Stanovaya. Ils s’immiscent de plus en plus dans la politique domestique »
How do you solve a problem like Dmitry Medvedev?
While dismissing Medvedev might provide Putin and his ruling United Russia party with a much-needed ratings boost, it would also be something of a “false start” with parliamentary elections not due until 2021, said political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya.
“It would be more logical to dismiss the government toward the end of its term, if ratings are low and the risks are high, so as to recharge the system and throw the dead weight overboard,” said Stanovaya.
But ultimately, she added, Putin’s decision may be influenced more by his personal relationship with Medvedev than the public mood.
The two men go back a long way, having first met in Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — in the early 1990s, when Putin was head of the city’s committee on foreign relations. Medvedev later ran Putin’s first election campaign, helping him secure the presidency in 2000.
“He is one of Putin’s closest allies, and there is a political deal between them that keeps Medvedev as the second most powerful person in Russia. This is in no way connected to issues of ratings, responsibility, or the attitudes of society to the authorities,” said Stanovaya.
“The tandem is still in force, just in a weaker form.”
Marc Bennetts is a Moscow-based journalist and author of “I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition” (Oneworld, 2016).
Commentary for Deutsche Welle
Maxime Audinet, of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), concurs: “Russian information campaigns should not be seen as instruments that aim to mobilize new yellow vest protesters or to encourage violence.” Instead, she says that “Russian reporting seeks to further polarize public debate and to create the impression in France and abroad that the yellow vests have deeply divided France and brought it to the brink of civil war.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst based in France, shares this interpretation. She says Russia is capitalizing on French President Emmanuel Macron’s political weakness to spread information suggesting “the decline of Europe, a crisis of democracy and growing opposition against the establishment.” However, she “would not say this is having much of an effect.”
By Tatiana Stanovaya for Carnegie Moscow CenterThe United Russia ruling party’s annual congress on December 7 and 8 was eagerly anticipated by observers: the party needed to showcase its survival strategies amid falling ratings and growing social discontent. A lot of attention was on United Russia’s future and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in it, given the rumors that the Kremlin is considering creating new political parties and even possibly eliminating United Russia…
Many expected Volodin’s people to be replaced by Kiriyenko appointees on the eve of the congress. This didn’t really happen, since Kiriyenko prefers gradual change and avoids head-on collisions. He has opted for molding current party bureaucrats to fit his needs, rather than replacing them with someone new.
Such caution is more of an attempt to conform to Putin’s expectations rather than a rational choice. The president prizes results over everything else, hence the emphasis on technocrats, depoliticization, corporate approaches, and KPIs.
All this also reflects on the choice of personnel: unlike many other politicians, Kiriyenko doesn’t promote his own people, but rather the mechanisms for mass-producing neutral, faceless, easily replaceable political functionaries.
On November 22 news emerged that Igor Korobov, head of the Main Directorate of the General Staff (the military intelligence service more commonly known as the GRU), had passed away after a prolonged illness. First deputy vice-admiral Igor Kostyukov was appointed acting head of the service. Russian media, even referring to their own sources unanimously assert that Kostyukov will eventually become Korobov’s official successor. What awaits Russia’s foreign intelligence service after Korobov’s death, and what should be known about its new director?
Let’s start with a few important points. Firstly the GRU, much like any other secret service, is a conservative organisation which takes a dim view of any attempts at reform or significant reshuffles of personnel. Consequently, Korobov’s successor is a subordinate deemed close to his former boss, and one with a deep knowledge of military intelligence. Kostyukov served as deputy head of the GRU until the very last moment, and also stood in for Korobov when his illness got worse.
Kostyukov also supervised the GRU’s activities in Syria, an issue so important to Vladimir Putin that dealing with it suggests regular contact with the Russian president. In 2017 he was awarded the Hero of Russia medal. As such the main goal of the Russian authorities here appears to be guaranteeing the continuity and stability of the GRU’s work.
Biographical details about Kostyukov are scarce. He was born on February 21, 1961 in the Amur Region. A source close to the Ministry of Defence told RBK that upon graduating from the Military-Diplomatic Academy, Kostyukov served as a military attache and then worked for the GRU. The journalist Sergey Kanev wrote in a Facebook post that Kostyukov is the youngest of all serving generals, that he was previously resided in Italy, and that he now oversees the war in Syria. Kostyukov’s son Oleg once worked at the Russian Embassy in Italy. Kanev earlier suggested that another deputy director of the GRU, Sergey Gizunov from St Petersburg, was a contender to Korobov’s position.
RBK drew particular attention to the anti-American character of Kostyukov’s rhetoric. When Kostyukov spoke at the Sixth Moscow Conference on International Security in April 2018, he declared that Donald Trump’s administration seeks to obtain preferential treatment in political and economic affairs by force. Kostyukov went on to call the US Navy’s carrier strike groups and strategic bombers the main instruments of Washington’s foreign policy. However, it should be emphasised that in the current situation the entire Russian elite, and particularly its military and security officials, are anti-American and anti-western in general. In these circumstances, moderation is regarded with suspicion and seen as evidence of unreliability. Ivan Safronov, a special correspondent for Kommersant FM who was present at the conference, noted that Kostyukov spoke as a rapporteur about the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific Region and reported on the issue of North Korea. At the same time, Kostyukov gave a highly informative presentation on the situation in the Middle East and the circumstances of forces present there, with a particular focus on Iraq and Syria.
The second key point is that the GRU now operates under significant pressure after high-profile revelations about the outright failures of its previous work. Nevertheless, it’s important to note Putin’s personal reverence for intelligence officers; in his eyes, whatever mistakes or incompetence they may have shown, they are true heroes. Several observers have already suggested that the arrival of Kostyukov spells reform for the GRU, which may lead to its weakening. Alexander Kolpakidi, a historian of the Russian security services, said in an interview with Kommersant FM that the country’s military intelligence service might even lose some of its current functions: “Reshuffles, changes, and some reforms have probably even begun. I’m sure they’ll try to get rid of all the blunders and ensure they are not repeated in future. The fact that the GRU turned out to be involved in such scandals is surprising; in the Soviet period a competing security agency, now called the SVR but then known as the PSU, was known for them. I think it’s most likely that the GRU will stop dealing with these issues.”
Instead, it may be more logical to expect the opposite: a performative strengthening of the GRU, a move indirectly confirmed by Vladimir Putin’s proposal to restore its former name, the “Main Intelligence Directorate.” In this regard, the GRU has two major advantages. Firstly, it maintains its own operational combat units, which is important given that Russia is involved in a number of active conflicts. Secondly, the role of the Ministry of Defence has markedly increased. This is an important fact given the psychology of Putin, who prefers to entrust critically important jobs to those he strongly trusts. This means that the GRU is now under the patronage of Sergey Shoigu. The Minister of Defence is rightly called the most influential security official in Russia today, despite occasional rumours of the president’s displeasure with this or that mistake in his work. For Putin, Russia’s strategic military power is a critically important issue, and one in which the GRU’s scientific and technical intelligence plays a central role.
Thirdly, there’s no doubt that we should expect increased competition between the GRU and the SVR (the two agencies are traditional rivals.) Kommersant’s source in the General Staff said that Igor Kostyukov “would have to establish relations with his ‘parallel,” meaning the SVR, with which the GRU had clashed in recent years due to the difference in their working methods. In particular, the military believed that the SVR was primarily engaged in ‘desk intelligence work,’ while the GRU went out and unearthed real information using a wide network of agents and informers, thus playing a significant role in international relations. This leak to Kommersant neatly sums up the GRU’s point of view.
However, it is important to bear in mind the SVR’s approach. A number of media outlets wrote that the agency has tried to distance itself from the failures of the GRU, even dropping hints to western counterparts that it had not played a part in its competitor’s staggeringly incompetent escapades. For the SVR, the latest scandals are a blow not only to the “guys from the GRU,” but to all the country’s intelligence agencies. But it will not be easy to encourage Putin to take concrete political decisions to resolve the problem, whether structural reforms or personnel changes. The SVR today is led by Sergey Naryshkin, a “technocrat” who came to the position in 2016. Naryshkin’s new role was less an “appointment” in the full sense of the word but rather compensation for his losing the post of Speaker of the Duma. His current political influence cannot be compared with Shoigu’s. Therefore, even if the Kremlin does pay attention to the SVR’s moaning, it is far more likely to work with the GRU on mending its ways than to reallocate influence to the SVR’s benefit. Nonetheless, the SVR does have one advantage: the head of the agency is a political appointee unlike the head of the GRU, so enjoys direct contact with the president.
While Kostyukov’s appointment should not be seen as a catalyst for wider personnel or structural changes in the GRU, it will mark a trend towards reducing the vulnerability of the military intelligence service, fixing errors, and improving its overall efficiency. At the same time Kostyukov, much like anybody else appointed as head of the GRU, will focus on stabilising the agency’s influence in order to strengthen its position among Russia’s defence and security establishment. Even if Putin decides in favour of significant structural changes to the country’s security agencies (which has been expected for a long time), military intelligence will continue to occupy a central place in whatever balance of power emerges. There is no point in waiting for its influence to abate.
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.”
A look at mainstream media headlines in Russia shows that while the Kremlin expends significant energy in promoting its national security and foreign policy agenda, it is almost completely oblivious to social issues. Indeed, in Russia, the mainstream media mainly focus on three areas: the president and, to a lesser extent, his cabinet; military and diplomatic conflicts abroad; and the lack of alternatives to the current regime. These three pillars have defined the Kremlin’s information policy for the past six years.
Missing from this list is the government’s social policy, something the mainstream media once vigorously defended during Vladimir Putin’s first two presidential terms. Discussion of social policy gave way to the promotion of innovation and modernization under President Dmitry Medvedev before disappearing from the headlines entirely following the annexation of Crimea, which unleashed a wave of euphoria that sustained the regime for several years. It allowed the Kremlin to maintain a high approval rating while neglecting social issues amid unfavorable economic conditions.
As post-Crimea euphoria has receded, causing the public to shift its attention from the television to the refrigerator, the issues of social injustice and declining standards of living have come to the fore. The Kremlin has opted against actively addressing social issues and ceased to manage its coverage in the mainstream media, bringing about what is best described as an informational free-for-all.
Those who believe that Russia’s government exerts total control over the press will be surprised to learn how social issues are now covered in the mainstream media. Amid painful and highly unpopular economic choices—from raising retirement ages to increasing the VAT—the mainstream media’s news reports on the subject have come to resemble the blog posts of Alexei Navalny and the pamphlets of the radical left.
The last few years have witnessed the transformation of the way in which Russia’s regime legitimates itself. Upon assuming the presidency, Putin based his rule on a social contract that promised Russians income growth and action on social issues. It enabled him to adopt reforms that virtually eliminated the oligarchs of the 1990s, as well as opposition from regional governors, and produced the famous power vertical.
As Russia’s new political elites assumed key positions in the system, the social contract was gradually amended in their favor. In his third presidential term, Putin drifted away from the people, focusing instead on protecting his inner circle. That process is now complete, with the government openly telling the people that “the state doesn’t owe you anything,” in the words of Olga Glatskikh, a Sverdlovsk regional government official.
This evolution has led to two practical consequences. First, the Kremlin has lost all interest in managing the mainstream media’s coverage of social issues, inadvertently affording the press unprecedented freedom in reporting on the subject. As a result, even pro-government news outlets have taken to covering social issues with an eye to increasing their readership. Hence the flood of alarmist headlines on social issues, which are grounded in fact yet seem unnaturally critical by Russian media standards.
Second, government officials’ priorities have changed. The interests of voters have taken a back seat to those of their Kremlin superiors. With resources dwindling, government officials have abandoned political correctness. As they attempt to sell deeply unpopular changes to ordinary Russians, whose opinion of the government has long since ceased to determine whether it remains in power, they sound more like accountants than servants of the people.
Indeed, Medvedev’s infamous phrase—“there’s no money, but hang in there”—is increasingly echoed at various levels of government. United Russia lawmaker Ekaterina Lakhova has recommended that Russians experiment with a “wartime diet” rather than ask the government for greater handouts, while State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has defended raising retirement ages by warning that things may worsen further and implying that pensions may be abolished altogether.
In Russia, the political survival of a government official depends on the answer to the following question: “What is Putin going to say?” The president does not care about petty social issues when there are greater matters at stake, from geopolitics to the lofty goals stated in the May Edict. Inventing accomplishments in defiance of the facts on the ground, bureaucrats fiddle with official data to suit their own needs.
Meanwhile, with Putin’s approval rating at pre-Crimea levels and the Kremlin recovering from embarrassing defeats in recent gubernatorial elections, the Kremlin is choosing to draw on its ample resources to manage political risks instead of addressing social issues. For the Kremlin, the only challenges worth dealing with are critics like Navalny, who has been repeatedly arrested; their supporters, who are persecuted after each round of anti-government protests; and the liberal press, like the New Times, which was slapped with an enormous fine after interviewing Navalny. The Kremlin easily overlooks headlines on social issues that fuel the public’s fear and anger, since these are not seen to pose a direct threat to its political survival.
Simply put, the authorities are no longer able to respond to social needs. Nor will Moscow find it easy to restore control over the social agenda, even if it tries to return to it tomorrow. The government has simply forgotten how to empathize with the public and understand its demands, which it increasingly perceives as excessive and politically untenable. To understand the nature of Putin’s fourth presidential term, look to the government’s new maxim: “We don’t owe you anything.”