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Putin as le Roi Soleil

Andrei Pertsev sums up the week (September 18−22)

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The inauguration of Russian governors has always been a self-serving affair, with the heads of the region playing the central role in the event, organised for them and around them. At the ceremony, the elite took a symbolic oath of office and the head of the region gave symbolic answers. The mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, can be called the most important Russian governor (the city has the status of a region, not a municipality) and a role model for the heads of other territories. Since the time of Sobyanin’s predecessor, Yuri Luzhkov, the capital city has been effectively operating as a state within a state, and its head had enjoyed unspoken special rights and privileges: he operated on his own and demonstrated serious independence from both the centre and Vladimir Putin. You could say that in Moscow the mayor was actually more important than the president, and the Kremlin stayed out of the inner-city agenda. This year, however, the situation has changed. The central figure at Sobyanin’s inauguration was not Sobyanin himself, but Vladimir Putin. He came to congratulate the mayor on his re-election, but the president’s speech gave the impression that he himself had won the elections in Moscow. Putin kept talking about the common team he shared with Sobyanin, its successes and achievements. At the event which was meant to be a celebration of Sobyanin, Putin chose to steal the mayor’s thunder and spotlight, and it is unlikely that the mayor and his entourage appreciated it very much (of course, they cannot express their dissatisfaction publicly). Putin may have had two reasons to do what he did.

For Putin, this might have been the way to signal to Sobyanin — the head of the state within the state — his real place in the power vertical. Putin is still in charge, and all participants in the power system should look to him first, obey him and swear an oath of allegiance to him. This is a political explanation, but it often does not work with Putin.

The other version is more in line with the behaviour of the Russian president, who has recently become fond of making frequent public appearances, communicating with the people and dropping some revelatory information at such public events. Putin clearly sees himself as the people’s hero, a very popular figure and a welcome guest at any event. He clearly favours Sobyanin: during the mayoral campaign he took part in the ritual inauguration of infrastructure facilities and more than once publicly praised the mayor. Putin clearly wanted to help the official he liked, and did so in accordance with his ideas about the socio-political situation in Moscow and the country as a whole. He thought he was sharing his appreciation and helping Sobyanin get elected, and that his participation in the inauguration was a sign of his special favour. These perceptions are very far from reality: in Moscow, Sobyanin’s popularity is probably higher than the president’s. For a long time the mayor has been shunning the war and keeping his distance from the «United Russia» party, realising that this was in line with the feelings of the majority of citizens. But the president began to act with the logic of a monarch who believes in his divine destiny and the boundless love of the people. He wants to do the best and tries to shine his light on everything around him. This out-of-touch behaviour will inevitably interfere with the power vertical that has tried to diversify while working for its own preservation. The autonomy of the Moscow mayor has contributed to the general loyalty of the capital’s inhabitants. A superfluous reminder that Putin is still in charge of the country (including the capital) does not contribute to this loyalty. The president is dismantling the carefully constructed «Moscow bubble» governed by an enlightened autocrat who admires the so-called «Asian tigers» and their managerial style. The rays emanating from Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King, begin to scorch his own subordinates and his own «team».

A liberal to make money

Vedomosti reported mid-week that the Kremlin has begun discussing the nomination of a «liberal candidate» for the 2024 presidential election. As a potential example of such, the paper referred to Alexei Venediktov, the former head of Echoe of Moscow radio station, whom the Russian authorities themselves have labelled a foreign agent. Venediktov denies any plans of taking part in the elections, while Vedomosti pointed out that the political bloc of the presidential administration has so far opted for a conservative campaign scenario, in which Putin’s sparring partners will be representatives of parliamentary parties (with the exception of the «Just Russia» party, which has already announced its support for the president). However, the very discussion of this issue, organised with the help of one of Russia’s main business media, shows that there is support in the Kremlin for the participation in the campaign of a certain liberal candidate nominated with the help of the government itself. Without such support, it is impossible to collect 100,000 signatures (at least 2,500 must be collected in each region of the country) that the Central Election Commission will recognise as valid. At the same time, the authorities themselves and Putin personally do not need a liberal sparring partner. The public have long since learned how to figure out which candidate is taking part in the elections as a dummy candidate propped by the presidential administration and not to vote for him in the elections, which only works to boost voter turnout.

The result of Ksenia Sobchak in the 2018 Russian presidential elections is a good case in point: Putin’s goddaughter, who played the role of an oppositionist, could not even get 2% of the vote. Moreover, a significant part of the «liberal candidate’s» potential audience has left Russia, which means that even in theory it will not be able to significantly increase the turnout. After the outbreak of the full-scale war against Ukraine, the opposition agenda itself requires a politician or public figure to take a stand on the war. In order to plausibly play the role of the Kremlin’s opponent, any liberal spoiler must call for an end to the war and an immediate peace, which the authorities cannot allow. After all, most of the more or less prominent opposition figures have either left the country or are being persecuted. Of course, the presidential administration can declare or appoint anyone a liberal, but this will not attract an audience to the elections. Even less so since the campaign will include a candidate from the «New People» party who will work with the «moderate audience.» In this context, the nomination of a separate liberal spoiler makes no sense whatsoever.

But it makes all the sense in a different context: in the context of material pragmatism and personal gain. A federal election campaign costs money: the spoilers have to pretend that their headquarters are working hard, and they have to make and promote campaign materials. Political technologists close to the political bloc of the presidential administration stand to make a fortune during the election campaign. They have experience in such activities — for example, in the 2021 State Duma elections (and before that in the 2020 local elections), the campaign of the niche party «Green Alternative» was supervised by Vyacheslav Smirnov, a Kremlin official and well-known technologist, and the campaign of the «New People» party was supervised by Efim Ostrovsky, a ‘methodologist’ and acquaintance of Sergei Kiriyenko. Promoting a «liberal» is quite a lucrative project. The high costs can be explained by the difficulty of working with the opposition public. A story that is completely useless from the point of view of political pragmatism immediately becomes both rational and clear from the point of view of economics. Before the full scale invasion, Vladimir Putin regularly rotated his subordinates in order to prevent them from making connections and bolstering their position. Kiriyenko’s predecessor, Vyacheslav Volodin, spearheaded two projects (the 2012 presidential elections and the 2016 Duma elections) and continued his career as the Chairman of the Duma. Kiriyenko, the current head of the political bloc, already has three major projects under his belt: the 2018 presidential campaign, the 2021 Duma campaign and the vote on constitutional amendments. Most likely, after the fourth project — the election of the head of Russia in 2024 — Kiriyenko and his team will move on to new pastures. Organizing the campaign of a liberal spoiler for Putin will serve as a «golden parachute» for part of this team, if, of course, the idea of nominating an «oppositionist» candidate is picked up by the country’s leadership.

Taming Khakassia

The general secretary of the «United Russia» party, Andrei Turchak, met with the re-elected head of Khakassia, Communist Valentin Konovalov. The two politicians agreed (at least in public) to work together and not to feud, although a few weeks ago the confrontation seemed irresolvable and deadly. The candidate of the «United Russia» party and MP Sergei Sokol, who had nothing to do with the region before being elected to the parliament, failed to get the necessary share of votes to win. As a result, Sokol withdrew from the election due to illness and the Kremlin let Konovalov win, although the scenario of cancelling the election results had also been considered. The meeting between the head of Khakassia, who until recently seemed to be a pariah and persona non grata for the power vertical, and the general secretary of the «United Russia» party proves that the system is still quite flexible. It can accept a failure, turn it into a semblance of a victory and move on. It is likely that the self-preservation instinct of the system, based on corrupt pragmatism, will begin to clash with Putin’s royal ambitions. The winner of this battle is by no means clear.

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