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Putinism without Putin

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (September 11−15)

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has a long track record of delivering ideological lectures at events and occasions, which seem rather inappropriate for this purpose — like economic forums, for example. The Eastern Economic Forum, one of Putin’s favourite pastimes in the context of the «turn to the East», was no exception: its participants were once again subjected to the Russian leader’s diatribes against «Western colonialism» and asertions of Russia’s «anti-colonialism» and «traditional values.» Thanks to Putin’s new-found love of public confessions, it suddenly became clear that the president is far from being the most radical «Putinist» around. His subordinates, those in charge of propaganda and education, are pushing a far more radical agenda so as to please the president.

For example, a new history textbook for high school students, edited by Vladimir Medinsky, a presidential adviser and former minister of culture, contains the following lines about the suppression of the 1956 uprising in Hungary by Soviet troops: «With good reason, believing that the catalyst of the Hungarian crisis was the actions of Western intelligence services and the internal opposition they supported, the USSR sent troops to Hungary and helped the Hungarian authorities suppress the uprising.» The authors of the textbook describe the participants in the uprising as «radicals», «among whom were many former members of the armed forces of fascist Hungary». According to the textbook, these radicals were involved in «numerous murders of representatives of the Hungarian Labour Party, law enforcement officers and members of their families». The propaganda manual thus presents the brutal suppression of an uprising in another state by Soviet troops as a just and righteous cause. As it turns out, Putin has a very different view of the matter. «This part of the Soviet Union’s policy was wrong and only led to strained relations. You can’t do anything in foreign policy that clearly contradicts the interests of other nations, that’s all,» he argued at the EEF. It is likely that Putin was not entirely sincere and only said this to make his «anti-colonialist» stance look more credible and attractive to other countries. Ideally, this «anti-colonial» version of Putinism should be seen as more relevant and certainly more Putinesque: if the government is going to play anti-colonialism, it should be played seriously. But the president’s subordinates are introducing a different «putinism» to Russians — militant and radical.

This is not the only example of the divergence between «Putin’s putinism» and «official Putinism». At the EEF, the Russian president spoke quite neutrally about opposition-minded Russians who had left the country. According to Putin, those who left could have as well stayed in Russia and criticised the authorities, or they could even return (although he specified that the authorities were not really keen on seeing such people come back). These words clearly contradict the «traitor» theme promoted by Russian propaganda and ultra-patriotic system politicians such as Zakhar Prilepin or Sergei Mironov.

Again, it is not known how sincere Putin is, but for some reason at the EEF he chose to put forward the «lite» version of putinism: does this mean that the Russian president has decided to hint at a semblance of a thaw and his subordinates will follow him? Or is he maintaining the image of the «only European» in Russia, ready to give in and show mercy at any cost? Probably neither. The Russian system no longer supports the «lite» version of putinism; it is an outdated version of the software that no longer works for them. Officials, propagandists and system politicians will remain more «putinist» than Putin himself. First, they may suspect that a former KGB officer (and the president rimenisced about his work at the EEF) is testing their loyalty and firmness of conviction. Second, members of the power vertical have realised that the best strategy for preserving their positions, financial flows and career prospects now is to promote the most radical agenda and double down on the struggle against the opposition. The main thing is not to criticise the top leadership for being too soft, but otherwise it is better to overdo it than to underperform.

«Putinism» as a clear ideology does not exist — it is a chaotic mix of Putin’s personal beliefs, his propaganda statements and a superstructure built by his subordinates in the hope of pleasing the boss. There is no canon for this quasi-ideology; it constantly mutates, with the architects of this superstructure adding their own motives in the hope that Putin will like them. At some point, the Russian president turned out to be the bearer of an outdated version of his own quasi-ideology, but neither he nor the system is yet handicapped by this: Putin is still sympathetic to the official patriotic zeal. The discourse produced by the head of state, which no longer resonates with the actual logic of the system, does not prevent the system from acting: ordinary citizens do not read the transcripts of forums and meetings. Putinism can survive and evolve without Putin; it no longer needs the president as the leader and ideologue. Putinists cannot stop, and the basic principles of the ideology — anti-Westernism, authoritarianism, ultra-conservatism — are radicalised with each passing year. This means that after the Russian president leaves politics (there might be various reasons for that), Putinism will definitely not die, and may even become more radical and tribalist. It is quite likely that it will not live long, but every month and every year of putinism without Putin will cost Russia very dearly.

Lessons in vote-rigging?

The only real surprise of the election campaign in Russia’s regions came before the polling day. The election of the head of Khakassia, which we have covered extensively, was cancelled by the «United Russia» party candidate Sergei Sokol. This opened the way for the head of the republic, Communist Valentin Konovalov, who was elected in the wake of 2018 protests, to win the first round with 64 per cent of voters who came to the polls. All other gubernatorial candidates promoted by the Kremlin were elected with between 70 per cent and 86 per cent of the votes. Only in the aforementioned Khakassia did the «United Russia» party lose the elections to the list-based parliamentary assemblies, but even there it did retain control of the parliament thanks to single-mandate candidates. Even in the regions that are widely considered to be problematic (such as Yakutia, Transbaikalia, Ivanovo and Irkutsk oblasts), UR won more than 50 per cent of the votes for party-lists. In the newly occupied territories, «United Russia”‘s official results were over 70 per cent. The results in Kemerovo, Rostov and Bashkortostan were just below this figure.

This year’s election campaign showed a clear trend: the Kremlin’s political administrators have set the course for the complete and total domination of «United Russia.» All other parties in such a scenario will have to do with just 5 per cent of the votes in order to have formal representation, which will not allow them to have any say in anything whatsoever and this is exactly how the electoral commissions distributed the votes in the annexed territories. The dominance of the «United Russia» party is now secured and guaranteed, regardless of the actual will of the voters. A few years ago the Kremlin somehow tried to take people’s feelings into account when summarising the election results, and could even give a formal victory to the Communists (this was the case in the Irkutsk and Ivanovo regions in 2018). Now in the same regions, according to officially released data, the «United Russia» party gains more than 50 per centof votes for party-lists. This kind of rigging triggers protests even from the spoiler parties. For example, the elections in the Ivanovo region were criticised by the Communist party. The Kremlin, however, shows no desire to abandon this strategy: such a political facade of the system promises to be super-controllable. The representatives of the system parties will know their place and will not demand anything from their benefactors, who have generously given them 5 per cent of the votes and a faction in local parliaments that have no influence on anything. If the public players become deeply dissatisifed with the authorities, this thin veneer constituted by the «United Russia» candidates and those «others» with 5 per cent of the votes who follow the rules set for them, will not protect the Kremlin in any way.

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