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Rituals around Putin

Andrei Pertsev sums up the week (November 27 — December 1)

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This week Vladimir Putin spoke at the World Russian People’s Council (WRPC), an event organised by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. Its meetings bring together ultra-conservatives, including those far removed from conventional Orthodoxy, such as the philosopher Alexander Dugin. The council’s session had an ambitious title: «The Present and Future of the Russian World.» «The «Russian world» is often spoken of by the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Putin justified the war against Ukraine, among other things, by the alleged need to protect the «Russian world.» The combination of the word «future» in the name of the event, which is important for the conservative community, and Putin’s announced participation, suggested that the president would deliver part of the statements designed for this audience. The aforementioned Dugin went even further and promised that the meeting would «radically change the destiny of Russia and the world.»

However, Putin did not attend the Council in person, but chose to address it through a video call. The president did not say anything radically new: yet again he spoke of Western colonialism and of Russia as a «country-civilisation» struggling «against the dictatorship of one hegemon, which is becoming decrepit.» Putin’s speech contained some generalities about the freedom of cultural development in Russia as opposed to the «cancel culture» that allegedly reigns supreme in the United States and Europe. He also said certain rather problematic things — given that this was an event organized by the Russian Orthodox Church — about the unity of religions and their subordination to the goals of the state (we have written about this before). Putin did not bother to prepare any exclusive content for the occasion, and neither did he ask his subordinates to take care of it. Instead, he produced a well-worn set of theses with which he typically addresses both international experts at the Valdai Forum and young careerists, participants in AP competitions and audiences at the Kremlin’s international forums. In general, his WRPC address did not really come across as a pre-election message to conservatives.

But Patriarch Kirill, who had long since become a seasoned courtier, managed to exploit the situation for his own ends. He was the first member of the elite to call Putin «to the throne» and «bless» him for a new term in office. «I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and may God reinforce your strength, the strength of your closest associates who form this united team, so that you may continue your work for the good of our Russian fatherland, the entire Russian people,» said the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The president predictably did not respond, but the timely «blessing» will certainly not be superfluous for the status and weight of the patriarchal apparatus. For several years now, rituals have become one of the main elements of Russian public policy. No one doubts that the president will run again, and everyone knows roughly what result and turnout he should get: the AP does not hide these figures. One should not underestimate the role of rituals in such a situation: empty gestures become all the more important. Since it is no secret that Putin will go to the polls and win by mobilising the dependent electorate, the exact date of his nomination and the place where it will take place should be shrouded in mystery. We have already written about Putin’s traditional Chekist stalling tactics: he has already failed to accept an offer from the leader of his political bloc, Sergei Kiriyenko, to be nominated at the opening of the «Russiya» Exhibition and Forum. During this pause, sensitive courtiers are queuing up to call on Putin to return to his throne yet again. Here, too, it is important to observe formalities: not to invite him to run for his office too early, not to exaggerate the eagerness: one has to be oblique and subtle. Patriarch Kirill made a rather spectacular gesture of loyalty, which is likely to please Putin. He managed to camouflage the invitation and left the president in no doubt that the Russian Orthodox Church would certainly throw its weight behind him. The «United Russia» party, which is organising many events in the background of Putin’s de facto campaign, failed to make a similarly timely and appropriate move. The Russian leader was called to resume his presidency by a representative of annexed Sevastopol, but the party leadership did not support her. The closer we get to the date of nomination (by law it must take place in mid-December), the more attempts there will be to invite Putin to run, and the more persistent they will become.

Unwilling imitators

Following Putin’s example, the representatives of the system parties are forced to pause before announcing their candidacy. The congresses of the parliamentary structures have been scheduled, just in case, for the time when, according to all conventions, the president should announce his desire to run for office. So far, this event is expected to take place during the so-called «direct line», an annual televised Q&A with Putin, combined with a press conference on 14 December. Therefore, the «New People» party will meet on 24 December, the CPRF on 18 December and the LDPR on 19 December. Their leaders will not risk announcing their nomination before Putin, partly because they will want to adjust their publicly stated motives for running in line with his statements. Gennady Zyuganov, Leonid Slutsky and Alexei Nechayev are trying to create intrigue because the politicised public expects them to put on a show. To draw attention to himself and his party, Zyuganov announces the date of the Federation Council meeting on 13 Decembe — the same day the date of the presidential elections has to be announced. The media picked up on the news hook, as the actual date of the election is set by law. Slutsky threatened to hold the LDPR’s pre-election congress in Chechnya, then took back his announcement, but in the end, the LDPR people will gather in Moscow as usual.

President for President

At the end of this week, the Kremlin formally defused yet another tension: it officially announced the date of the president’s «direct line» Q&A and confirmed that it would be combined with a press conference. Dmitry Peskov said that Putin was going to «sum up the results of the year», which is what the event will actually be called: «The Results of the Year with Vladimir Putin.» The formats of the direct line and the press conference were originally dialogue-based (at least that’s how they were conceived of). The president had to respond to the wishes of the people and meet the interests of journalists; the Kremlin stressed that the ball was in the court of the questioners. Gradually, both events became entertainment for the bored head of state, but their dialogue format was preserved. «Results with Putin» is a clear monologue: the president himself will «sum up» the results and then listen to the questions. Putin does not enter the space for dialogue or exchange, instead, he takes up the podium to deliver his monologue, while the audience can only ask questions about his speech. The ball is now in the president’s court, and he has suggested topics for discussion to the audience. It is easy to predict what he would be talking about yet again: «colonialism», «Russia as a country-civilization» and its successful confrontation with the West. The president wants to talk, and his subordinates are giving him the opportunity to do so, doing away with traditional formats.

The fuss over empty rituals is yet another proof that expectations of the second consecutive highly predictable presidential campaign (the first took place in 2018) are overheated. Politicised citizens are waiting for at least some events, while politicians and political technologists slip them a surrogate. The situation in reality is beginning to heat up, and this heat is as far away as possible from Putin’s memorised musings about «colonialism» and «country-civilisation» or the unwilling games of systemic party members around rituals and dates.

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