Russian regional authorities have launched an active anti-abortion campaign. In the annexed Crimea and Kursk Oblast, private clinics have allegedly refused to perform abortions on their own initiative; in Tver and Tambov Oblasts, as well as in Mordovia, the authorities have introduced administrative fines for «coercing» or «compelling» women to have abortions, «through persuasion, offers, bribery, deceit, or by imposing other demands.» The law mainly targets medical professionals. Other regions are likely to join the campaign, as anti-abortion initiatives are played on Vladimir Putin’s Vladimir Putin’s favourite field of «traditional family values.» Attempts to introduce such penalties and bans at the federal level are also being discussed (for example, in the State Duma), but they are unlikely to be implemented: freedom of abortion is a divisive issue, and there are many Russians who will be willing to defend this right. The Kremlin tends to avoid such controversial issues, usually leaving it to the regional governments to make such decisions. This was the case, for example, with the various restrictions introduced during the COVID-19 pandemics: the country never introduced a uniform federal standard of dos and don’ts, lest it undermine the ratings of the president or the government. The entire burden of unpopular measures was placed on the shoulders of regional governors, who found themselves trapped: they lost their popularity either because of the bans or because of skyrocketing mortality and contamination rates. This seems to be the case with the tacit ban on abortions. The governors have been told that the fight for «traditional values» is a desirable way forward and resonates with the tastes and wishes of their superiors. In this way, the federal centre has once again forced the regions to deal with the negative consequences and the negative public reaction of anti-abortion measures that will obviously follow and are already evident. A legitimate question arises: Why does the Kremlin need these bans, since unlike the times of the pandemic, the current situation does not call for a fight against abortions, and the losses in ratings are clear and predictable?
There are two reasons for this. First, Putin himself is rapidly drifting towards ultra-conservatism and believes that Russians should adhere to «traditional values», which leaves no room for pro-choice. The propaganda of such «values» and their introduction into everyday life is a big achievement for Putin’s subordinates. At the same time, Kremlin officials are well aware that federal bans (total or partial) will affect the ratings of all government officials, especially the president. Maintaining Putin’s popularity is their direct responsibility. Delegating unpopular measures to the regions allows officials to report back to Putin on how successful they are in introducing traditional values to the masses, while leaving the governors to deal with the negative consequences of such measures.
The second reason is that pro-life policies enable the Kremlin to buy the loyalty of various social groups, influential communities and personalities in view of the upcoming elections. Ultra-conservatives and the Russian Orthodox Church demand a de facto ban on abortions: such proposals are regularly broadcast at one of the Church’s main forums, the World Russian People’s Cathedral. For one section of society (though not the most significant), the Church is one of the main opinion leaders, so this group follows its front-men on the issue of banning abortion. The hybrid fight against abortions in the regions is a curtsy to the Russian Orthodox Church and its supporters. It is an additional contribution to buying their loyalty before the elections. The Church, for example, can be persuaded to campaign for a high turnout in the presidential elections, and we know that for the presidential administration the issue of ensuring a super-high turnout is paramount. The ultra-conservative activist core thus becomes a campaign resource for more passive supporters of traditional values: it will talk about how the Kremlin is gradually moving towards the traditionalists citing as evidence the successes of the pro-life campaign in the regions.
This week Putin himself has also been working to buy an extra portion of loyalty by meeting with representatives of major Russian businesses. The official Kremlin sources did not disclose the details and topics of the meeting, but semi-official sources reported that the president guaranteed Russian oligarchs that there would be no «nationalisation» and no revision of the results of the privatisation of the 1990s. Rumours had been circulating since the outset of Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine that the assets of old-style businessmen might be redistributed in favor of the state. They made oligarchs such as Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Potanin, Alisher Usmanov and Vladimir Lisin nervous and clearly did not encourage their loyalty. Putin’s personal guarantees were designed to buy that loyalty.
In the second case, buying loyalty can indeed be justified: the Kremlin benefits from the fact that big businessmen have not withdrawn their support and are not forming an opposition, even though the war costs them dearly. Buying the loyalty of the ultra-conservatives with the help of the anti-abortion campaign will cost the federal government, although it is trying to pass the negative consequences on to the governors. Doctors (one of the Kremlin’s most important support groups among the public sector employees) have begun to cautiously express their discontent, even pro-government bloggers are condemning the initiative, and it is clear that it will definitely not be supported by most women. All these groups understand that the president, who constantly talks about «traditional values», favours and supports such ideas. Flirting with the conservative minority to please Putin will give the political bloc the opposite of the desired results: it may not ruin the turnout among the majority, of course, but it may seriously reduce it.
The power vertical is fraying at the seams
Traditionally, during the presidential campaign, which has already begun, there is a moratorium on internal conflicts within the vertical of power. It can be likened to the «water truce» in Kipling’s The Jungle Book: drought brought all the animals to gather at the last remaining pool and the Law of the Jungle allegedly forbade them to hunt and attack each other. Such truce is necessary for all elements of the vertical to remain loyal and work in sync. Conflict destroys this unity and is therefore unwelcome. Above all, the «truce» concerns criminal cases against important regional leaders and officials of federal agencies. The system has to work towards achieving high electoral results for Putin, and the reshuffles and replacements that automatically follow are unbalancing it.
During the current election campaign, however, law enforcers and politicians are clearly in no hurry to observe this truce. Viktor Kudryashov, the head of the Samara regional government has been arrested and he was a key official in the administration of the region’s governor, Dmitry Azarov. Kudryashov was in charge of the operational management of the region, meaning that the administrative resources used in the presidential election were tied to him. The region’s construction minister has also been arrested, and a case has previously been opened against the region’s deputy health minister (the media have also reported claims by law enforcement officials against the minister himself). Governor Azarov is thereby losing a significant part of his team, despite having been elected in September this year. He received Putin’s approval for a new term and, according to official figures, won more than 80% of the vote. According to the unspoken laws of the power vertical, a recent election provides protection from attacks by the security forces or elite opponents for quite a long time, and in this logic Azarov should have been protected twice: both by the recent election and by Putin’s «pre-election truce.» Now it turns out that these laws are working poorly or not at all. Even newly re-elected regional leaders are not guaranteed immunity for their teams, and possibly, for themselves. And yet, it is the governors and their staff who determine the outcome of federal election campaigns on the ground: they are motivated by the «water truce» and the unwritten rules of the power vertical. The Azarov case is a serious blow to this motivation, and may even destroy it.