Political Capital and Room for Manoeuvre in Todayʼs Russia

Jussi Lassila
Oct 18 2016

Russiaʼs political situation does not provide much hope for the countryʼs democratic development in the near future. As the Ukraine crisis evolved into a serious international crisis since 2014, the Kremlinʼs hardened stance towards dissent voices became tangible. Indeed, from the viewpoint of Russian domestic politics, the annexation of Crimea can be seen as a pinnacle of the authoritarian counter-strike that the Kremlin implemented after the mass protest movement of 2011-12. And, as the data of President Putinʼs public ratings demonstrate, it was the Crimea which ultimately recovered the declining legitimacy of the regime.

Russiaʼs political and societal development is an irrevocably moving target, not least because of its growing dependence on one man. Thus, it is challenging to provide estimations on what will happen if there will be no more Putin. Will there be more freedom, or is Russia moving towards a new militant authoritarian regime for which Putin is simply paving the way? In terms of the data concerning Russiansʼ weak trust in societal and political institutions except the president, we can certainly assert that changes will happen when the major political instance of trust is gone. At the same time, Russiaʼs deepening international isolation and declining economy keeps the target moving. Russiaʼs latest parliamentary election in September demonstrated that under the current presidential authoritarianism the role of Duma will be even more symbolic than in the previous term preceded by the mass protests. Now the major headache for the regime was an extraordinarily low turnout. While it is generally important for authoritarian regimes to keep people away from politics, it is equally important to demonstrate the regimeʼs popular support. In this regard the regimeʼs election performance was not very convincing.

It is the regimeʼs popular support which becomes intriguing in the situation of declining economy. Since the previous avenues for improving cosumerism are deteriorating, the Kremlinʼs hardened authoritarian stance, media propaganda against the West as well as budgetary prioririties for the sake of military at the cost of social and education sectors can be seen as central means in legitimizing the current political line with the help of a war mentality. However, as the turnout of the parliamentary election showed, the given mobilization appears to be sparse for demonstrating active support for the regime. On the other hand, this support should not be too active either.

The same kind of chop and change can be seen in the regimeʼs attitude towards numerous patriotic and nationalistic volunteers in the case of Crimea and Ukraine. After the period of patriotic and nationalistic euphoria of 2014 it appears that by 2016 all independent-like actors of the pro-Donbass issue have been marginalized. In other words, the period of patriotic mobilization of 2014 has returned to the stage of de-mobilization. In terms of the latter, it is the Russian official state media which has been the central tool of this intended de-mobilization; keep the peopleʼs minds mobilized for the regime but de-mobilized in terms of any independent nationalistic manoeuvres that the state propaganda might signal. A further challenge is the time; for how long people are willing to stay de-mobilized along with the official propaganda. What will be after Ukraine and Syria?

I would argue that it is the Kremlinʼs uncertainty which largely explains the existing plurality and dissent in the Russian public discussion left for the Internet. Of course, in light of arrests of bloggers, lawsuits and of closing various websites one could say that the regimeʼs control over dissenting voices is becoming more systematic. Yet, the existence and activity of the oppositionʼs front man, Alexei Navalʼnyi, on the web – not to mention the obvious harm that his numerous corruption revelations have caused for the Kremlin – raise interesting questions. It seems that the Russian court has hitherto appeared to be an ineffective tool of his political elimination in light of numerous lawsuits against him. Or, perhaps the regimeʼs inability to silence him via court shows some positive signs of creeping autonomy of Russiaʼs legal system.

Whatever the case may be, recurrent lawsuits and other forms of administrative violence demonstrate that Navalʼnyiʼs exclusion from the official political participation is not enough for the Kremlin. While having 1,66 million followers on Twitter and being the most cited blogger in Russia in September 2016 (53 000 references to his blog in a month), the Kremlin has good grounds to be dissatisfied with his marginalization from political participation. The dilemma is that Navalʼnyi is simply too big for a smooth elimination. And anything which appears to be less smooth for the Kremlinʼs status-quo is a risk which should be avoided.

It remains an open question whether Navalnyiʼs political capital is big enough for the Kremlinʼs political risk in silencing him against the worsening economic and social situation. As a mirror image for the regimeʼs dependence on Putin, a problem for Russiaʼs opposition is its visible reliance on Navalʼnyi and his political capital.

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