Putin’s Domestic Politics and Russian National Identity
Despite the failing economy, Putin’s approval ratings are still high. In fact, they reached the highest level ever after the initial airstrikes in Syria (Eremenko 2015).14 After the Soviet collapse, the desire of Russians to regain self-respect has been just as powerful as their desire to live well. Putin’s actions in the world today have responded to this desire and he has come to embody Russia’s re-emergence as a great power. Nevertheless, discontent is starting to well up as some protests have occurred from pensioners and loan holders. These protests have so far remained apolitical, as the Russian people are more likely to blame the prime minister or local officials than President Putin. United Russia as a party is losing popularity, and Putin is distancing himself from the party nearing the autumn parliamentary elections, as a 10 percent dip in approval ratings is forecasted (Sharkov 2016; ‘Putin’s Popularity’ 2015). In Russia, social protest is unlikely to bring about significant change. The most likely way to introduce a change in the system would come from modernization attempts from above. It is a country where making plans has always been difficult, since uncertainty is perpetual. This has cultivated a culture of people who simply hope for the return of better times during economic downturns while the cronies at the top continue to see a more than healthy cash flow. The one-man rule in Russia is legitimate and has been a part of Russian culture for as long as the country has existed. Even protesters legitimize this system of rule, as the long-distance truckers against the new road taxes in the last months of 2015 appealed to the president to help resolve their problems, thus legitimizing a system that basically lacks effective political institutions.
Economic decline in Russia will not necessarily lead to mass political or social protests. While there may be some local discontent, it will not turn political because the country lacks the tools and channels for that to happen. People are uninformed and fail to see the connection between domestic and foreign policies, and the economic challenges they face from the weak ruble to high inflation. Issues that may require a bigger- picture strategy in the future include mass refugee migration to Europe which may affect xenophobic tendencies, Russia’s aging population which will bring down the pension system, and another interesting trend that could appear concerning its ‘self-sufficiency’. As Russia becomes more self-sufficient and indifferent to the plight of its citizens, relations in society will start becoming more horizontal and will self- organize to help the destitute, the sick, and the uneducated. Meaning new centres of legitimacy will emerge to fill the gaps where the state is absent, which could have secondary effects. Today’s Russia, with all of its political restrictions, makes it impossible to modernize unless the process comes from the top. Until then everyone is just in ‘waiting mode’ (Kolesnikov 2016a).15
Thus, mass protest is unlikely to occur. Putin’s approval ratings are very high and Russia has always been an autocratic system with the exception of its attempt at democratization in the 1990s. Andrei Tsygankov (2014) along with many other analysts, asserts that the Russian people prefer this style of governance and, therefore, will not rebel. He maintains that it is a mistake for Western scholars to see Russia’s state system as dysfunctional or one needing to be replaced by a Western style competitive system. Westerners often think that Russia’s system is based on personalist rule that silences the opinion of the population and is prone to being unstable and breeding political chaos. Tsygankov claims that the strong state, as other political systems, is an institutional arrangement that takes into consideration the interests of the common citizen and tries to strike a balance to achieve the common good. Strong states try to achieve this balance by relying on a centralized power rather than on checks and balances. A strong state can be successful if it effectively orients its resources towards the common good. Democratization in Russia in the 1990s turned out to be a disaster and caused much political chaos. Tsygankov concludes that Russia needs a strong state to survive, as it is composed of various cultures and traditions and has sustained strong external pressures in the past and emerged as a great power in the world. In addition, Russia emerged as a late developer and has needed to keep up with more modern economies.