Two key mobilizing events—the vote to change the constitution and the Victory Day parade—were supposed to force Russians to temporarily forget about their low incomes and stagnating GDP. The pandemic meant they had to be postponed. Now—as lockdown measures are lifted—the Kremlin is trying to return to the scenario of rallying around the flag.
The current crisis has exposed how the Russian regime has changed in several key ways. It is divided and lacks strategy, and President Putin shows no interest in giving it a new direction.
The fight against the new coronavirus in Russia is being led not by politicians oriented on the public mood, but by managers serving their boss. This is why the authorities’ actions appear first insufficient, then excessive; first belated, then premature.
Putin’s move to extend his rule beyond its expected end in 2024 has worked against the president. Meanwhile, the new coronavirus and falling ruble have proved more effective than any action by the opposition aimed at damaging Putin’s ratings.
Consistency and predictability in Russian politics have all but died. Something extraordinary is unfolding right before people’s eyes: one immutable value (Putin) is destroying another (stability).
Whether Putin wanted to be persuaded to stay on, was testing his entourage for their readiness for a power transition, or was simply waiting for the right moment, we may never know. But there is no evidence that he was preparing to choose a successor.
Putin, a man torn by conflicting impulses, has opted for stability in moving to stay on as president after 2024. In doing so, he surprised the elite and even some in the presidential administration, deceiving those around him—though not the public—with his talk of changes in leadership and overhauling Russia’s political system. His real intentions are impossible to know, but his priority is clear: keeping his options open.
A new Russian state is taking shape that is unashamedly authoritarian in design. If Russia ever wants to return to the European model, it will have to dismantle the entire political legacy that this regime has built.
Most Russians are dumbfounded and intrigued, but not necessarily angry at Putin’s strategy of commencing constitutional change before anyone expected it. This may only change if people’s current expectations are confounded, and Putin doesn’t step down as president after all.
Russia’s new cabinet ministers are young, efficient, nonconfrontational, adaptable, and don’t poke their noses into politics. They live in the digital world that is so difficult for the country’s aging leadership to understand. With time, the victim of this technocratic dominance may be that very same leadership.
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