Vladimir Putin has a mountain to climb if he is fully to be accepted as Russia's legitimate president, let alone as prospective ruler from 2018 to 2024. A sense of purposeful renewal is needed, but absent.
Putin's core support is now widely reckoned to be down to some 20-30% of the electorate, with 50-60% accepting his authority for want of something better or fear of something worse. The remaining 20% or so reject him and his system of rule – with a higher percentage in Moscow. The Duma elected in December commands small respect, and the machinery of government even less. Former president and now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s government functions, but it is Putin who calls the shots.
The principal message that is coming through is not renewal, but regressive, resentful and fearful: dissent must be repressed. Recent measures include: penalizing NGOs accepting foreign money; punitive laws on unsanctioned demonstrations; recriminalizing 'defamation' of public figures; internet restriction; arrests of the 6 May protestors; harassment of opposition figures; and pressure on the media. This vindictive spirit will be given further rein. So far it has undermined the administration, not the dissenters.
The current economic outlook is fair. But not sufficiently so for the authorities to be complacent. The government's plans for meeting a renewed global economic crisis repeat the 2008-9 formulae. They do not address Russia's structural defects. These make the country even more exposed now than four years ago. The Medvedev contingency plan is only an immediate fix.
The discussion over the past several years of Russia's longer-term problems has illuminated their weight and the link between economic diversification and political devolution. Putin and his associates have to persuade their country that they have a convincing programme to deal with the country’s perceived malaise if they are to restore confidence in the rightness and durability of their rule.
Putin set ambitious pre-electoral economic and social targets. He rehashed them for the June St Petersburg Economic Forum. Elements of a road map for their achievement have appeared. But the programme has yet to capture the imagination of the public at large, let alone to persuade Russia’s entrepreneurs that the government is serious about reform. The airy nothings that Medvedev mouthed as president have fallen out of fashion. The present combination of trying to crack down on dissent while failing to articulate a wider purpose risks compounding the supposition that the Putin group’s principal aim is merely to hang on to power for as long as they can. The proposal that Russia be the centre of a Eurasian Union is not much of a makeweight.
It has become a commonplace to predict that the current regime will face a major and possibly insoluble crisis in two or three years' time, around halfway through Putin’s present term. A variety of triggers have been suggested for that: a fall in the oil price, trouble in the regions, social unrest, or terrorism, for instance. But the major threat to the regime is a loss of trust. There are divisions at the top which compound the uncertainty. Putin and his colleagues face a dilemma. Reform that Western optimists look for would put them at risk. More than tactical adjustments would also be a tough sell for the population at large. But trying to preserve the status quo will deepen the tensions within the Russian polity. Powerful elements in Russian society are no longer willing to act as cogs in the machine, or to believe in Putin and his colleagues as adequate.
It has been claimed that because the protest movement lacks clear leaders and a developed programme, it will fade. But the striking thing about the demonstrations has been the way that they have attracted so many different strains of opinion, and in doing so the sympathy of a considerable number of Russians, including some associated with the ruling establishment. The protests are not a political coup in the making, but a channel for ideas about how Russia ought to move on to a better future in which the country’s leaders might be answerable to the country’s people, not the people to a sanctified state. This is new for Russia, whose rulers prefer obedience.
Some elements of the opposition are plain nasty. But others reflect and further develop the way that opinion within both parts of the establishment and among critics of the regime has evolved at an accelerating pace over the past few years. Fair and honest elections are now a given criterion for legitimacy. The rule of law for all, too. A revised and secure relationship between the regions and the centre is a widely understood necessity. The authorities pay lip service to such propositions, but do their imaginative best to frustrate their implementation. Defending the Putinist 'vertical of power' will make a peaceable transition to a more accountable and devolved regime increasingly problematic. The longer it takes for the governing cabal to adjust to Russia’s new realities, the greater the danger to their rule. Their hour is late.