‘‘Why did you choose Putin then?” I asked my friend. He hasn’t worked in the Kremlin for quite a while but was rather close to the team that was looking for Boris Yeltsin’s successor in 1999. “Well, who else?” he replied. “Putin was articulate, lucid and sensible”.

At a closed-door meeting in 2000, members of the now-defunct Union of Right Forces party, also known by its Russian acronym SPS, passionately discussed whether or not to support Putin in the upcoming presidential election. The human rights faction of the party argued that right-of-centre liberals could not support a former KGB operative with authoritarian tendencies. The pragmatist majority, on the other hand, maintained that Putin was one of them; besides, he was once Anatoly Sobchak’s right-hand man (Sobchak was a prominent leader of the democratic movement in the late 1980s). One year earlier, the party had gotten into the parliament in exchange for supporting Putin.

Andrei Kolesnikov
Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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And so it went. The party grew as a parliamentary faction, supported Putin’s bid for the presidency but very soon after lost its direct access to Putin forever. Then came the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky shortly before the 2003 parliamentary election. SPS, which publicly criticized the oligarch’s persecution, did very poorly in the election.

That is the story of how Putin’s love affair with the liberals ended, dashing their hopes for liberal reforms and authoritarian modernization.

Soon after, everyone stopped caring about liberals, democrats and politics in general. High oil prices and the late-stage transition to a market economy had brought about an economic rebound that was quickly turning Russia into a middle-income country as more and more people joined the ranks of middle class. Enriched by the trickled-down drops of oil wealth, Russians began flocking to foreign resorts and local restaurants.

Thus the first version of an unofficial social contract between Putin’s elites and the population was born. The regime would grant the people economic prosperity in exchange for their abstention from political life. The contract was accepted, and the ‘Putin majority’ emerged.

Russians did not adore their leader, and many citizens noticed his authoritarian tendencies right away. They also observed his openness to transferring the spoils of the privatization of the 1990s to a narrow circle of his political cronies. But all of these shortcomings were papered over by economic growth, and public focus shifted to the race to succeed Putin, who had deferred to the constitutionally permitted two presidential terms.

Dmitri Medvedev, one of Putin’s most loyal associates, became the president, while his former boss occupied the office of the prime minister. Medvedev’s appearance initially revived hopes for Russia’s liberalization. But in August 2008, three months after the new president took charge, armed conflict erupted between Russia and Georgia. The short, glorious war in which Russian troops all but marched into Tbilisi revealed a stunning side effect: the leaders’ job approval ratings skyrocketed, according to Levada Center data. In just one month, Medvedev’s approval rating jumped by 10 points, reaching 83% in September 2008 (it returned to 71% a few months later). Putin’s rating increased from 83 to 88% over the same period. After that, the approval ratings stopped increasing and eventually declined. In December 2011, only 63% of respondents expressed their support for Putin, and his rating remained in this range up until the very end of 2013, despite his re-election to the office of president in 2012.

The Georgian case highlighted the positive effect that war could have on the leaders’ ratings. The citizens of the former empire required evidence of their country’s greatness beyond the economy, and they liked what they saw.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin’s last ‘peaceful war’ before a string of real wars and conflicts, was also critically important to his image. He was responsible for Russia hosting the games, which were seen as a victory for both his country and the Putin majority. His approval ratings shot up again, to 69%. The annexation of Crimea gave another big bump to the president’s ratings, which reached 80% in 2014. And since then, they’ve never dropped below 81%.

Putin decisively won the 2012 presidential election and started adopting a series of laws that allowed him to control all aspects of society. But he was still missing something that would make his victory complete. He craved popular love and national unity. The Maidan movement in Ukraine and the Arab Spring amplified his insecurities in the same way that the Prague Spring had made the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev feel jittery. That was perhaps when Putin intuitively found his answer – Crimea, the place that means so much to the mysterious Russian soul.

Thus March 2014 marked the acceptance of a renewed version of the unofficial social contract (incidentally, it came about as the economic conditions and relations with the West were deteriorating). In this new rendition of the contract, Crimea and the restoration of the feeling of Russia’s great power status (this time without economic accomplishments) were offered in exchange for the unconditional support of the Russian people.

The era of symbols and synonyms began. The semantic meaning of the word “Crimea” came to extend well beyond geography. It contained everything: rectifying historical injustices, an imperial sense of the country’s greatness as well as the quick return of a defence-minded outlook, which translated into national unity. When Russians said “Crimea”, they meant “Putin”, and vice versa. Whoever did not share in the nationwide euphoria became an outcast.

After I appeared on a television talk show on one of the federal channels, a terrified make-up artist, while handing me make-up remover wipes, asked if I was really against the annexation of Crimea. When I answered yes, she actually cried. She was probably mourning my outcast status.

It’s impossible to compare the short-term emotional effect of the Crimean annexation as well as its long-term effect to anything else. The idea of Novorossiya, or New Russia, didn’t take hold and was discarded. The Putin majority, which by then had become known as the post-Crimean majority, did not understand the meaning of the Novorossiya (Donbas) war, so it had to end or be frozen. Putin lacks the resources to go further into the West toward NATO’s borders, but Russians still believe that they are living in a besieged fortress. In effect, they have become hostages to Putin’s policies but feel grateful to their hostage-taker. It is a type of Stockholm syndrome.

Putin owes his popularity to mobilizing his subjects through a permanent war which can take a variety of forms. It could be an information war with the International Olympic Committee or a trade war with Turkey. It could also be hot wars in Donbas and Syria or a cold war against the West. If he stops these wars, he is bound to lose some popular support.

Public indifference also shores up Putin’s political longevity. There are no other leaders like him, and it is dangerous to be in the opposition. So why bother? Let it be Putin. “I have nothing bad to say about him”, that is how 31% of Russians described their feelings towards their president.

Wars, victories and indifference. That is how Putin will again be elected as Russia’s president in 2018. 

This article was originally published in the Eastwest magazine, №69