Over the last decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has slowly given up on the urban middle classes who once largely supported him. Instead he has sought to shore up his legitimacy with the support of a conservative base in Russia’s towns and villages. He offered this group stability, foreign-policy triumphs such as Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and social benefits in return for their loyalty.
In 2019 that contract is breaking up. Putin is showing barely concealed frustration with the passivity of his core voters. These voters suited him well when all he wanted was continuity. But the Russian president now wants a more active public support as he prepares for the coming transition that will mark the end of his fourth term in 2024—and he doesn’t know quite where to find it.
The word “stability” has lost its central place in Putin’s public lexicon. In his annual Kremlin press conference on Dec. 20, 2018, Putin uttered the words “stable” and “stability” only four times, and not about himself. He used it to refer to China, the international situation, and the policies of the Central Bank. In his speech to the congress of the official United Russia party on Dec. 8, Putin did not use these words once.
That is a big change. For most of the past decade, Russian leaders made the word “stability” a synonym for Putin’s Russia, contrasting it with the turbulent past, neighboring Ukraine, or the unstable remainder of the world. Now the term has been downgraded.
When political regimes face a crisis, it’s often said that the “people are fed up” with them, but the process can work the other way. Indeed, contemporary Russia is approaching the point when, to quote Bertolt Brecht, its leaders would dearly like to “dissolve the people and elect another one.”
Whenever it is put to Putin that the younger generation is discontented, that they support opposition leader Alexei Navalny or post angry messages on social media, he has a standard response: that Russia has different, constructive young people who don’t go out and protest but knuckle down and study.
It is not just young people. Putin continually paints a picture of Russia as a land full of hardworking, uncomplaining, loyal citizens. In his last speech to parliament he spoke of “Thousands, literally thousands of our experts, outstanding scientists, designers, engineers, passionate and talented workers have been working for years, quietly, humbly, selflessly, with total dedication. There are many young professionals among them. They are our true heroes, along with our military personnel who demonstrated the best qualities of the Russian army in combat.”
The trouble for Putin is that fewer and fewer Russians actually fit that stereotype. And increasingly he is getting into fights with real Russians who want to complain about government policies. Last September, when he visited the Zvezda shipyard in the Russian Far East, the president got into an argument with the workers there about their salaries. (The transcript of their conversation in which Putin massively overestimated what they were paid was subsequently removed from the Kremlin website).
As the political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya remarked in 2015, “Putin has stopped being a champion of the people and become a champion of the elite.” Recently he has accused long-distance truck drivers of idleness, defended raising the pension age and increasing utility prices, and spoken out in favor of paying top managers vastly higher salaries than those of their workers.
His affections have visibly cooled toward that section of the public who were the main target audience of the “stability” slogan. The Kremlin first reached out strongly to ordinary working-class, nonmetropolitan Russians at the end of 2011, when the middle classes of urban Russia—and especially the young people who were hitherto thought of as “Putin’s children”—protested against the falsification of elections and the impending “castling move” that saw Putin return to the presidency.
Then Putin found his new base, just as surely as Donald Trump did in the United States in 2016, and they were far more numerous than Russia’s professionals. In his third term, which began in 2012, Putin played to this constituency. He talked about national values, adopted repressive legislation, denounced modern art, and stepped up the quarrel with the West.
The trouble was that this new base disappointed expectations too. They vote for sure, but they are not active supporters of the regime. They are interested in stability, but only to the extent it benefits them. Otherwise, they prefer economic redistribution. They want to be capitalist consumers in a society with socialist levels of equality. They are not interested in tightening their belts as the economy slows down. They still want social justice and redistribution of wealth—at the expense of the country’s rich capitalists.
This is not what the Kremlin wants to hear. Most of the Russian economy is now under control of the state, which means more precisely under the control of friends of Putin, businessmen close to the Kremlin, and patriotic managers taking a hit from Western sanctions. The notion of bleeding them to give back more to the ordinary worker is simply not an option for those in power.
Russia is slowly entering a time of transition, in which Putin must eventually decide how to handle the succession when his fourth term ends in 2024, even as painful long-term decisions on the country’s social and economic system have to be addressed. Putin and his team want ordinary Russians to share the burden in this challenging period—to make sacrifices for the government, not make new demands of it. They hark back to the high point of five years ago, when the whole nation celebrated the takeover of Crimea and the president’s poll rating skyrocketed.
What they don’t like to admit is that most Russians enjoyed their moment of Crimea euphoria while comfortably seated on their sofas. Likewise, they celebrated Russia’s hand in the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria from a safe distance.
When it comes to the actual mobilization of real Russians in a real cause behind the president, the case of the so-called Russian spring in eastern Ukraine in 2014 is much more indicative. A popular uprising to topple the Ukrainian government received backing in only two areas of Ukraine and was led by marginal nationalist figures. Large numbers did not come out to support it. The Ukraine operation was only saved by the intervention of real military professionals in the summer of 2014.
The lesson is that when the Kremlin drew on paid professionals—in Crimea and then in Syria—its operations were successful. Where they waited for a popular uprising, the operation floundered and had to be rescued by the same professionals.
In other words, Putin is now looking to a new constituency to support him, an “active minority” of volunteer citizens ready to back him as his final term draws to a close. But does this constituency really exist in large numbers? And if he finds them, what will they ask for in return? Whatever the answer, it’s probably not stability.