Putinism without Putin
Robynne Grant, University of Bristol Politics Society
In November, reports emerged declaring Putin’s imminent departure from the Kremlin based on poor health (Smith, 2020; Parker, 2020). While the vehement denial of the claims from the Kremlin (an institution built upon secrecy) holds little weight, it is, in fact, more likely a case of the ex-KGB agent’s ‘gunslingers arm’, as posited in an archived BBC Newsday report (BBC, 2015; DW News, 2020). However, these articles remind us that Putin (despite the ‘strongman’ propaganda) is, in fact, a mere mortal. At 68 years old, he is the second-longest ruler behind Stalin, having been in power for just over two decades. Given that the nature of his rule ties intimately with his person, and that Russian history clearly shows that “long periods of rule tend to end in trouble” (Whitehouse, 2020), this article asks the question: can Putinism survive without Putin?
What is Putinism?
Putinism refers to the mode of governance associated with Putin’s Russia, and according to Fish’s (2017), deconstruction is a type of autocratic rule characterised by conservativism, populism, and personalism. The trauma of the USSR’s sudden collapse and the severe instability experienced under Yeltsin have predisposed Russians towards Putin’s ‘just no change’ attitude to governance. Consequently, this effort to maintain the status quo at all costs props up Russia’s extractive, rent-driven economy, allowing for the pillage of the nation’s natural resources by elites and kleptocrats, with little benefit to the bulk of the population (Oliker, 2017: 10).
Putinism also embodies a unique type of populism, in that it seeks to define its identity by juxtaposition to the West. Putin’s self-presentation as a ‘strongman’ and ‘father of the nation’, while maintaining opposition to LGBT+ rights and feminism (so-called ‘decadent liberalism’ [Fish, 2017: 62]), signals cultural sovereignty that resonates with his largely socially conservative electoral base. Furthermore, his shrewd crafting of a ‘new’ Russian nationalism, undergirded by historical tradition, socially conservative values, and Russian Orthodoxy (Oliker, 2017: 10) allows for a catch-all ideological underpinning.
Fundamentally, Putinism is a personalist autocracy. As Fish (2017: 69) puts it, “Putin is not merely Russia’s best-known, most powerful politician; he is its only politician”. Since coming to power, Putin has carefully crafted a ‘Power Vertical’ (Krickus, 2014: ix), in which political institutions are hollowed out to ensure that power is concentrated at the very top (Whitehouse, 2020). Various ‘crackdowns’ including the muzzling of media, arrest (and also alleged poisoning in the case of Alexei Navalny) of opposition figures, and purge of disloyal members of his inner circle have seen the death of real political competition in Russia – something Krickus (2014: xii) terms ‘Stalin Lite’. This trend has sharply risen in recent years. Between 2016-2018 the number of barred political parties in local elections increased by 50% (Secrieru and Shkliarov, 2018: 5).
(Figure 1, source: Aron, 2017)
Furthermore, by distancing himself from United Russia, Putin has been able to outsource blame for the more rigid, more unpopular decisions, with the party acting as a “punching bag for public dissatisfaction” (Roth, 2020). As illustrated in figure 1, Putin’s approval rating has consistently remained significantly higher than faith in the direction of the nation as a whole, denoting “an electoral base founded on a priori support for Putin” (Aron, 2017: 76). This combination of strict conservatism, personalism, and narrowed political space mean that secession will not be a simple matter. The anchoring of popular support to one man has proved successful in generating political stability over the past two decades but could signal upheaval to come when the inevitable happens, and a successor must be appointed.
As it stands, Putin’s current term is due to end in 2024. However, in July 2020 a referendum approved several constitutional amendments that gave some clues as to what Russians could expect in the future. The proposal by United Russia to reset Putin’s term limits – allowing him to serve another 12 years beyond 2024 potentially – was approved, meaning he could remain at the helm of Russia until he is 83 (Standish, 2020).
On the other hand, many speculate that Putin could transition into a new role, allowing him to exert influence from afar. The sweeping constitutional reforms also saw the ‘beefing up’ of the State Council, an obscure body created in 2000 as a “token gesture to the heads of Russia’s regions, who lost their ex officio seats in the Federation Council” (Noble, 2020). This redistribution of executive powers would make the role of the president less critical, perhaps signalling Putin’s intentions not to step down, but to ‘sidestep’ so to speak. The likelihood of this eventuality has been further fuelled by the replacement of long-standing ally Medvedev with “little-known tax official” and “technocratic placeholder” Mikhail Mishustin earlier this year (Prothero, 2020). With no apparent political ambitions or support independent of Putin’s backing, he is the ideal proxy to allow for a stable transition and maintenance of the status quo – something Russian elites are eager to uphold. The reforms also granted ex-presidents lifetime immunity, ensuring Putin’s protection whatever the post-2024 outcome (BBC News, 2020).
Conclusion: wither Putinism?
So, can Putinism survive without Putin? The likelihood is we will not find out anytime soon, and that Putin will continue to rule Russia in some shape or form for the foreseeable future. One day, however, the inevitable will happen, and a successor must be chosen. When this happens, it will likely not bring much tangible change to the majority of the population. Whitehouse (2020) points out that “there are always elections, but the real choice is made by a small group of people, not 140 million”. That being said, Putin’s output legitimacy is in decline (Secrieru and Shkliarov, 2018), Russia’s highly contingent petro-economy is both figuratively and literally ‘running out of steam’ (Gregory, 2018: 180), and an increasingly younger, more liberal electorate may be less inclined to accept a meta-narrative of regime stability over socio-economic justice. However unlikely, there is always some inkling of a possibility for civil society to affect change.
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Aron, Leon (2017) ‘Putinism After Crimea’, Journal of Democracy, 28(4), 76-79.
BBC (2015) ‘The KGB training effect or early Parkinson’s disease?’, BBC Newsday, 17th December, available online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03cbtkb, accessed on 15th November 2020.
DW News (2020) ‘Kremlin slams reports of Putin resignation as 'complete nonsense'’, DW News, undated, available online at https://www.dw.com/en/russia-putin-announces-new-cabinet-after-prime-minister-resigns/a-52102938, accessed on 15th November 2020.
Fish, M. Steven (2017) ‘What Is Putinism?’, Journal of Democracy, 28(4), 61-75.
Krickus, Richard J. (2014) Russia After Putin, Carlisle, P.A.: United States Army War College Press.
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Oliker, Olga (2017) ‘Putinism, Populism and the Defence of Liberal Democracy’, Survival, 59(1), 7-24.
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