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9 January, 2020  ▪  Yuriy Lapayev

Stagnation 2.0

What the Russian authorities can do to preserve the current regime

Vladimir Putin has already set a record of being at the helm of state. He has been in the Kremlin longer than Brezhnev, and he is close to Stalin, who ruled for 29 years. All this time, he, as a talented actor, has been playing quite successfully to popular effect a part of an ordinary Russian, as if he were one of them through and through. But, unlike the assumed apartment neighbor, positive, without excessive passion for alcohol and with a righteous (from the Russian point of view) fight against the whole aggressive world. That helped boost his ratings and gave him a chance to hold on to his stardom for so long.

However, the “problem-2024” has already appeared on the horizon – the year when Putin's another, fourth presidential term expires. The year when you have to come up with some new idea again. It would be unacceptable for a democratic leader of a civilized country to cling to power, but Russia has long been considered neither civilized nor democratic. For about 20 years.

For the current Kremlin head, there are several options for solving this problem. The first involves a handsome gesture with Putin's retirement from official power: an assumed pension with the transfer to the symbolic post of “honorary sambo wrestler” or chairman of the bikers’ association. Some Russian version of Deng Xiaoping or Nazarbayev, when the levers of influence and the actual leadership of the country remain, despite the emergence of another figurehead. In part, this technique was already worked out during a “castling move” with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008. It does not require much effort, and is unlikely to cause rejection on the part of the Russians, because at least officially the Constitution of the Russian Federation will not be violated. However, some Russian experts doubt the likelihood of such an option. Indeed, few believe that Putin can easily officially disappear from political stardom.

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Despite the growing role of social networks, television remains one of the most important sources of power in modern Russia: the one who is shown during prime time hours is the leader of the state. Accordingly, devoid of media presence, Putin may lose legitimacy in the eyes of the environment and competitors. The master should be seated in the Kremlin, not at the cottage in Barvikha. It is in fact an invitation to the Brezhnev-style rebellion, when a group of conspirators dismissed current General Secretary Khrushchov from his position “for reasons of health” while he was on vacation in Pitsunda.

In this scenario, competitors will quickly call Putin on all foreign policy risky ventures. It’s not that Russian oligarchs or top officials are very concerned about the fate of Georgia, Ukraine, or Skripal, but they can count the damage from sanctions. It could also be a great opportunity to pin on Putin full responsibility for unpopular economic and social decisions. Such as the 2018 pension reform, which, according to Russian sociologists (as far as they can be trusted in today's Russia), has caused the Russian president's anti-rating to rise: he is now distrusted by about a third of citizens. This is just the case when the wallet has overcome the TV, because the painful reforms completely offset the positive impact of “CrimeaIsOurs”. Most likely, he himself understands it well, so it’s not worth expecting that he will quietly take well-deserved rest. For the current Russian president, the notion of strength and weakness is decisive not only in domestic but also in foreign policy issues. He has no right to show weakness.

Another likely option is to amend the Russian Constitution. These amendments may concern the removal of restrictions on the presidency term, the number of consecutive terms, or the renaming of the post to any “everlasting Russian” analogue. The risk arising from this option is certain dissatisfaction within the country, which, of course, will not be a big problem to quell in the usual way: with OMON (riot squads) truncheons and crowded prison vans.

However, it should be taken into consideration that over the last two years, the proportion of those who do not want to see Putin as the next president has increased from 20% to 40%. People feel that the current regime leads to nowhere; the elite see no trends of the state development for the next 5-10 years. If for most of the older generation, Putin is still a symbol of stability and order, then for a young person born and raised and living an independent life under the same leader, this is not true. They do not know what stability is, they have not survived the “wild 1990s”, but they see that the country has been stagnant for a long time. This is where embarrassing conversations for the Kremlin begin, “one can’t live this way, and we should do something”. It is this kind of youth, the number of which is constantly growing in various protests, although they are still relatively non-aggressive and safe for the regime, but things can change.

The impact of television is gradually declining, with the new generation increasingly trusting YouTube, not the Ostankino Television Tower. Over time, opponents of the regime will increasingly get out of the reach of official propaganda, thus adding to the ranks of the opposition. Although it does not exist today (“classical” opponents of the regime like Aleksey “Crimea is not a sandwich” Navalny or Ksenia “the Second Referendum” Sobchak are not counted), but in case of a worsening of the situation it is quite capable to take definite shape. Indicative protest votes for the Communists will be the first signs. With a certain degree of negativity, such a move may be observed in the West. Of course, you should not expect any additional sanctions or boycotts, but the impact on the relationship will not be delayed.

Another possible option is the official transformation of Russia into a parliamentary republic. In that event, unlike the president, the chairman of the ruling party in the State Duma will theoretically have the opportunity to rule forever. At least until the party has a majority in parliament. A kind of Chinese version. At the same time, it requires a constant winning of the “United Russia” party in parliamentary elections, which, against the background of the recent defeat of the ruling party in the regional elections, has ceased to be an easy task. In addition, in this case, it will jeopardize the existing rigid hierarchical structure and can destroy the individual leadership. Putin is unlikely to be happy to seek compromises with his neighbors in parliament.

There is another unpleasant trend: the increasing popularity of governors. They are practically catching up with the president in their ratings. This obviously indicates a gradual loss of control over the regions and the prospect of increasing their independence, which will again affect the results of voting and the distribution of seats in parliament.

The creation of a new state based on the Russian Federation is an unconventional solution. There are a number of potential candidates for accession there: Belarus, “the Republic of Abkhazia” and “South Ossetia”. The Ukrainian “DPR / LNR” may also be considered, and they are almost ready for the Russian mass media rhetoric: they allegedly have already earned their independence and have paid with their blood the right to become part of the Russian Federation. Such a political stunt will allow Moscow to officially proclaim a new format of the confederation, in fact a new state. And to Putin, it will give the reason to start all over with a blank slate, “forgetting” about past presidential terms. Russia is a generous soul and can well afford a few more fully subsidized regions like Chechnya, which now receives about 83% of all its finances from the federal budget. Whether Russian society, which already understands that support for self-declared states is worth a lot of money and that money is being taken from the regions, will swallow a bitter pill of such a development is a question that remains open.

The reaction of the international community still remains unknown, because in this case, it is likely that there will be more than just "deep concern". However, recent news from Belarus about stepping up integration in the Union State, including the creation of a unified government and parliament, hints that the Kremlin considers such a plan at least as a backup one. Russian reality show audience needs good success stories, because “CrimeaIsOurs” is in the past, Syria has turned out to be not positive at all, the population has been tired of the incomprehensible wars in the middle of nowhere. Therefore, a new fairy tale about the growth of a great powerful state may well become a working one, and at least for some time distract from the inconvenient issues for the Kremlin.

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The likelihood and feasibility of each of these scenarios are different; they may vary depending on external and internal factors. The only thing that is practically unchanged and is a sort of an invariable among the political leadership of the Russian Federation is the attitude towards Ukraine. Under any circumstances, under any crisis or sanctions, under any Kremlin politicians, the political agenda of the “final resolution of the Ukrainian issue” will be maintained. The military plans of the Russian Federation have not undergone any changes since the change of president in Kyiv. Troops are still standing near our borders, ready to go as invaders or “peacekeepers”. “Humanitarian convoys” continue to illegally break into Ukraine, shelling in the Donbas has not stopped, Ukrainian soldiers are still being killed. In the international arena, the Kremlin does not stop the economic and diplomatic pressure on our country; the Nord Stream-2 is nearing completion, international courts are continuing to review issues, resolutions are being adopted. It doesn't really matter what the negotiations in “Normandy format” end up with, because it is only a short episode in the war that has been going on for centuries. Therefore, thinking about who will stay or will be replaced in the Kremlin, one should not hope for better too much.

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