, July 26, 2021, Condensed text:

Back in 2015, Vyacheslav Volodin, who was in charge of domestic policy for the presidential administration, was preparing the country for the next year’s parliamentary elections. He identified the campaign’s three key priorities as legitimacy, transparency and competitiveness. The Kremlin insisted that there was no need to obliterate political opponents and was even happy for the ruling party to strike some deals with establishment opposition parties. Today, the situation is markedly different. All preparations for the upcoming elections are being conducted mechanistically. Nobody bothers to come up with smart ideas for the campaign anymore. The election is automatically regarded as legitimate, the lack of transparency is no longer regarded as a problem, and controlled competition from establishment opposition parties has been abandoned in favor of an ultimatum: “You are either with us or against us.” This will be the first election ever where people in the presidential administration do not view legitimacy as an issue. They are sure they can secure the necessary result without too much trouble and without campaigning too much.

A new kind of legitimacy.

Actually, this is all because of the Crimea [see Vol. 66, No. 12, pp. 3‑11]. It was after the annexation of the peninsula that the Russian authorities – and to a large extent [Russian President Vladimir] Putin personally – started perceiving their legitimacy in a new way. Let us use Max Weber’s typology of legitimacy for reference. If we simplify it a little, it basically says that there are three types of legitimacy: traditional (where people trust the authorities because they trust the monarchy), rational (trust for democratic procedures and law), and charismatic (trust for an authoritarian leader). During the first two presidential terms, the regime’s legitimacy was a mixture of rational and charismatic. The Kremlin’s efforts to build a new system of total top-down control – carefully (one might even say “delicately,” especially compared to the methods used these days) sidelining the real opposition, stripping governors of autonomy, and emasculating oligarchs politically – were all based on Putin’s charismatic legitimacy. The president could also afford to fine-tune Russian law by amending specific segments of legislation, like those dealing with political parties, elections, revenue distribution between the federal and regional budgets, and activism.

But by 2020, fine-tuning opportunities had run out. Instead of minor but frequent amendments came a major overhaul of the entire system [i.e., the constitutional amendments; see Vol. 72, No. 26, pp. 3‑8 Trans.]. “Putin’s regime” received a solid “constitutional” base – both in the letter of the law (with the president being given extensive powers, lines between the branches of government being blurred, and traditional values being enshrined in the Constitution) and its spirit (with [Aleksei] Navalny first poisoned and then thrown behind bars [see, respectively, Vol. 72, No. 34‑35, pp. 13‑16, and Vol. 73, No. 4, pp. 3‑6], the antiestablishment opposition completely obliterated, and the independent media squashed).

In 2020, the Constitution was brought into line with the new, post-Crimean reality, where legitimacy is no longer based on people’s trust. It is now based on Putin’s perception of how much he has accomplished for the country. One might say this is a new type of legitimacy, meritocratic legitimacy, where it doesn’t matter anymore whether people objectively trust their ruler. It is subjective now: All that matters is what the ruler himself thinks people’s attitude should be. This happens when the leader engages in self-worship and thinks people must forever trust him because of his exceptional accomplishments. The Crimea was just the beginning of this process. Since the Crimea, Putin has had a number of other achievements, which he regards as equally important: the Syria campaign (and, more broadly, Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East) [see, for instance, Vol 67, No. 39, pp. 9‑12]; modernization of Russia’s military and introduction of new weapon systems; a new Constitution; and even the Sputnik V vaccine [see Vol. 72, No. 33, pp. 13‑14].

Caught up in self-worship and messianic ambitions, Putin thinks he is no longer accountable to people – history alone will be his judge. He thinks his achievements entitle him to make whatever decisions he likes, no matter how unpopular they are, and to dismiss people’s reactions as immature and short-sighted. It is no coincidence that Putin has all but stopped having public discussions before making critical strategic decisions – not just on foreign policy issues, but on domestic social and economic matters as well. The things that Putin deems crucial are handled [by him directly] as special operations, while all the other matters are left to the depoliticized government to sort out. . . .

The Crimean euphoria as a psychological trap.

The problem is that, at a certain point, Putin’s meritocratic legitimacy acquired a life of its own, and the rational/charismatic legitimacy that used to complement it began to fade as the post-Crimean rallying effect wore off. In other words, people forgot about the Crimea and focused on their daily social and economic problems instead (expecting the authorities to do the same), whereas Putin got stuck in the psychological trap of 2014‑2016, with the Crimean euphoria and the thrill of a classical concert performed in the ruins of Palmyra [in May 2016, after Russia retook the ruins from the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham –Trans.]. The first nasty shock came when the pension system reform brought Putin’s approval rating down by 15 percentage points [see Vol . 70, No. 24‑25, pp. 6‑8].

This was not only because the idea to raise the minimum retirement age would be unpopular anywhere in the world; part of the problem was the way the authorities introduced the reform. It was announced as soon as the presidential election was over, without any explanation. People felt they had been cheated twice. This came as a direct result of the conflict between two types of legitimacy. When Putin made a personal appeal to the people in August 2018, defending his pension system reform, it was not believable [see Vol. 70, No. 35‑36, pp. 6‑9]. Essentially, he demanded that people accept his decision because he had given them the Crimea, social welfare and economic stability. Putin was not concerned about his rating at all (because his merits are not affected by his rating). He talked to people as if they were eternally indebted to him for his great historical accomplishments and thus had to accept his reform of the pension system without objection. This was the first instance of the Kremlin railroading its decision as “automatically legitimate.” Legitimacy is now viewed as a given, as an automatic attribute, as an integral and unalienable part of the system, as a political constant and as a natural element of Putin’s regime in the post-Crimean era.

By the way, it is no coincidence either that we often hear government officials talking to people arrogantly and cynically these days – from [former prime minister Dmitry] Medvedev’s infamous “there’s no money, but you hang in there” to a large number of all sorts of gaffes and disparaging remarks in the years that followed – “The government didn’t ask you to have children,” “The government owes you nothing,” “You want to complain to Putin? I am Putin to you,” etc. This is not to mention the numerous times when public officials talked about “putting down” journalists, dismissed voters as “errors in the genetic code,” said that people living in older, Khrushchev-era buildings were “all drunks, drug addicts and trash,” or that older people struggling to survive on their small pensions were “all winos and parasites.” Since Putin thinks it is people’s obligation to support him, bureaucrats feel the same way about themselves. The whole system has been rearranged in such a manner that, in order to make a career as a public official, you have to please your boss, not the people.

In the past, the Kremlin used to worry before each election, wondering if its candidates were “electable,” checking on things like approval ratings, name recognition, support levels and social priorities. Today, it no longer cares about such trifles. For the most recent example, take a look at the five names at the top of United Russia’s national ticket for the upcoming Duma election [see Vol. 73, No. 24‑25, pp. 8‑11]. You have [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov and [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu, representing Russia’s foreign policy and military might, as two symbols of Putin’s personal accomplishments. But geopolitical matters are very low on the list of social priorities today. (Soaring prices and poverty are people’s primary concerns these days.) People are angry because of social injustice, but the Kremlin asks them to vote for [children’s rights ombudswoman] Anna Kuznetsova, who embodies traditional values and religion. People are disoriented, they don’t see political leaders they can trust, but the Kremlin wants them to vote for [All-Russia People’s Front co-chair] Yelena Shmelyova, Putin’s associate with zero name recognition throughout Russia. And even Denis Protsenko, the hero doctor in charge of the [COVID‑19] hospital in Kommunarka, seems like a questionable asset, considering how most people in Russia are not too afraid of COVID‑19 and are reluctant to get vaccinated. But all that matters is that Putin genuinely and strongly believes that Russia has brilliantly coped with the pandemic – and so he views Protsenko as yet another symbol of his system’s merits.

A system gone blind.

Rational/charismatic legitimacy is rapidly eroding while Putin’s meritocratic legitimacy is becoming increasingly dominant. People are depressed and are giving in to political pessimism. In an effort to conceal actual social and economic problems, state propaganda drums up patriotic zeal and adoration for Putin, at the same time instilling siege mentality in people by constantly talking about the imminent threat of war. People are getting increasingly disappointed in the ruling party. As a result, the Kremlin has to look for new props and mechanisms that would support the current system of automatic legitimacy, making it work on autopilot.

The authorities have done a lot of things over the past year to achieve this goal. The real opposition has been wiped out with an incredibly wide range of methods: labelling opposition groups foreign agents, extremists, “undesirable entities” – or simply criminals. Stricter rules have been adopted to bar undesirable candidates from running in elections [see Vol. 73, No. 24‑25, p. 12]. All political activity has been reduced to the principle of “whatever has not been explicitly sanctioned by the presidential administration is prohibited.” The media landscape has been cleared of independent voices. Nearly all establishment opposition parties (the Communists being the only exception) are under the influence and control of special “handlers” appointed to take care of domestic policy. Plans for moderate modernization of United Russia have been abandoned. Ideas to support or create some new political parties have been largely discarded as well. Putin likes the system the way it is, with a strong ruling party and a constructive opposition in the parliament. He even disapproves of pet artificial projects like Noviye lyudi [New People], although they are completely controlled by the Kremlin. Putin thinks they are unnecessary, they only make things complicated and their prospects are murky. Timid attempts to rejuvenate the system have been abandoned. Instead, the Kremlin now wants to mummify the system, replacing all the mortal living things with and the living dead.

Automatic legitimacy will now work on autopilot. The regime will reproduce itself automatically. There is no need to mobilize voters or come up with sophisticated ideas. Voting for establishment opposition parties is the same as voting for Putin’s regime, and any attempt to question the Kremlin’s actions gets condemned as “rocking the boat” and “undermining national security.” People handling domestic policy in Russia can be divided into two categories. First, there are those in charge of personnel. They have recruitment projects like “Leaders of Russia” or “Russia, the Land of Opportunities,” where they pick “fitting,” “technocratic” candidates, define the rules of the game for everything that is part of the establishment, and meticulously regulate everything that is being said or done. The second category are like political security guards. They deal with antiestablishment groups and generally attack anyone who opposes the regime in any way – by joining a protest or by reposting a politically inappropriate statement.

In this atmosphere of increasingly pervasive control, things like approval ratings, social discontent, political preferences, turnout or protest sentiment no longer matter. All Putin wants is a quiet campaign, a convincing result, and a clean procedure. The reason the authorities decided to close access to CCTV cameras at polling stations is not because they stand in the way of voter fraud. (Most of the rigging takes place where cameras can’t see anyway.) The primary reason is because the authorities want to keep things quiet – no complaints, no protests. But this autopilot mode, this automatic legitimacy, has one big problem: It makes the system completely blind. The system no longer knows how much people really trust it. So, it is not just like a train on autopilot – it is more like a runaway train with no pilot at all, traveling at a breakneck speed in an unknown direction.