A lesson from Putin: Three Ps to stay in power – pride, propaganda and perspective
Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, the tumbling price of a vital commodity, and a currency in freefall with record high interest rates. Russia’s economy has leaped from one catastrophe to another. Yet one thing remains: President Vladimir Putin holds the reigns.
Putin’s approval rating is now at a record 89 per cent. And while these figures may be manipulated, there is undoubtedly a lot of support for him in Russia. This may be because Russian’s seem to value the status quo of security and stability, prizing honour, pride and patriotism.
This could be why they support Putin despite the economic pain. He is widely credited with having restored stability and pride to Russia, lost after the cold war, “and that degree of political capital is not going to evaporate quickly. Putin has a degree of genuine popularity brought about by things he genuinely did,” explains Oliver Bullough, author of The Last Man in Russia.
And with the Ukraine, “most Russians mostly think ‘why is the west picking a fight with us’ and ‘we will therefore carry the flag’,” says Mark Galeotti, who specialises in organised crime and security affairs in modern Russia at the London School of Economics.
In fact, in some ways the sanctions have given Putin an alibi; “he mishandled the economy in the good times, failing to diversify it, and now in a way Russia is paying the price. But he can turn around and say it’s all because of the sanctions and all because of these nasty westerners – aren’t they being unrealistic and unreasonable,” Galeotti continues.
So there is a euphoria from taking back the Crimea, with a lot of the “problems that have occurred in the economy have been offset by a nationalist boom,” says Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.
Basically, most Russians do not think Russia has done anything wrong. To them, the Crimea was rightfully Russian anyway and point to how most voted for Crimea to join Russia.
“And they don’t know what’s really going on in Ukraine – the media, all controlled by the state, is telling them there aren’t any Russian troops there; there are plucky Ukrainian Russians fighting against a nasty government who wants to do horrible things to them,” explains Galeotti.
But of course, there is an element of fear. As part of controlling what people see, since 2000 “Putin has singled out rebellious elements – be it oligarchs, human rights activists or anti-corruption bloggers and politically, economically or physically destroyed them,” Judah says.
“Whereas before the middle class may not have been nervous to get involved in political activism, they now are. There is fear of a whole system of enforcement and punishment that we can label Putin.”
And, as Bullough says, the crisis is taking a while to play through, meaning people are not too angry yet: “Obviously it’s been dramatic, especially in December when you look at foreign exchange markets, but for the average person it’s been a very slow motion crisis. And since Putin came to power, even with the hardship, those who thought of protesting are better off given the stability he has brought.
What’s more, while the situation is bad, and there’s been a slight recession with a decline in growth of real incomes, “compared to Greece or compared to Spain or Portugal where you've got incredibly high unemployment,” Russia does not look so bad, says Judah.
WHAT COULD CHANGE?
If those who have made an enormous amount of money through Putin and the stability he brought start losing a lot of money because of Ukraine, that could bring pressure on him, says Bullough. Yet, there is not much sign of that at the moment. Amongst the people who really make the decisions, the political elite not the economic elite, there isn't sign of a loss of affection for Putin.
More problematic in the long-term is that Russia will have a problem of financing its state at current levels; if oil price was to continue to drop over a sustained period, over 10 – 15 years, Russia could end up in the medium term with a serious crisis in funding the state, forcing Putin from power.
Alas, all kinds of pressures are coming to bear, and as Galeotti says, “Putin won’t go too soon, but when history is written of Putin era, they will say the beginning of the end was Crimea.”