If Otto von Bismarck was right when he said, “politics is not a science, but an art,” then Vladimir Putin is a virtuoso whose great works deserve to hang in the halls of the Hermitage.
Since acceding to the presidency in 1999, initially as a temporary replacement for a declining Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has spent the opening 20 years of the 21st century at the head of the Russian Federation, a considerable, if crumbling global power.
Over the years, the President, then Prime Minister, then President (again and again), has remained at the top. He defeated the Communist Party in a 2000 election, won essentially uncontested in 2004, then — due to a clause in the Russian Constitution not allowing Presidents more than two consecutive terms — spent four years as Prime Minister, theoretically subordinate to Dmitry Medvedev. Never losing his influence or sway over his country’s politics however, Putin completed his ‘castling’ move with Medvedev and again became President in 2012, this time for six years as his predecessor had helpfully extended the office’s term limits during the period of Putin’s interregnum. And so, the game continued, with Putin at the helm until March 2018, at which point another illiberal election renewed his lease on the Kremlin until 2024.
2020 began with what was perceived at the time to be either an overture to the finale, or merely a prelude to an era of renewed Putinism. In January, the State Duma and Federation Council (the Russian houses of parliament) passed bills that strengthened the legislature and prime minister at the presidency’s expense, while imbuing a previously inconsequential body called the State Council with new powers. The shakeup, so the theories went, would allow Putin in 2024 to either become Prime Minister again, this time with expanded influence, or discreetly exercise control through the new levers available to him as chairman of the State Council.
In March, however, amidst the background of COVID-19’s beginnings in Russia, Putin changed track. On March 11th, he pushed more amendments through the Duma and Federation Council that would reset his number of presidential limits to zero, thereby allowing him to run for the presidency anew in 2024, as well as ostensibly in 2030, should the then-septuagenarian wish to do so. But before these changes could be finalized as the law of the land, they had to be given popular assent via a national referendum, the date of which Putin set for April 22nd.
Even without factoring in the effects of COVID-19, Putin’s planned political arithmetic was this time not going to be simply executed. The social contract in place, one requiring sufficient enough economic prosperity to make up for an absence of political rights, was already increasingly tenuous. Putin’s approval took a hit in 2019 after he raised the retirement age, and tough Western sanctions imposed after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 have helped keep Russian disposable incomes below their 2013 levels.
With the advent of the coronavirus, though, Putin’s position has become more fragile than ever. The first cases arrived on January 31st, when two Chinese tourists were diagnosed with the virus, but initially, it seemed that Russia may have been able to escape the worst. According to government figures, no Russian nationals were infected until February 17th and throughout March, Putin’s air was collected and confident. At the beginning of the month, on the 1st, he declared the situation “entirely under control” and towards the end, on the 25th, he still maintained that Russia had the ability “to restrain both the wide and rapid spread of the disease.” He closed national borders to protect his citizens and their “sovereignty”— one of Putin’s common rallying cries— and declared on March 27th a week-long nationwide ‘holiday’, accompanied by tax deferments for medium and small-sized businesses.
If at the beginning of April, the worse had yet to come, over the course of the month the situation in Russia rapidly deteriorated. Cases skyrocketed, and even government officials, including the Prime Minister, were diagnosed with COVID-19. At the same time, Putin’s two-pronged political strategy — that of distancing and deception — became apparent. He began avoiding publicly commenting on the virus and declared that regional governors would have to make difficult decisions themselves.
This allowed Putin to criticize local leaders from afar for ‘sloppiness’ when the coronavirus became particularly problematic in a certain region, as happened in Komi, Central Russia. Additionally, as legal activist Ernest Mezak pointed out, the fact that local officials lie, because “this is what they have always have done… as a habit” in order to please Putin, helped keep the number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 fatalities at a minimum.
Still, however, Putin’s efforts to avoid being blamed have not been successful. His public approval was recently measured at 59% by Levada, a pollster thought to be independent of the state. Even putting to one side the well-documented fact that citizens of an authoritarian, or at least highly illiberal, government like that in Russia are likely to overstate their support so as to project loyalty, the May rating was the lowest recorded since Putin took office in 1999.
Because of the virus and / or his unpopularity, Putin’s all-important national referendum on the constitutional amendments has been delayed. While on March 11th, 64% of voters were recorded to support the changes, by April 17th only 50% of Russians said they would vote their approval. With real incomes expected to fall by at least 5% according to Alfa bank (one of the largest private banks in Russia), and with unemployment forecast to skyrocket, it would seem support for the amendments will likely fall further.
In a democracy as opaque as Russia, an absence of popular support may not seem overly consequential for Vladimir Putin. But for all his maneuvering, he has largely been popularly supported throughout his 21st-century reign. Still, if the situation in Russia remains dire with oil prices low, regular employment absent, and government aid paltry, then Mr. Putin may face his greatest challenge yet: a truly democratic one.