One of the most interesting observations this week on Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency – he was inaugurated for a third term 7 May – comes from Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations. After the wave of anti-government protests that followed the contested parliamentary polls in December, Sestanovich says, Putin survived in large part by courting a new base.

Putin made his comeback, such as it was, in the presidential election by showing that he had a strong base in rural areas, among the working class. Putin found that he could appeal to these constituencies with a kind of anti-Western rhetoric, with an appeal to the strength of the state …

The irony, Sestanovich notes, is that Putin “has managed to solidify his support among people who have done the least well during” the economic boom years of his first two presidential terms, from 2000 to 2008, and his premiership. While the beneficiaries of his tenure – the middle class, which enjoyed soaring living standards amid 7 percent annual GDP growth before the global financial crisis – are protesting.

The opposition protesters, who have returned to the streets after a lull, fall within what Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank calls the “modernized minority,” the more independent-minded of Russia’s two dominant constituencies. The other, the “conservative majority,” prizes a strong state and the status quo. Putin’s new base comes from this group.

In a recent op-ed, Lipman says Putin has for years appealed to both groups through “two tacit pacts.” He promised the conservatives cushy state benefits in exchange for loyalty; the modernized minority got enhanced autonomy – the freedom to pursue their individual dreams or criticize the Kremlin, for instance – as long as it stayed out of politics.

But while the first pact has held, Lipman notes, the second has not. The minority is rising up against Putin’s authoritarianism, and there’s no going back. “Now that their tacit pact with Putin has been ruptured, it can’t be restored,” she writes, adding that the fragmented opposition will eventually coalesce.

Taken together, Sestanovich and Lipman’s analyses raise some salient conclusions/questions. First, Putin is running out of places to turn to for support. Second, if he can alienate the people who’ve thrived most under his rule, how long is it before that discontent metastasizes?

Perhaps, as Lipman suggests, the conservatives’ commitment to a strong state – and thus to Putin – is absolute. But with the Russian economy sluggish and state coffers well in the red, Putin might have trouble holding onto his new base.

Picture of Putin taking the presidential oath of office 7 May from www.kremlin.ru

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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