When supporters of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin argue that there is “no alternative to Putin” in the upcoming presidential election, what they have in mind is not the obvious weakness of four other candidates. The meaning of the “no alternative to Putin” concept is broader: it implies that of all the people living on the Earth, Putin is the only person having experience and skills to serve as President of Russia for the foreseeable future. Part of this conviction originates from the long-term Russian tradition of having a “national leader” – in whatever capacity — at the helm of the country; part of it reflects self-serving interests of the people benefiting from the current regime: state bureaucrats, United Russia party apparatchiks, and loyal businessmen.
Yet, it’s hard to deny that Putin has been one of the most successful statesmen in Russian history. Of course, one can endlessly argue whether the collapse of Russia he is credited with preventing was imminent; or whether rising oil prices, not Putin’s statesmanship, were the main driver of the solid economic growth of 2000-2008. One thing is clear: back in 2000, Putin understood the prevailing public sentiments, demands, and expectations. He also recognized what kind of leadership Russia needed at the time – given its political and economic realities – and then was capable of providing exactly this kind of leadership. Working in Putin’s favor has always been his reputation of a “real man,” sober workaholic, and efficient communicator.
What is usually less recognized — as a crucial factor of Putin’s success as president — is his ability to maintain consensus among Russian elites. Putin has been remarkably efficient in his role of a supreme arbiter overseeing complex network of interactions between different, often feuding, special interests: “energy” and “finance” factions of the Cabinet; “chekists” and “jurists;” “liberals” and “conservatives.” By listening to all sides and forcing them to compromise, Putin was preventing conflicts between elites before they festered – or, at the very least, before they boiled into the open. As Putin’s close ally, former deputy prime minister Alexey Kudrin, said recently:
“Putin possesses a remarkable ability to listen to arguments [of all sides] before making a decision…So far, [he] has been successful in keeping a balance between positions of very different factions of government.”
Naturally, cementing Putin’s special position at the very top of the “power vertical” have been his sky-high personal approval ratings, as well as high ratings of his “pedestal” party, United Russia. Equally important for the elites was the ability of the Putin team to deliver solid numbers for him and his party in the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Things began to unravel after Putin moved from the Kremlin to the White House. The 2008 economic crisis has frightened elites lulled by Putin’s pre-crisis claims of Russia being an “island of stability.”
Attempts, however timid, by Putin’s “successor,” Dmitry Medvedev to become an independent center of power unnerved conservative factions of the elites; they became concerned that Medvedev’s reforms may go “out of control.” Ultimately, Putin had to intervene by preventing Medvedev from running for the second presidential term. However, Putin’s announcement that he’s returning to the Kremlin was met with unexpectedly broad public criticism – confirming the results of numerous sociological studies suggesting that the proverbial “Putin’s majority” was crumbling. And scandalous televised firing of Kudrin by Medvedev created the impression that Putin wasn’t completely in control of the situation.
Putin’s once stratospheric approval ratings went down: in 2011, he lost as many as 15 points. Finally, poorer than expected showing of the United Russia party in the Duma election proved that the Putin team can no longer deliver “target” election results at will.
Certainly, at the moment, there is no indication that a serious split among Russian elites has emerged, much less that Putin has completely lost his magic touch (that “Akela has missed,” in the words of Putin’s favorite Rudyard Kipling). Moreover, Putin has embarked on a damage control aimed at reasserting his authority. A number of public rallies in support of Putin the candidate were organized; the number of participants in these rallies in most cases exceeded the size of anti-Putin protest crowds. In addition, while traditionally refusing to take part in TV debates with other candidates, Putin’s running surprisingly active campaign by publishing campaign manifestos, making lavish promises, and crisscrossing the country for photo-ops. As a result, his ratings are on the rise again, virtually ensuring his victory in the first round of the vote.
It’s commonly assumed that political reforms recently proposed by President Medvedev – and grudgingly endorsed by Putin – were meant to be a response to the protest movement of “angry urbanites.” However, the very scope and detailed nature of the proposed legislation lend credit to Medvedev’s claim that they were prepared well in advance of the Duma elections, in spring of 2011. It seems logic that back then, Medvedev’s proposals were blocked by the conservatives who had Putin by their side. If so, then Putin’s sudden acceptance of the reformist ideas might not be a concession to protesters, but rather an olive branch to the members of the reformist camp of the elites who are visibly upset with what happened to Medvedev.
The rapid political maturation of Russia’s middle class has been a rude awakening for the country’s political elites and gives them one more reason to feel worried. The elites will be closely watching Putin for any signs that he’s no more in a position to best serve their interests. Should they finally decide that Putin has exhausted his potential, an alternative to him will be found. This change may coincide with the next presidential election. It may not.