The Sources of Putin’s Support: Panel Recap

On Friday, October 25th the Jordan Center welcomed three NYU-based experts on contemporary Russian politics to participate in a panel discussion regarding the current situation of President Vladimir Putin’s regime in the aftermath of the 2012 protests. Panel members included Stephen Cohen, renowned historian of Soviet-American relations and expert on American media coverage of Russia; Mark Galeotti, professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and expert on Russian security affairs and corruption; and NYU Politics professor Joshua Tucker offered his expertise on Russian mass politics and social media. The discussants elaborated on three separate narratives informed by their unique experiences and disciplines to describe the current political scene in Russia, posing some very different answers to the panel’s central question as to the nature of Putin’s support and power.

Jordan Center Director Yanni Kotsonis introduced the panel members and emphasized the importance of “checking in on the pulse of Russian politics” and promised regular panels in the future. Kotsonis lamented the  “the limited engagement with the Russian and American publics,” which results in widespread ignorance about the other’s affairs and being able to “project almost anything you want.” In an effort to promote intelligent conversation on the subject of contemporary Russian politics and society, Kotsonis said “we brought together the most intelligent people we could find.”

Stephen Cohen, the first of the panel members to speak, began  by reminding the audience of the pitfalls of what he called “the utterly preposterous demonization” of Vladimir Putin in America, which often renders the discussion of Putin’s policies “almost impossible.” Cohen argued that as Americans we need to move past this tired Cold War narrative and open up the conversation about what’s really happening in Russia and that includes acknowledging the majority of Russians approve of their President.

Cohen offered a 4-part explanation for the sources of Putin’s power in Russia. He explained Putin’s support comes from both the general population and the political elite. Firstly, Cohen argued that the importance of the 1990s, and the suffering of the general population at the hands of Yeltsin and his elite cronies who plundered the country’s resources and left the general populace in the dust, couldn’t be overestimated in this case. A lot of Putin’s support is based in “counter-Yeltsinism,” Cohen explained. Under Putin, “most people regained what was taken from them in the 1990s: health, longevity, wages, job security, and stability.” Cohen called the public’s reaction to the improvements under the new regime “a kind of existential gratitude,” which Putin receives from a majority of the public, “regardless of whether or not they like him.”

The second explanation Cohen provided to explain the public’s support of Putin lies in the regime’s ability to control the elites to the extent that they won’t be able to harm the Russian people, as was the case in the 1990s. However, Cohen conditioned this on the reality of what he called “a contradiction built into the system,” whereby Putin both controls the political and economic elite, and protects them by working to prevent free and fair elections. The elite fear they would be “swept away” if legitimate popular elections were to take place, Cohen explained.

Thirdly, Cohen argued the popular perception is that there is no viable alternative leader “who could or would protect the people,” as effectively as Putin. The elite also seemingly have no alternative in mind, as demonstrated by the case of Medvedev who was given a chance, “and he utterly failed,” Cohen said.  However, Cohen voiced his feeling that the idea the system is rigged against the rise of another political power offers an  “inadequate” explanation as to the failure of a potential new leader to appear.

Finally, Cohen argued that Putin’s “well managed, but far from falsified” public image is also partially responsible for his widespread support. However, Cohen was quick to point out that there is “no evidence” to indicative there’s “a yearning amongst Russians for a return to greatness,” calling it “a projection of American elite commentators.” However, he explained that the political elites do care about a Russian return to power. “They desperately want financial and social respect in the West,” Cohen said.

Mark Galeotti assumed the podium and carried on the discussion with his argument that “the key basis” of Putin’s power is the Russian political and economic elite. Putin’s seemingly firm grasp on power can be explained by his shrewd management of said elite. Galeotti, like Cohen, acknowledged the importance of the Yeltsin years  in examining contemporary Russian politics. “It’s hard to overstate the catastrophic impact of the 1990s not just on Russian society, but how Russians think about life and society.”

Galeotti posited that what’s important to keep in mind about the impact of the 1990s for the purposes of providing an explanation for Putin’s power are the various assumptions instilled in the Russian public psyche by the experience of the post-Soviet decade. Firstly, the idea of what capitalism means was defined by the freewheeling, effectively lawless Yeltsin-era. People were taught that the system allowed for the making of money however possible without worrying about the consequences.

The 1990s also shaped the Russian perception of “what the purpose of power was.” Galeotti pointed out that, for example, most Russians don’t regard corruption as something indicative of  systemic decay, “they regard this more as a human failure.”

Finally, Galeotti explained that the experience of the 1990s allowed for the perception to take hold that Putin is an outsider– apart from, and above corrupt Yeltsin cronyism. Galeotti made a cautious comparison between the image Putin projects as a benevolent outsider, to the mass perception of the Tsar. “He’s the one person who can protect you from these people that are even worse,” Galeotti said. This explains why “Putin is more popular than his government and the system over which he presides.” And this is precisely because “he’s managed to distance himself from it.”

However, Galeotti argued, “Putin now is not the Putin who came to power,” calling his level of support “brittle.” The rise in quality of life has resulted in a commensurate increase in expectations amongst the population, Galeotti pointed out, and this creates a situation in which “the upward trajectory is under pressure.”

But what will really matter, if and when something occurs that threatens to destabilize the regime or the newly realized quality of life in Russia, are elite politics, which “will be absolutely crucial,” said Galeotti. When push comes to shove, Galeotti said, “I’m not quite sure how strong Putin’s support will turn out to be.” And the central question he posed was– “Can there be Putinism without Putin?”

NYU political science professor Joshua Tucker was the final panel member to lead the discussion. He began by saying he agreed with “everything about the role of the 1990s,” emphasized by Galeotti and Cohen, however, he said, “to me it sounds like we could have been having this conversation in 2007.” Tucker emphasized the series of events over the past several years that have since transformed the political scene and presented a myriad of “potential sources of instability” threatening Putin’s power.

In looking at Putin’s approval ratings and poll numbers, Tucker emphasized the importance of considering the contrast between Moscow, a city that’s become “the center of protest,” and the rest of the country, where Putin has much more support. “How relevant is Moscow to Putin’s hold on power?” Tucker asked.

Tucker also questioned the validity of Putin’s popularity. “Clearly, he’s less [popular] than he used to be,” Tucker argued. He then offered an explanation for the measurable decrease in popularity as being a result of the  increasing distance from the Yeltsin years.. “There’s a generation of people who don’t remember the 1990s.”

Tucker emphasized that the opposition movement should not be discounted. “The ‘old story’ is that they are weak, and disorganized,” said Tucker. The new story, however, is playing out in the rise of Aleksei Navalny, who didn’t have enough support to win the Moscow elections, Tucker admitted. But the fact that there is a Navalny proves “there’s a place to go.”

Though he has doubts about whether or not Navalny will continue to amass power and support as a politician, Navalny’s appearance and relative success in the Moscow mayoral elections came as a surprise for the powers that be. “The elite clearly doesn’t know what to make of Navalny,” explained Tucker. Instead, they came up with an “odd, quasi-solution” of dealing with him.

Tucker’s final focus for recent developments is the changing nature of protest, which he sees as a factor for potential destabilization of the Putin regime. Tucker argued that protest in Russia has become “increasingly varied,” in the issues they represent in comparison to protests in the past that were “primarily about material concerns.” Tucker also argued it was important to consider the possibility of the immense power of social media, though he admitted, “we don’t know the answer to this question yet.”

To conclude, Tucker summed up the possibilities presented by the evidence of voter fraud in the last election. He pointed out three potential sources of fraud including the possibility that the regime wanted “to send signals to the population about the genuine popularity of Putin,” and simply failed to be discreet. Tucker also proposed that the regime set up webcams as a genuine attempt to eliminate voter fraud, but fraud was committed anyway by local leaders. Finally, Tucker said it was possible the regime still wanted voter fraud to occur, “but they wanted it to be less obvious.”

With Tucker’s closing remarks, the panel discussion came to a conclusion and the floor was opened up for audience input. One audience member posed questions about the role of political parties in Russia, which he saw as viable and active.

Andranick Migranyan, director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, offered several challenges to the ideas presented by the panel members. Migranyan argued against the idea that Putin has control over elites, doubting that there’s a “harmonious situation with Russian elites” and the regime. Migranyan challenged the notion that 2011 and 2012 saw popular protest, he argued these demonstrations were actually an “uprising of the elites.

Migranyan also argued against the assertment that Medvedev represented a test-run for the title of Putin’s successor, instead proposing that he represented “a front attack on Putin” by the oligarchs. As to the “real source of Putin’s power,” Migranyan said this comes from the Russian people. “His real base is popular support, his real constraint is people…He’s in touch with society, he feels the pulse, he wants to be loved by them, and this is the real driver of his actions.”

Audience member Steve Holmes said, “I’d like you guys to bring out your inner futurologists.” Another guest at the event wondered if Mikhail Prokhorov is a real opposition figure.

Cohen responded to arguments about Medvedev. “From Putin’s view, this really was a tryout. And the elites didn’t want him.” Galeotti also responded to challenges made by Migranyan by arguing against the notion that institutions in Russia are working perfectly. “This is clearly a regime that has issues,” he said.

Galeotti continued on to answer Johnson’s question regarding Mikhail Prokhorov. ”Is he the real opposition? No. But nor is he a joke.” He explained that Prokhorov’s political activism is pragmatic. “He knows not to push it to a point.”  Galeotti concluded by clarifying the state of party-development in Russia. “There are almost no real political parties in Russia. Navalny is a one-man band.”

Joshua Tucker provided the final response to audience questions. “It’s clear elections are being rigged,” he said.  Much like the sources of Putin’s support however, the reasons for this are still unclear, “but it is happening.”

photofrom left, Stephen Cohen, Joshua Tucker, Mark Galeotti, and Director of the Jordan Center Yanni Kotsonis.