Marie Mendras, excerpts:
This summer, the World Cup created the illusion Russia was a well-run country with a contented population. But now the sports pageantry is over, Russians are back to the grey reality of everyday life, and a dire lack of prospects. And the idea of the nation being united around Vladimir Putin is fiction.
Russia is often presented in binary terms: as a country divided between Putinists and liberals, rich and poor, rural folks and Moscovites, “slavophiles” and westerners. The Kremlin’s narrative hinges on the notion of a “patriotic” Russia constantly overcoming a minuscule opposition, depicted as a “fifth column” that is activated or manipulated by external forces. It is tempting for foreign observers to adopt such a black-and-white vision, in which the leader is dominant and admired while his doubters are an exception.
In fact, there are three Russias. The first is Putin’s Russia, built on an oligarchic power structure and its massive propaganda machine. The second is the average man’s Russia, with its many facets but also its common problems. The third is of the professional elites and upper-middle class, who benefited from the economic boom of the 2000s and now have much to lose.
The overwhelming majority of Russia’s 140 million people worry about declining living standards, falling health and education levels, material insecurity, and corruption.
Despite TV propaganda – or perhaps because of it – more and more Russians say they are gloomy about their personal prospects, as well as about the country’s future. There is also concern about military involvement in Ukraine and Syria, and the toll these conflicts are having on young soldiers.
Putin’s situation is in fact the classic problem faced by authoritarian leaders. He needs to exhibit popular legitimacy in order to convince his own inner circle, as well as potential rivals, that he’s invincible and irreplaceable.
Real, sincere voting patterns, free of pressure and rigging, seem to have emerged as follows: over 40% of the electorate abstained, 20% voted for a “small candidate”, and a little less than 40% voted for the president.
What about the elites? It is important to distinguish between the ruling group (Putin’s network of security services, officials and oligarchs), and the non-ruling elites and upper-middle class, which is made up of a few million scientists, intellectuals, local or regional civil servants, teachers and entrepreneurs. Against a backdrop of corruption and budget restrictions, these people often struggle to run a hospital, a school, a local administration, a factory; they manage their own business, or teach, create, innovate.
Domestic social anger, civic demands, youth opposition and “temporary diasporas” may converge to create difficulties for Putin. His options would then be limited: resort to more political repression, which would keep the country in a sterile deadlock, or he could seek compromise – but that would mean taking the risk of loosening his grip on power and wealth.
Ultimately, the quest for global power may not be enough to unify a fragmented society and its various elites around the strongman. Russians expect better protection against declining living standards, and many suspect the purpose of the pension reform is to divert yet more money towards military expenditure and personal enrichment. The regime tries to deflect attention from a depressed domestic economy by provoking confrontations with the west, but it is costly, unproductive and not very popular. Putin will stick to this course, though, rather than take the risk of liberalisation and accountability.
The united front seen during the World Cup is an illusion. Putin fears the convergence of grassroots and an elite opposition, says Professor Marie Mendras