MOSCOW BLOG: Life in Russia has always been rubbish, that is why Putin would have been re-elected even in a fair election

MOSCOW BLOG: Life in Russia has always been rubbish, that is why Putin would have been re-elected even in a fair election
Life has always been rubbish for Russians, so they are more worried about risking what they have than protesting against the existing government. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 18, 2024

“Life is hard. But at least it's short.”

That is an old Soviet joke that plays on the harsh conditions Russians lived under since Tsarist times. Those times changed when Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power. Russia boomed. GDP doubled in a decade. Goods long absent from the “Unimags” arrived in their boat loads. The Kremlin, realising that the growing gap in income between the burgeoning private sector and those dependent on the budget – directly or indirectly, about half the population – was potentially explosive and started raising public sector wages by 10% a year, for a decade. At the end of the process Russia emerged as a more or less normal country. Per capita income is far in excess of any of the other Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries and on a par with European levels in PPP terms at least. The majority of Russians are grateful to Putin for ending the chaos of the Yeltsin years and delivering on a promise of a measure of prosperity for most Russians, at least those that live in the European part of the country.

The recent Levada Centre polls show that Putin’s popularity has risen since the war started and currently stands at 86% with only 11% disapproving as of February – its highest level since the start of 2015, when he was riding high on a ground swell of nationalistic pride following the annexation of the Crimea.

A poll Meduza conducted of its largely liberal readers last summer found that “the only thing worse than war is losing one”; most thought starting a war in Ukraine was a bad idea, but now Russia was “being attacked by Nato” they supported the military campaign.

Another Levada poll found now the war is going well for Russia since US ran out of money for Ukraine in January and the EU is struggling to stand in and supply the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) with enough shells and missiles, 75% of responders think that Russia is going in “the right direction” with only 15% disagreeing. That is the highest result in over a decade; even more than the Crimea annexation peak of 64%.

The propensity to protest for either political or economic demands has also plunged to 15% and 17% respectively, halving from its peak during the pandemic and on a par with the Crimean annexation results.

Does that mean Russian’s genuinely support Putin? Not really. As Ben Nobel, a professor at UCL School for Slavonic and Eastern European studies, said: “Russians; voters simply have nowhere else to go other than support the existing regime.”

There are several things holding back a potential colour revolution in Russia. The most obvious is that there are no opposition candidates to vote for as all of them have either been arrested, fled into exile or murdered. However, the fissiparous Russian opposition movement has done itself no favours as it has never been able to unify behind a single viable candidate and is prone to ego-driven infighting and bickering.

Secondly, after three decades of “democracy”, Russia’s population remains politically naïve thanks to the total lack of real elections, except possibly Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election, which he came very close to losing. Russians still have not got used to the idea that anyone at all in society can simply stand up and say “I want to be president” and actually get elected. The Soviet more is that an official has to come from the system somehow.

Opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny suffered from this: his popularity quadrupled after his arrest in January 2021, but his disapproval rating remained at 56% according to a Lavada poll at the time and he regularly polled in single figures when the pollster asked about significant political figures in the country.

Again, it remains moot how Navalny would have performed in an open election as he managed to win over a quarter of the votes in the Moscow mayoral elections in 2013 where he ran on an anti-immigration platform.

There have been only two opposition figures that meet the “from the system” criteria that could have challenged Putin. One is Gennady Zhuganov, the leader of the Communist Party (KPRF), who was a serious politician in the 1990s and caused then president Boris Yeltsin a lot of headaches. And he commands a massive nationwide political network of local party offices and millions of dyed in the wool supporters. However, he has been cowed by Putin and joined the so-called systemic opposition that makes a lot of noise in the Duma but toes the Kremlin’s line in all important decisions.

The other was Boris Nemtsov, who was the former progressive governor of Nizhny Novgorod then Deputy Prime Minister in Yeltsin’s government before going into the opposition under Putin. But he was assassinated in 2015 under the walls of the Kremlin by an unknown assailant.

The third factor, and maybe the most important, is simply that life for Russians has always been extremely hard. Russia has never known democracy, except for a very brief experiment under Pyotr Stolypin shortly before the October Revolution and the founding of the Duma in 1905.

An amusing “brief history of the USSR for children” from the Sugar animation team highlights the Russian black view of its own history and the disconnect between the people and the various ideologues that have run the country. Even Mikhail Gorbachev is seen as a failure, responsible for destroying the country, rather than founding a new era of democratic freedoms.

Putin’s popularity has to be viewed in this context. Both Yeltsin and Gorbachev are viewed in the West as liberators that brought democracy to Russia. But to Russians Yeltsin and Gorbachev are both viewed as leaders that destroyed the country and brought nothing but misery. Putin, on the other hand, is seen as the one that brought real prosperity and also restored Russia’s sense of national pride by facing down the west and then retaking the Crimea, which is universally seen as Russian territory: “Krim nash”, the Crimea is ours.

The autocracy of the Tsars was simply replaced by the autocracy of the Party. And now that autocracy has been replaced yet again with the autocracy of Putin. Russians are used to autocrats.

And that is the last important point that explains Russians acquiescence to Putin’s rule: they prefer the stability of an autocracy to the chaos of political transformation. Yeltsin remains widely hated in Russia for the chaos of his “shock therapy”. Tens of millions of Russians went to an early grave because of his reforms and an entire generation of pensioners were turned into paupers as they watched their savings hyperinflated away and their pension become worthless.

The two revolutions in Ukraine have inspired the West as it tried to throw off the kleptocracy of a string of deeply corrupt governments and embrace Western style democracy. But from the Russian perspective all that happened is the economy collapsed and Ukraine is now by far the poorest country in Europe – poorer than even Moldova, long holder of that dubious honour. Practically everyone in Russia has friends or family in Ukraine and they are well aware of the suffering that the twin Ukrainian revolutions have meant for the quality of life. Russians may be tired of Putin, but they are not prepared to risk the relative comfort they have built up in the last two decades – maybe the only two decades of relative prosperity the average man in Russia has enjoyed since the golden era of the Soviet Union in the 1970s – by openly challenging the powers that be.

Putin understands this well and the basis of his power for much of the last two decades has been an unspoken social contract: you don’t interfere in politics and we won’t interfere with your daily lives. He is chipping into that now and it is why he was so cautious with the partial mobilisation that started in September 2022; only ethnic minorities and those that lived deep in the hinterland were targeted while cities in the European part of Russia where most people live were left alone. The flat rate income taxes have also been left untouched despite the government’s hunt for cash to pay for the war for the same reason.

If the war escalates again or if sanctions finally start to bite all this may change, but currently the Russian economy is booming. There is almost full employment, real incomes are rising, the international goods that disappeared in the first months of the war are back thanks to the Turkish traders and life on ground is barely affected by the war. As long as that continues Putin’s position as leader is assured.