Russian Elites are Worried: The Unpredictability of Putinism
Russian elites are worried. The economic recession, Western sanctions, and semi-isolation are endangering the personal and professional interests of most of the upper middle classes, scientific and cultural elites, top-ranking administrators, and small and medium entrepreneurs. The new confrontational course in relations with Western countries undermines the Putin leadership’s “contract” with elites and the middle class: enrich yourselves and leave the rest to us. The good years are over. Even a rise in oil prices will not ensure return to steady growth and higher salaries anytime soon.
Do new uncertainties have an impact on elites’ submission to the regime? Most of them remain loyal so far, but nonetheless do not trust Putin’s confrontational strategy. They have much to lose from more domestic agitation and estrangement from Western economies. Temporary exile is another response; the number of the elites settled in Western countries and in Ukraine should preoccupy the regime. Political protest and economic resistance may gain momentum inside Russia.
The hyper-nationalist propaganda creates fear, xenophobia, and populist retrenchment in a large section of the public, but this hysteria may be short-lived. People’s emotions are volatile and Russia is a diverse and uneven country, struggling with social inequalities nationwide and insecurity in the North Caucasus. High ratings for Putin in opinion polls are abundantly publicized to veil rising anxiety in upper echelons of society.
Elites beyond Putin’s inner circle are excluded from the decision-making. They cannot express their opinions publicly about armed engagement in Ukraine and Syria, nor are they consulted about political legislation or economic choices. Power rests in the inner circle and the siloviki.
In struggling against the new odds, the Russian leadership is using three major instruments: foreign policy adventurism and nationalist propaganda; economic emergency plans that prioritize of investment and spending in the immediately lucrative sectors of hydrocarbons, the arms industry, and agro-business; and semi-autarchy, served by repression, corruption, and intense media and Internet control.
Foreign policy as a distraction from domestic stagnation is a dangerous tactic; so is domestic retrenchment that alienates the most dynamic, innovative, and productive elements of elites and society. Western governments will continue to negotiate with the current leadership, but should also engage with alternative elites.