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29 May 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 8:48am

How Covid-19 is transforming Russia’s power structures

As Putin’s popularity falls while that of governors rises, the old centralised system is in flux.  

By Felix Light

On 6 May the Levada Centre, an independent Russian pollster, caused a minor sensation in Moscow. According to its widely respected presidential approval rating poll, Vladimir Putin’s approval had dipped six points in a month to 59 per cent, his lowest-ever recorded rating. 

It had been a difficult few months for a president who had, only in March 2018, registered 81 per cent approval. Having taken a back seat during the coronavirus pandemic, handing over day-to-day crisis management to junior officials, he had not received the rally-round-the-flag polling jolt enjoyed by his foreign counterparts.

Moreover, with oil at historic lows and the coronavirus fallout devastating the Russian economy, there is no immediate hope of a return to the rapidly rising living standards with which Putin first won the Russian electorate’s heart. 

Perhaps most painfully, the Covid-19 crisis had forced the postponement of the landmark 75th anniversary celebrations of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, a long-awaited opportunity for patriotic pageantry. Adding insult to injury, the Kremlin was even forced to rescheduled the constitutional referendum that will pave the way for Putin to remain in power until 2036.

Judgement was swift and brutal. The liberal-leaning Republic news website dubbed the president “Yeltsin’s heir”, evoking the memory of his still-reviled predecessor, who ended his own term of office with single digit approval. Political scientist Andrey Kynev told The Moscow Times that Putin looked like “an old, sick wolf”. The Russian president, it seemed, was in the tightest political spot of his 20-year career.

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Perhaps. However, as any of Putin’s international peers would testify, in the circumstances, 59 per cent approval is nothing to sneer at. Despite the deepest recession in centuries, an unprecedented crash in oil prices and a deadly viral pandemic, the Russian president retains the support of a healthy majority of his electorate. 

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More to the point, there is no obvious successor awaiting his departure in the wings. The president’s approval ratings, though historically low, still dwarf those of any other major political figure. Only 3 per cent of Levada’s respondents identified Mikhail Mishustin, prime minister since January, as the national political figure they trust most. 

Much of this is due to one of the consistent themes of Vladimir Putin’s time in office: the so-called vertikal’ vlasti or power vertical. Conceived as a cure for the chaos of 1990s Russia, the power vertical emphasised a clear, hierarchical chain of command from the Kremlin downwards. Throughout Putin’s first decade in power, the Russian Federation was steadily converted into a tightly centralised state, with power stripped away from the regions and channeled into president’s hands.

Though the reality of power has never been quite as vertical as the term might suggest, the idea did have one concrete impact: a steady flow of power, prominence and esteem towards the president, and away from ministers, legislatures and regional governments. As the only political game in town, Putin enjoyed enormous personal support, while being able to deflect the blame for setbacks onto less popular institutions and officials.

Today, however, that is changing. Over several years, opinion polls have registered an uptick in regional governors’ approval ratings. Though often pigeonholed as corrupt and and incompetent foils for the president, mayors and governors have seen their standing among ordinary Russians improve steadily since reaching an all-time low in 2011. In February 2020, Russia’s regional governors registered an approval rating of 65 per cent, beating the president’s for the first time ever.

To Moscow political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, this reflects a profound change in the fundamentals of Russian politics.

After Putin’s re-elected in March 2018 with almost 77 per cent of the vote, Russians’ trust in him began a gradual decline, a process then accelerated by a raft of controversial pension reforms announced shortly after his victory. According to Schulmann, such a decline in the president’s standing should have produced corresponding increases in prestige for other institutions or public figures.

“Missing trust needs to reinvest itself somewhere,” she says.

In fact, virtually all Russia’s political institutions, from the army and church to NGOs, sank alongside Putin in public estimation after 2018. The one unlikely exception: the country’s much maligned regional governors.

Schulmann suggests that governors, though traditionally unpopular, were able to trade on a mixture of anti-Moscow resentment, local loyalties, and a sense that life was, at last, improving in the Russian provinces, to receive an unexpected boost to their profiles. Entirely unexpectedly, the power vertical had been turned on its head.

As Russia’s coronavirus response has taken shape, the power vertical has continued to invert itself. Putin, confounding the expectation of both his critics and supporters, has chosen to take a background role. Waiting until late March to make his first public speech on the pandemic, he has since largely restricted himself to announcing popular financial support measures and non-working “holidays”.

Meanwhile, broad powers governing lockdowns, travel bans and health provision have been returned to the regional level, a decisive break with two decades of centralisation. With Putin keeping a low profile, regional governors, from Sergey Sobyanin, the technocratic Moscow mayor and advocate of high-tech pandemic solutions, to Ramzan Kadyrov, the enfant terrible Chechen leader and advocate of executing curfew breakers, have had their respective moments in the spotlight. 

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, has suggested that Moscow’s conversion to federalism, which has not been matched with financial support for the regions, is a temporary, political move, aimed at insulating Putin from responsibility for unpopular lockdown measures.

However, according to Schulmann, Russia’s traditional power vertical may not be so easily restored once the pandemic is over.

“The central government will likely try to take back some powers it invested in the regions, but I am not sure that they will succeed,” she said. At least some of the governors with newly acquired popular support may well continue to expand their de facto powers in a kind of creeping federalisation.”

In other words, though there is little indication that Putin’s grip on the Russian public imagination is about to fade entirely, coronavirus is remaking the regime he has spent 20 years building. And that is a change he will likely have to learn to live with.

Felix Light is a freelance journalist based in Moscow