Putin Turns to Patriotism as the Support Base of Last Resort

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 149

Vladimir Putin taking questions from young pro-Kremlin activists at the Selinger youth camp, July 31 (Source: AP)

There is no royal tourism to Siberian natural preserves or Black Sea beaches for President Vladimir Putin this August; instead, he is hurrying from the naval shipyard in Severodvinsk to the garrison of an airborne brigade in Ulyanovsk oblast to the “patriotic” youth camp Seliger, delivering new promises of priority attention to every presumed support group. The content of these promises is rather familiar to the target audiences. Yet, it is different from the early 2000s, when the main emphasis was on restoring stability, and from the middle of that decade, when prosperity became the focus of expectations, and from the years of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, when “modernization” was the key word. Presently, the main goods that Putin is trying to sell is patriotic pride mixed with God-fearing zeal, which brings to many a liberal mind the words of 19th century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin: “They are leaning heavily on patriotism. Probably, embezzlement is the matter.”

The best seasonal wrappings for these political goods are provided by the Olympic Games, so Putin made a lighting trip to London in order to see the final judo contest and congratulate Tagir Khaibulaev for winning the gold medal (Newsru.com, August 2). Russia is not that different from many other gold-obsessed nations in this respect, though China is certainly taking the Soviet ideology of “great sports power” to a new high (Gazeta.ru, August 3). Far more worrisome is the strain of patriotic ambition focused on asserting Russia’s particular role on the international arena, and Syria is presently the main target of this ambition. Putin is not committed to standing by the losing side to the bitter end, and he certainly takes the position of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan very seriously. But he also presumes that a few combat ships deployed to the Mediterranean go a long way toward restoring Russia’s “global power” status (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, August 3). The seemingly unreasonable stance on the Syrian civil war is instrumental in boosting Russia’s profile; therefore, the round of “judo diplomacy” with British Prime Minister David Cameron was not particularly fruitful (Kommersant, August 4).
One particular feature of the new patriotic wave is its religious drive, which reflects the close political alliance between the Kremlin and the top level of the bureaucracy of the Russian Orthodox Church under ambitious Patriarch Kirill I (Novaya Gazeta, July 31). Putin considers this alliance a crucial pillar of his regime, and so he was enraged by the “blasphemy” of the daring performance by the punk rock group Pussy Riot in the Christ the Savior Cathedral. The persecution of Maria Alyokhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was supposed to uphold the moral authority of the Church, but the “show trial” has instead drawn attention to its corrupt practices and drawn scorn from the Western artistic community (Grani.ru, The New Times, August 2). Putin apparently finds this disconcerting but cannot miss the opportunity to mobilize the feelings of true believers and the zeal of recent converts against the “godless opposition.”

The indignation over subjecting three courageous young women to the blatantly unfair trial, which resembles a medieval inquisition, has re-energized the opposition from the summer lull and focused the debates on combining street protests with the work of building new political parties (Moskovskie Novosti, August 3). Putin has discovered a “deep political meaning” in the latter work as it is supposed to prove that the slogans of the opposition have no support from the “masses” (Gazeta.ru, August 2). Many leaders of Yabloko, the Republican Party (newly merged with PARNAS) and Russia’s Choice intend to prove him wrong already in the autumn cycle of local and regional elections, but perhaps more important are the efforts at setting a credible organizational structure for staging rallies and boosting the numbers of participants (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 3). This priority is based on the distinct growth of public discontent – recent polls register 42 percent support for the street protests against 32 percent in March (Levada.ru, August 1). Harassment of popular rebels such as Alexei Navalny and pressure on dissidents from the establishment such as Gennady Gudkov and Alexander Lebedev only deepens this pool of discontent (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 3).

Embarking on the course of patriotic mobilization and selective repressions, Putin expects to consolidate his support base. But in fact, he is driving the polarization of a disturbed and disoriented society. It is hardly surprising that 42 percent of Russians believe that he is acting in the interests of the siloviki and 32 percent see him as the guardian of the interests of the state bureaucracy, while only 21 percent agree that he represents the interests of the middle class (Kommersant, August 4). The elementary proposition that the self-awareness of the educated, moderately affluent urban classes generates demand for competitive and open politics clashes with Putin’s paternalistic and egocentric political philosophy. These clashes are causing Putin’s mood swings from arrogance to anxiety and feed his desire to constantly reassert his domination. Far more than the “white opposition,” he fears desertions and betrayals in the elites where corruption has long since eroded any remnants of loyalty. He seeks, in turn, to instill fear into the self-serving bureaucracy, but cadre reshufflings merely redistribute the money flows, and experiments with repression remain far from convincing due to the obvious confusion of the experimenter (Polit.ru, August 3).

For the ruling bureaucracy, the “patriotic” discourse rings hollow as foreign to its members’ career plans and lifestyle. But for the groups that are receptive to this rhetoric, the key problem that threatens Russia’s future is not the “unpatriotic” street protests but the degradation of the state on Putin’s watch. The signs of this rot are unmistakable: the spread of Islamic extremism from the North Caucasus to Tatarstan, the flourishing of criminal racketeering, the deepening dependency on the inflow of petro-revenues and the shameless misappropriation of astronomic budgets in the Sochi Olympic projects. Putin has no answer to these malignant and metastatic tumors in his regime, and his message of “more of the same” becomes nonsensical. Perhaps this August will spare Russia the usual share of troubles and disasters. But the coming autumn is certain to see escalating calamities as the entrenched regime tries to gain a new lease on life by adding more bite to the repression – and thus committing mistakes that will condemn it to an inglorious end.