Staunton, August 11 – Small declines in Russian support for Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin that recent polls have found are far less significant than the change in “the quality of support” they reflect, with popular backing no longer based only on “hopes and positive expectations” but rather on “more rational assessments,” according to a Moscow analyst.
Indeed, Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior analyst at the Center of Political Technologies, says, the small declines in most cases are within the statistical margin of error, despite the enormous attention they have received from many analysts in Moscow and the West as evidence that Medvedev and Putin are losing support (www.politcom.ru/10545.html).
But while the numbers are small, she continues, the secular trend is continuing and the realities standing behind that vector may have far greater consequences over the longer term, possibly setting the stage for radical breaks in Russian political development if the population concludes that it has real alternatives to the tandemocracy, something it does not feel now.
The small declines in support for Medvedev and Putin as well as for other Russian officials began at the start of the financial crisis. The recent “fires evidently are deepening this trend,” one that Stanovaya argues is driven by objective factors such as the economy and by “more subjective” ones including social political developments.
Among the latter – and they are what she devotes her analysis to – is “a significant increase in protest activity in the public space and above all in the Internet.” Moreover, she argues, during this period, such “civic activity has become more organized, more directed and more conscious.”
And it has taken place alongside “a certain de-sacralization of Putin himself as ‘the national leader’ and [the current political arrangements in Russia] as ‘the Putin regime.’ The latter term,” Stanovaya argues, “has completely lost its importance” and has given way to “’the tandemocracy,’ which is wittingly more pluralist and internally competitive.”
“In place of the imperialist order of the day” which Putin’s regime represented “has come a technological rhetoric which has much less mobilizing capacity and potential for consolidating the elites and society around the powers that be,” a “perestroika of the regime” which together with the crisis “cannot but lead to a small decline in the ratings.”
At the same time, Stanovaya insists, “it is important to note that up to now another factor – the sense of an absence of alternatives under conditions of administrative democracy – continues to be as important as before.” And consequently, the declines in the poll numbers will not lead to “radical political consequences in the short term.”
But over time, the shift in “the quality of support” from one based on a kind of faith in the future to a more rational and critical assessment could lead to major changes if there is a serious crisis and if there is a sense that there is an alternative on offer to which the population could turn.
In that event, Stanovaya concludes, the poll numbers of the top leaders could plummet, and “the process of the destruction of the system will occur markedly faster and in a shorter time frame” than many now think possible. To the extent her analysis is correct, it suggests three other conclusions.
First, the tandemocracy, for all of its stage-managed quality, represents a way out of the political straightjacket that Putin imposed on the Russian political system because it suggests that alternatives, however limited, are not only possible but legitimate, something Putin and his entourage had sought to oppose.
Second, this development has resonated with the Russian people, an increasing number of whom are not only prepared to be more active citizens but also ready to evaluate on a rational basis what their leaders are doing and to choose among them, when that possibility presents itself, as it sometimes has even under conditions of the tandemocracy.
And third, the process to which Stanovaya points to is still very much in its first stages and is far from self-sustaining, a reality that means those opposed to a more open system may be able to stifle it for some time to come and that the future of Russia is likely to depend, as Stanovaya says, less on the poll numbers than on the attitudes behind them.