The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been associated with “traditional values,” “spiritual bonds,” and “sacred lands.” Nevertheless, until several years ago, it owed its popular support to people’s pragmatic aspirations. Ditching pragmatism in favor of a moral and spiritual focus fueled popular support for a while, but the effect was short-lived: the ostensibly temporary problems show no sign of going away, and people are starting to demand actions rather than words. But the regime has forgotten how to deliver tangible results.

Whatever Putin, government officials, and propaganda masters say about values, the regime has always had a pragmatic foundation. Putin promised to restore order and all-important stability, and every Russian could easily explain what that stability entailed: pensions and salaries kept rising, and people could afford to buy new household appliances and travel abroad. Putin started as a moderate populist, and things went his way: he didn’t make completely unrealistic promises, and high oil prices allowed him to deliver on at least some of them and perhaps even exceed popular expectations.

However, as fulfilling practical, material promises became increasingly difficult, the regime gradually shifted from pragmatism to spirituality. Putin was progressively described as a moral or national leader. The system started driving itself into a trap: economic well-being has always been the linchpin of Putin’s popularity, but the pragmatic aspect gradually disappeared from relations between the state and the people. Putin’s name, which used to symbolize material aspects, has become synonymous with the system’s survival. “No Putin, no Russia,” said Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin.

Such a system has no need for pragmatic relations between the government and the people. Society was instead offered a new model: to support the president selflessly for his outstanding personal qualities. If people do get something material in exchange for their support, the state regards this as charity. This approach dates back to the early 2010s, when the propaganda machine started replacing Putin the pragmatist with Putin the father of the nation, the defender of traditional values. In part, this image change can probably be attributed to how the president started seeing himself. He mentioned “spiritual bonds” as early as 2012, and the rhetoric of “traditional,” “sacred,” and “spiritual” concepts appeared in his speeches more and more as time went on.

Spiritual bonds, the annexation of Crimea, and support for separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region came to replace economic well-being. For a time, people accepted this adjustment to the social contract. This period became known as the Crimean consensus, and was dominated by polarizing discourse. Pragmatic politics makes room for dialogue and compromise. Moral politics, on the other hand, tolerates nothing but dichotomies of good and evil, or friend and foe.

Replacing pragmatic considerations with moral rhetoric boosted the regime’s popularity in the short run, but eventually started working against it. For most Russians, the moral aspect can be no more than a pleasant addition to the pragmatic one. People tolerated the Crimea-Donbas experiment as long as they could live off the reserves they had saved in the years of plenty, but did expect things to get back to normal at some point.

But hardship has become a permanent attribute of Russian life. According to a poll by the Romir research company, the percentage of Russians who have had to cut their basic daily spending has risen significantly in the past year. Twelve percent of Russians said they have reduced spending on their mobile phones, while 11 percent are spending less on transportation. That number was 3 percent in both categories just a year ago. More people want the situation to change: according to another poll by the Russian Academy of Sciences’ sociology institute, the number of people who expect the government to initiate reforms has grown from 30 percent to 44 percent in two years.

The Kremlin is having an increasingly difficult time fulfilling the expectations that it initially created. How much will salaries and pensions grow? What will the mortgage interest rate be? There is no answer. And even if there were, the audience is unlikely to believe new promises. A flurry of ambitious decrees issued in May 2012 upon his return to the presidency was Putin’s last big pragmatic endeavor. The government has failed to deliver on those promises, in part due to its involvement in Crimea and the Donbas, and people noticed. If the Kremlin broke the old social contract once for the sake of illusive sacral values, why shouldn’t it do so again?

Putin’s personal intervention in issues such as closing a landfill outside Moscow and making sure that plant workers in the city of Nizhny Tagil get the salaries they’re owed has also backfired to some extent. Getting involved in these petty tasks can have the dangerous effect of making voters think the situation in the country is so bad that even a landfill can’t be closed without the president intervening. In any case, such interventions happen only to the lucky few.

The creation of a society dominated by black and white moral rhetoric could also come back to haunt the regime. When emotions eclipse pragmatism, yesterday’s role model can easily become the root of all evil. The “good Putin” who owed his popularity primarily to stability could quickly become the “bad Putin” who doesn’t live up to expectations. People will then start looking for a new idol, and the main criterion will be “anyone but him.”

The 2015 gubernatorial elections in Russia’s Mari El republic and Amur region demonstrated this mechanism. Despite facing no real competition, the acting heads of the regions received barely 50 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding runoff elections. Little-known communist and LDPR candidates whom the authorities had thought to be completely innocuous did surprisingly well. People were apparently ready to cast their votes for any candidate who didn’t represent the current administration.

The demise of pragmatic politics will only amplify discontent with the regime and benefit populist opposition politicians, who will have an easy time promising quick material gains such as a 3 percent mortgage interest rate and a minimum salary of 25,000 rubles ($422) a month. In fact, that’s what opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny is already doing. Fed up with the moral rhetoric and lack of action, the public is certain to welcome these ideas with open arms.

  • Andrey Pertsev