For Russia, 2020 would have been a pivotal year even without the novel coronavirus pandemic: constitutional reform resulted in a new political regime that functions according to a different logic, has a different kind of relationship with society and the opposition, and reacts in a new way to problems. Much that seemed unbelievable and exceptional last year could soon become the new normal. 

The main political speculation of the year was that President Vladimir Putin could step down. That didn’t happen, of course, but the gradual and inexorable removal of Putin from the decisionmaking process is undeniable.

Putin may rarely be off the nation’s TV screens, but he is to all intents and purposes absent: he comments, criticizes, and boasts of successes, but he himself merely observes and orders proposals to be drawn up.

All the managerial decisions of the past year (excluding constitutional reform) were put forward and developed by the government, regional governors, deputies, senators, the presidential administration, or the siloviki (security services). Before, many people within the regime were scared to show initiative and take any action without approving it first with Putin. Now inaction is itself becoming dangerous, necessitating demonstrative action. The system created by Putin, which previously depended entirely on one person, has started to come to life and act chaotically. 

The president is now willing to delegate crucial issues of state management. The Federal Security Service (FSB) is trusted with the fight against the opposition, the government is responsible for the economy, and the regional governors have been left to deal with the pandemic. Last year was the first in Putin’s long rule when he finally trusted the running of the state to a truly strong government.

Putin is gradually turning into a symbol. He is still a guarantor of stability, but is preoccupied with global issues and therefore unavailable to solve everyday problems. As a result, the personal factor is declining, and the autocrat is being replaced by a “collective Putin”: a faceless coalition of technocrats and siloviki who stand in for the president on everyday matters. 

The collective Putin is incapable of assuming political responsibility, which remains the preserve of the president. Uncontrolled and answerable to no one, it acts in the name of an imaginary Putin, with the real Putin’s tacit approval.

Having been given carte blanche, the system has pitted itself against society, eroding traditional democratic institutions and chipping away at trust in doing so. The state is starting to turn into a repressive machine, crushing indiscriminately and without remorse, and all to protect an imagined conservative Putin, relying on an imagined “Putin majority” that in reality is long gone.

This year, regardless of what formal decisions are made, Putin will move away from everyday decisionmaking, delegating that to his entourage, and shielding himself from petty problems. This will result in a flurry of bureaucratic activity at all levels, while rules—both formal and informal—will lose value, making state policy incoherent. This will translate into contradictory laws, shocking new legislative proposals, growing initiative among the siloviki, and the radicalization of the agenda. 

The last year was also the most difficult so far for the “non-system”—i.e., genuine—opposition. There were obstacles at both the legislative level (initiatives in the fight against foreign influence, foreign agents, and online libel) and the political level: now being outside the system is essentially equated to a crime, and the siloviki have a mandate to put down any kind of anti-Putin movement. The poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny is entirely in keeping with this logic.

The forecast for this year looks decidedly gloomy. The initiative is gradually coming to lie with the state apparatus, which is seeking to keep Putin isolated, which in turn requires complete control over society.

The regime, oriented as it is on Putin—instead of society—as a source of legitimacy, is becoming increasingly intolerant of any sign of independence, and losing the ability to engage in dialogue. This is inevitably leading to increased tension between the state and society, when everything that is not pro-Putin becomes suspicious and potentially dangerous.

The criminalization of the “non-system” opposition will cause the concept of the “in-system” opposition (parties that do not dare to challenge Putin himself) to lose its meaning. The Kremlin is staking everything on its own people: figures who aren’t just loyal, but under control. Being part of the system will no longer be enough to legitimize existence, and will no longer guarantee anything. This will provoke new conflicts between the in-system opposition and the authorities, and will lead to attempts to replace the old opposition factions within the Duma with synthetic simulacra. It will also exacerbate the tendency for existing parties to start operating outside of the system in the regions.

All of this will have a wider fallout beyond politics. Particularly at risk are media outlets that regularly provide a platform for the non-system opposition, along with opposition-minded journalists and bloggers. The year 2021 may be remembered for an even larger and more sophisticated crackdown—both in terms of legislation and enforcement—on anything seen as hostile to the regime.

In 2016, Putin decided in favor of the methodologists, and entrusted them with managing Russia’s domestic policy through their trademark schemes, programming of society, and endless KPIs. In 2020, this approach really entered into full swing. The constitutional reform and subsequent vote to approve the amendments were a clear example of how methodologists solve political tasks: establishing a closely controlled process and ensuring a guaranteed result that was programmed into the mechanism of its implementation in advance. Both the reform and the vote were devised from the outset in a way that excluded any protest or unsatisfactory result.

This year, this kind of management looks set to be the norm: minimal political discussion, total control, and the formation of an artificial choice will all be used in elections at both the regional and federal levels. This leaves the fate of the non-system opposition in doubt. For many years, the Kremlin allowed its existence while ensuring it did not become too dangerous. In 2020, that balance was shattered, and even the non-system status of the real opposition is no longer acceptable to the authorities.

Three factors contributed to this state of affairs. The first was smart voting, which led to crises such as that seen in Moscow in the summer of 2019. The second was intrusion onto the agenda: anti-corruption investigations and criticism of the authorities combined with the inability of the latter to mount an effective resistance. The third factor was the definitive seizing of the initiative by the siloviki. The non-system opposition has become an issue of state security, and the poisoning of Navalny signaled a transition to a war of mutual destruction.

Before, people were classified as the non-system opposition if they fulfilled two criteria: having political ambition and anti-Putin views. Now it’s enough to express critical or even simply politically incorrect viewpoints, from questioning the accepted interpretation of the role of the Soviet Union in World War II to publicly expressing belief that the FSB was behind the Navalny poisoning.

Following the constitutional amendments, the regime is determined to create a system of protectors against destabilization; a mechanism for dividing people into “us” and “them.” All the elements of power are involved in forming this mechanism, with security and stability as their top priorities.

The problem is that there is no unified center making decisions, adjusting strategy, and providing a long-term view or plan for the future. The elements of the system are competing among themselves for precedence and resources, frequently sacrificing long-term priorities for the sake of their own, more narrow interests.

In other words, the system is consuming itself, with each part of it trying to survive separately at the expense of its neighbor. In this situation, society is a hostage of this battle for survival, and an expendable component in political experiments.

This year promises to be difficult and dangerous for civil society, the real opposition, and independent journalists and bloggers: all those who ask questions of the authorities and demand answers. Last year showed just how defenseless both society and the opposition are when faced with a regime that hardly ever encounters any serious political resistance.

Yet there is a limit to the regime’s durability. The fall in living standards and decreased trust in the authorities, combined with the latter’s inability to communicate effectively and recognize problems, will lead to growing unhappiness in society, increased outbursts of local protests, and the appearance of new areas of conflict. Putin can make any number of decisions, but does not want to, while the collective Putin wants to, but cannot always do so. Meanwhile, the new system of immobilizing society and repressing any resistance could have unforeseen consequences.

  • Tatiana Stanovaya