There is a historical anecdote that Tsar Peter I could not find a good minister of treasury. All the candidates were either stupid or thieves. When he thought he finally found the right man, he told him to kiss an icon, kneel down and swear that he would carry out his role honestly. The candidate kissed the icon, but when doing so, he bit off the most precious stone from its frame.
Even if this story is not true, it describes the situation of Russia after the latest elections well.
According to the official announcements — as expected — the winner was Vladimir Putin, who received 76.69% votes. In absolute terms, this is over 56 million citizens. The voter turnout was higher than 6 years ago and exceeded over 67%.
Putin and his Russia
Regardless of any interpretations presented outside Russia (more about the Polish interpretations later), it is obvious for everyone except those who cannot think logically that Russians massively supported Putin. However, this is only the first and not the most important conclusion.
Russia, whether we like it or not, is an authoritarian country. Moreover, the majority of the population accepts this situation, as it has its roots in history and — what is crucial — it works. One can discuss the problems with democracy with Russian citizens ad nauseam, but they are convinced that everything is okay, so there is no need to change anything. Western European Kremlinologists cannot see this rather obvious truth, so they keep making mistakes when planning their actions aimed at restoring the situation from the 1990s, when the always drunk president Yeltsin was ready to make all possible concessions to the West, including the partitioning of Russia.
Nevertheless, this will not happen again, regardless of whether the person governing the country will be a far-sighted strategists or a mediocre politician. It is clear for everyone who wants to govern Russia that the key to public support is the maintenance and expansion of a strong state the world has to reckon with. To achieve this goal, the Russians are willing to sacrifice a lot, including their quality of life.
To be or not to be
Does Putin’s victory mean that the current policy will be continued for the next six years? No, it does not. Observers and Russian political scientists point out that this period is a question of to be or not to be for Russia. As one of the most interesting political scientists of the middle generation put it, Russia can either meets the challenges or fail. And this is the way it most probably is. Russian authorities and the president have become victims of their own policy to some extent.
For a long time, Russian policy resembled the policy of Gierek in Poland in the 1970’s. The authorities did not interfere in citizens’ lives. In exchange, the citizens only had to exploit the opportunities provided by the state and support it during elections. However, the international situation made politics intervene in the lives of the people, even the most passive ones. With the Ukrainian crisis, then the war in Donbass, and the annexation of Crimea, the international situation regarding Russia worsened. Following their tradition, the Russians reacted to external threat as usual, — they gathered around their leader. Regardless of this, an abrupt eruption of — let’s call it — patriotic and state-oriented feelings took place. It inspired citizens’ activity on diverse fields.
For four years, this energy, directed at rallying around the leaders and state structures, stayed within set boundaries. People felt the strength of their country, but also their own — they learned that they could achieve something together. At their doorstep, but also in their town, region, republic, or even state. The state or, more precisely, the officials representing it, reacted as usual: they wanted to form top-down regulated organizations within which the citizens could act and the officials could meet with them (preferably, accompanied by TV cameras) to accept or reject their ideas. More often to reject. And everyone will be happy.
However, for several reasons, this did not happen. Although Russia managed to deal with the sanctions and the West did not destroy its economy, neo-liberalism still prevails in economic thought and brings negative consequences. The social divide is widening. 16% of the citizens live below the social minimum. This number has recently started increasing. Of course, one has to remember that when Putin came to power, 40% of the citizens were poor. Nevertheless, the gap between rich and poor is noticed by ordinary Russians, who know their value as a society.
For themselves at least, not for the state and its apparatus. It evokes dissatisfaction, an expectation of changes, and appreciation of the role of the society in governance. In other words, the awakened social energy began looking for an outlet.
Of course, Putin and his closest collaborators know about this. The criticism of the neo-liberal direction of development intensifies not only among the nonsystem opposition, which is politically insignificant, but also among the “licensed opposition” parties. Communists and the Russian left criticized the economic development directions the most competently and severely. During the electoral campaign, the candidate of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Pavel Grudinin, presented proposals of the general nationalization of large companies. People listened to it gladly, not only because it reminded them of the times of the Soviet Union, but also because the majority of the citizens are convinced that the elites who unfairly took over social capital caused the problems. Paradoxically, the media discovered that Grudinin, a very rich person, had several accounts in foreign banks. According to the Russian law, he should have closed these accounts before the elections, but it turned out that he kept using some of them, the existence of which he did not reveal. This means that he concealed them, just like the elites hated by ordinary people.
Problem with the elites
I do not trust or respect former politicians’ memoirs too much. They tend to describe themselves as the only honest persons among robbers and scums. The book by Alexander Korzhakov, head of Boris Yeltsin’s security, also follows this approach. However, it allows a vision to be formed of the Russian political class that was the most powerful in the 1990s. This vision is terrifying. Not because of corruption in its simplest form: “if you give me a certain sum, I will get you the deal of your life”. Because of boorish, vulgar greediness and the lack of moral standards. The story I remember the best is about a Yeltsin collaborator that shot literally an entire herd of elks — 45 animals. Adult males, females, and calves. Why? Because he could. And he was sure about his total impunity.
People with this type of mentality became the foundation of the Russian political class in 2000, when Putin was elected president for the first time. Some of them still hold responsible positions or run business enterprises generating huge revenues.
It was clear right away — at the beginning, they were sure that nothing would change; only their boss would be sober and able to sort out state issues. They were wrong, but the fight against corruption did not meet the expectations of the society and Putin replaced the elites too slowly for the ordinary people.
Under Putin’s rule, an “aristocracy of tax havens” — a group of people, whose extreme wealth was of suspicious or ethically questionable origins, locating their money out of reach of the Russian tax authorities, formed. Their capitals and families were abroad, in London, the US, Switzerland, where tabloids could portray the ostentatious consumerism of the “new Russians”. The situation was potentially threatening for the functioning of Russia: state officials, such as ministers and advisors to the president, worked in Russia, but were exposed to Western systems. What would they choose if there was a conflict between Russia and the West? The safety of their families and their money or loyalty towards Russia? The answer is not too difficult. Journalists and, unsurprisingly, special forces, pointed this out. And Putin still hesitated. Why?
Because he could not afford to replace the staff. He chose to take small steps and — according to some Russian publicists — to tame the ruling class, in a way. Based on the assumption that scaring the elites would provoke their nervous and unpredictable actions.
This is corroborated by the fact that the numbers of middle- and high-level replaced and arrested officials are still high. On the other hand, people who bring their capital back to Russia and invest it there are offered abolition. According to the media, 40 Russian billionaires recently requested the president of Russia to allow them to return to the country.
It seems that the conclusions of one of Putin’s advisors were too optimistic. He said in an interview with strajk.eu, “The oligarchs of today are completely different. They keep their epaulettes in a drawer, but when needed, they put them back on and salute the person from whom they obtained them. Of course, some of them are loyal to the state, but too many others have not yet mentally outgrown the Yeltsin era. This concerns not only the central, but also middle levels.
One thing is certain: without the replacement of the elite, without channeling the social energy awakened in 2014, i.e. without changing the model of governance, Russia may not be able to deal with the challenges it is facing. It has the next six years to do so.
In other words, without taking a step towards a fair social state and without the fair distribution of goods, Russia can become an arena of social dissatisfaction. Putin is aware of it, as proven by his speech about the necessity of pro-social changes in Russian policy given directly after the elections. The question remains whether he has enough power and people to succeed.
There should be no problem with power given his experience in using it and mobilizing additional reserves. When it comes to people, however, some of his advisors see the aforementioned problems, but there is also a large group of declared neo-liberals holding the most important positions in the government and they have a strong influence on the economics. Almost directly after the elections, the word about replacing almost the entire government, including Dmitry Medvedev, began to spread. Nevertheless, we have to remember that Putin does not act hastily or quickly. It is interesting that his collaborators have such different ideologies. The president of Russia will make a decision on his own, but he familiarizes himself with views from different sources. On the other hand, the aforementioned staff replacement is necessary. Everyone is awaiting significant changes. Let us wait.
Poland — a little rascal
As for Poland’s reactions to the elections in Russia… Apart from pathetic statements that the real winner is Alexei Navalny, because so many people listened to him and boycotted the elections that the planned 75% voter turnout was not achieved (although the voter turnout was apparently higher than in previous elections) and vague opinions that the elections were rigged, the behavior of Polish politicians who are unable to draw conclusions from the observation is worth noting. Regardless of the situation related with the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a part of the European elites is tired with the tensions in relations with Russia. Against this background, not only on the level of its officially Russophobic policy, but also in the media and regrettable “scientific” centers of research of post-soviet areas, is not able to rise above schoolboy maliciousness that is harmless for everyone except for its source. No one is able or willing to conduct even a basic analysis.
At the conference for foreign observers organized after the elections, the speech of the head of the Chinese delegation Pan Dewei, director of the Center for Russian and Asian Studies, who highly valued the conduct of the elections and congratulated Putin and assured that Chinese-Russian relations were good and would be developed. The Chinese delegation was the largest in the history of the observers of Russian elections. The Indian representative, as well as other foreign observers, were also enthusiastic. It shows that for many, Russia is and will be one of the most important economic and political partners and the current situation is considered temporary. In Crimea, the bone of contention, the results and voter turnout were the same as during the referendum of 2014, which was considered unreliable, as it was conducted at gunpoint.
Duda not congratulating Putin is an example of the aforementioned schoolboy maliciousness, ignored in Russia anyway.
When I asked a Russian TV journalist why she stopped visiting Poland, even though she had visited Warsaw several times in the past, she replied: “You know, no one here is interested in Poland these days”.
Vishnyovski is a longstanding Polish investigative journalist and political commentator. He began his career in the `80 contributing for many youth media outlets. In the beginning of the `90 he began working for one the most popular weekly papers in Poland called “No”. Meanwhile he produced and directed many documentary movies as well as translated books. In 2015 he set up a successful left wing platform Strajk.eu of which he is the editor-in-chief.