There can be no doubt that Russia has again surprised Western commentators; there had been a good consensus that there would not be major political opposition in Russia,that civil society is weak and there were no alternatives around. Now we have to develop a much more sophisticated analysis. In this article I will concentrate on two issues: legitimacy and interests.

Published on balticworlds.com on April 2, 2012

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How should we analyse the legitimacy of power following the Russian presidential elections? Future development scenarios seem to provide a wide variety of alternatives. Many Russians argue that President Putin will not be able to stay until the end of his term. His legitimacy is said to have been fundamentally damaged because of the election fraud. On the other hand, even the street opposition does not really challenge the fact that Putin clearly won the elections in the very first round. There can be no doubt that Russia has again surprised Western commentators; there had been a good consensus that there would not be major political opposition in Russia,that civil society is weak and there were no alternatives around. Now we have to develop a much more sophisticated analysis. In this article I will concentrate on two issues: legitimacy and interests.

Let us start with Max Weber’s classic conceptualisation of legitimacy. The renowned Weberian understanding is that power can be legitimized on the basis of three factors: legally rational rules of the game, tradition, or charisma. All of these elements have been present in Putin’s efforts to maintain his legitimacy.
In the very beginning Putin talked about the “dictatorship of law”. Although his attacks on the regional barons resolved fundamental constitutional problems by bullying tactics and administrative means, and the power struggle with the oligarchs was fought by the selective use of legal instruments, he managed to create an institutional basis for his “Power Vertical” using the constitution of 1993 as a legal basis. Since the very beginning Putinhad, however, argued that governmental relations had to be placed on a more formal and institutional basis. His rhetoric has consistently been that this new administration had to be embedded in political pluralism and a free society. Consequently, there has been a strong rational and legal element to Putin’s legitimacy. Accusations of election fraud thus have a significant impact.

As far as charisma is concerned, it seems to be challenged even more by street demonstrations. “Russia without Putin!” is a slogan that unites all the opposition forces. There is a common belief that Russia has a cultural predisposition towards strong personalised leadership; the weakness of formal political institutions and the underdevelopment of social interest representation in post-communist Russia has enforced this cultural aspect. In the very beginning of his first presidential term Putin, who had been almost unknown at the national level until 1997, was already regarded as a charismatic leader who was able to generate popular sentiments on a mass scale. He was regarded as a strong leader with a vision for the future of the nation.

Putin learnt a bitter lesson about the vulnerability of charisma when, in September 2011, he announced his candidacy for the presidency in a too straightforward manner. He reinforced this resentment by announcing that everything has been agreed between Medvedev and himself in 2008. The enlightened middle class were appalled that they were again treated like children without any real participation in the choice of their leadership. This created a strong support for the sudden political protests in which opposition to Putin was much more significant than proposing any real political alternatives.

However, it would be too simple to argue that Putin’s charisma is completely devastated. Over the years, Putin has been able to develop an institutional dimension to his charisma on two fronts. On the one hand, he was able to merge his own Unity party with Luzhkov’s Fatherland party in 2002, creating United Russia (Edinaya Russia). On the other hand, he has been able to establisha charismatic bond between himself and the personnel of the presidential administration. In the contemporary elite, United Russia and the huge administrative apparatus merge at both the federal and the regional levels. United Russia is not a real mass political base for Putin’s power. Instead, it is a hierarchical structure that supports the power vertical and recruits people to the elite at all levels. In ideological terms, the party is not at all united. It started in a highly anti-ideological spirit, but even during Putin’s second term, three different ideological approaches seemed to be developing among the think tanks of United Russia. They all call themselves conservatives, some of them coming fairly close to Western liberal values, some promoting social conservatism in the vein of European social democracy, and some being strongly nationalistic.The defeat of United Russia in parliamentary elections, even with the fraud, has shown the vulnerability of this element in Putin’s power structure. However, it has to be kept in mind that the party serves the presidential administration in Putin’s system, not the other way round. “This is a result we can work with,” said Putin himself.

There is also a strong component of tradition in the legitimacy of Putin’s regime. Order is the key concept in the civil religion of Russia. There has been such significant ideological and moral change in society that anomy – the rapid change of social norms – can probably explain the dramatic growth in mortality in the 1990s. Putin’s strong government has been able to create considerably more stability and order than Yeltsin’s regime. The Orthodox Church is a very significant ideological apparatus in contemporary Russia, mobilising traditional cultural conservatism to support the Putin regime. In this regard, we should note a fundamental difference between Russia and the social movements in Islamic countries. Russia continues in the tradition of cesaropapism, religious power living in alliance with the regime, whereas in the Islamic world religion has a strong common agenda as a potentially revolutionary force against secular authoritarian governments.

The lack of a strong cultural agenda is one of the key defects of the Russian opposition. Although carnevalistic elements have a strong influence in alternative publicity, especially in the blogosphere, they are seldom able to create any alternative political agenda. Recently, a female punk band called Pussy Riot organised a strike in a church in the centre of Moscow. It was called ‘punk moleben’; colourfully dressed masked young women danced and played the guitar in the church, praying to God to oust Putin. This was not accepted by the church or by the wider public and now there is a threat that the girls might be sentenced to two years in jail. In cultural terms, conservatism seems to prevail and there are no charismatic political leaders in the opposition. Xenophobic elements are strong even in the speeches of major opposition leaders such as Navalnyi and Prohorov.

Of course, Putin is not omnipotent and his room for manoeuvre is limited by the existing socio-political and socio-economic structure. The Russian political system does not directly represent various societal interests. On the other hand, the power elite in Russia cannot only focus on controlling society, it has to work with several fundamental structural problems. Much depends on the available resources, but the problems of economic diversification, fighting corruption and creating welfare institutions have to be faced. The key question is whether the Russian elite has enough leadership and knowledge to make this effort without strong and real democratic structures and the representation of different class interests. Phil Hanson recently pointed out that five percent growth would be enough for the elite to stay in power. On the other hand, this kind of growth would not make structural reforms inevitable. As crucial as it might be to evaluate the elite’s learning capacity this remains to be seen. Putin has been very conservative in his recruitment of the elite and, in the long run, this would also seem to encourage conservatism in substantive politics. However, unsolved structural issues will pop up as cumulative social problems. Strategic work has been carried out by the think tanks, but the strength of strategic vision in real politics remains to be seen.

Even if we perhaps do not have enough information about the implementation of strategies, or about the contradictory interests of the elite in these matters, our knowledge of the socio-economic structure is more profound. It is quite evident that significant changes have happened in the Russian class structure. In the 1990s all political forces appealed to the middle class as the most fundamental force in society, while at the same time the real situation of the middle class was getting worse. During the Putin regime, the situation for the middle class has considerably improved and the potential middle class has become more a real one. At the same time, the bourgeoisie has increased in strength, whereas the previously numerically strong industrial working class has become inactive and marginalized because of the lack of independence of the trade unions. The real incomes of the working class have grown during Putin’s and Medvedev’s regimes and unemployment is not very high. The working class has not been active in the street demonstrations.

From a European point of view, the most fundamental feature of the Russian political scene is the lack of moderate left-wing forces. This is crucially significant in conditions where welfare system is still embriotic and inequality is growing.

It is not easy to classify the class basis for political forces that are at work in the Russian working class as either left-wing or right-wing; even the Communist Party is now saying that an important task is for it to develop Russia’s major power role on a national basis. In this sense, the alternative for Putin might be a new alliance of the nationalistic elite with authoritarian and xenophobic popular movements. National self-assertion and international resentment linked with a weak working class appears a rather worrying combination. Among the opposition there are new left forces and rather strange combinations of left-wing and nationalistic ideology, e.g. in Limonov’s National Bolsheviks. However, they tend to be very much in the margins of the political system.

One of the key aspects of the contemporary Russian socio-political situation is the weakness of the traditional working class organizations, especially trade unions. The problem in Russia is that the change in the political system has done nothing to change the role of trade unions within business. The old trade unions are still drawing on company resources and performing managerial functions. To a large extent their still considerable resources of property and legal privileges dependon the state authorities. On the other hand, capitalist development has brought an increase in the potential for industrial conflict. New trade unions emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, they had a weak institutional basis and this led them to turn to political patronage and participation in institutions of social partnership as the means of institutional reproduction. The 1990s saw a remarkable convergence between the traditional and the new trade unions in their structures and forms of activity. The legitimacy of business trade unions has been further undermined by the fact that their role as the beneficent provider of social benefits has been eroded. When grievances develop into overt industrial conflict, the trade union typically tries to dissuade workers from taking any kind of collective action and will at best appeal to the courts or political bodies to redress their individual grievances.
Erosion of power resources, as well as structural contradictions in trade unions, make a fundamental contribution to the demobilization of rank and file.

According to official statistics, strikes have almost disappeared during the last six years. This is partly due to new labor legislation which makes official strikes very complicated. But even illegal strikes are rare because of the weak micro level structural conditions of the trade unions. In the 1990s we could see strong political strikes. This is not the case in Putin’s Russia.

As far as civil society in general is concerned, the boom in the late 1980s was followed by a slump in the first decade of post-communist politics; the activism in associations was in particularly dramatic decline. However, one should not exaggerate the weakness of Russian civil society. According to the federal registration office, by the end of 2008there were approximately 655,000 civil society organizations registered in Russia, which has142 million people. To put Russia in a wider context – for instance, in Finland, which has five million inhabitants, there are approximately 117,000 registered civil society organizations, while the United States (with a population of more than 300 million) has around 1.5 million civil society organizations. The specificity of Russia is mainly in the role of the civilian organizations. During the Putin and Medvedev regime, although the leaders paid lip service to the term of civil society, a growing number of groups that were informally called GONGOS (government organized non-governmental organizations) appeared. Professional organizations for the middle class have, in most cases, followed this path as well. They seem to work in a “constructive spirit” with the government, as well as with the regional and local authorities. Survey results show a low level of party membership in general. However, they suggest that members of the middle class are increasingly willing to promote their careers by joining the Yedinaya Rossiya party. It remains to be seen whether the demonstrations have changed this. It should be remembered how significant the internal divisions in the communist party turned out to be in the collapse of the Soviet system.

The working class is quite weak in terms of its organization and there are no real left-wing projects. This results in an American model no longer being an unlikely scenario in Russia, given the stronger and more stable position of the middle classes. In the United States this situation has been based on the country occupying a very special status in the hub of world order and an exceptionally high level of affluence. And, as much as we praise the middle class activism in street demonstrations, we should not forget the other side of the coin. Middle class projects that heavily stress the difference between performance and planning at the level of the labor process, and which aim to create highly differentiated educational structures are certainly not unknown in Russia. The more that market resources are decisive for access to education and healthcare, the more this kind of development is promoted. In this alternative, the interests of the middle class and the working class appear rather antagonistic because the middle class has the market capacity for welfare services, and the working class simply does not.

All in all, the fiscal conservatism of Russian economic policy, the lack of strong political or trade union organizations among the working class, and symbolic reference to middle class interests all seem to be characteristic features of the contemporary hegemonic project in Russia. On the other hand, rising living standards and creating order out of the chaos of the 1990s help to legitimize the contemporary political elite in Russia in the eyes of the ordinary working class. This American model will, however, remains a poor man’s version if the Russian economy fails to diversify and modernize its basic structures.
As far as democracy is concerned, Russia has made three modest but significant steps forward. These are:

United Russia’s undisputable loss in the elections
The change in the level of political activism
The moderate reaction of the elite, which could open up for a genuine dialog with the opposition.

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