The costs of Putin's cult of personality
Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.
November 22nd, 2011
09:56 AM ET

The costs of Putin's cult of personality

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.

Vladimir Putin’s personal ‘brand’ - of which the United Russia party is one strand - still dominates the Russian political scene. Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term is almost guaranteed. While this ensures near-term stability, it raises serious questions about the long-term viability of the political order he has helped build.

Democracies rely on effective ways to ensure that public opinion is channelled into government decision-making. Political parties help fulfill this function - at least in theory.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian politics has been dominated by two charismatic leaders - first Boris Yeltsin, then Putin. Neither showed much interest in developing strong institutions. Both preferred relying on personal networks for insider politics, and grand populist gestures for public audiences. The result is that although United Russia has dominated parliament since 1999, as an institution it has limited influence over government policy.

Parliamentary elections take place on December 4. In a recent nationwide poll by the respected Levada Centre, only 51% of those planning to vote said that they would choose United Russia. This time four years ago - at the same point in election cycle - that figure was 66%. Russians now seem to be struggling to find the motivation to vote at all. Over a third of United Russia supporters said they would vote for it ‘because it is the strongest party and the majority support it’. Nearly half of those planning to vote instead for the Communist Party cited support for its policies - only one fifth of United Russia voters could say the same.

In a separate Levada poll, 25% of respondents saw clear signs of a Putin personality cult, against 10% five years ago. In announcing that he would run for office with current President Dmitry Medvedev as his prime minister, Putin said that Medvedev would lead United Russia’s parliamentary election campaign. By doing so he clearly intends to shift blame onto his junior partner for what will be a poor showing. But both are experiencing something of a crisis of public confidence. Both Medvedev and Putin’s individual approval ratings have dropped from 80% last May to around 60%, and their disapproval rating has nearly doubled in that time.

The party has responded in two ways. First, it is downplaying expectations for December. Its secretary Sergei Neverov has said it would be satisfied with a ‘firm’ majority in the next parliament; on November 11, Medvedev said a ‘stable’ majority would suffice and that losing seats to rivals illustrated that Russia was a ‘functioning democracy’. Such statements are significant given that the party currently has a super-majority (above two-thirds of all seats). It is likely to lose this, and so the power to amend the constitution.

Second, the party has been experimenting with new ways to engage the Russian public. For the first time, it introduced primaries to select candidates in the regions, and said it was willing to debate with opposing candidates - without exposing its leaders to such debates.

Russian society is somewhat split. Putin’s rhetoric appeals to the low-income masses and the Medvedev presidency was an experiment in reaching out to the middle class minority. This attempted dual appeal strategy is increasingly at risk. As the middle class grows, it may demand more genuine political choice. Two-thirds of polled Russians say the country needs an opposition with ‘real influence’, something nearly half (43%) believe it currently lacks.

The ‘Right Cause’ movement’s failure leaves the liberal opposition without a party in next month’s elections. Liberal politicians are divided, not knowing whether to abstain (Garry Kasparov), vote but spoil the ballot (Boris Nemtsov) or vote for ‘tame’ opposition parties (Aleksei Navalny). Many believe that some results may be fixed and even Putin admirers may question why they should bother braving the cold to vote at all. In the short term, the Communist Party is one likely beneficiary of voter disenchantment.

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Topics: Analysis • Russia

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Putin would be well-advised to re-invent himself. When he came to power in March 2000, the world was different from to-day. The Chechnya war waged on. He made himself popular both at home and abroad as he pressed the U.S. to sign a treaty on nuclear cuts. It was a relief for Russia's defense budget and the ratification of START II was seen internationally as nuclear diplomacy. He was cooperative in abetting the U.S. in its war on terror by letting the Americans to fly over Russia and use bases in Usbekistan and Tajikistan.
    In 2012 Putin will face new challenges, like Russia's role in world politics and its relationship with the U.S. India and China. Also Russia has to modernise the country and enhance population growth.

    November 22, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  2. Cuervo Jones

    so he and Medvedev switch who's the top? how sweet

    November 23, 2011 at 11:49 am | Reply
  3. Yevgueni

    Russia does not have a middle class. I don’t know who gets these statistics. Kasparov and his supporters are in and out of jail almost on daily basis. Also, my mom worked the voting booths as volunteer ones and said that it is absolutely a disgrace as far as what is going at these voting stations. Bottom line is: oppositions will be ruthlessly crushed by the now standing government. No one but Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have the grasp on power. A country with such large natural resources has a very difficult road ahead of them. When so much wealth is involved in such a limited, non-producing country (I am talking about the natural resources, gas, oil), then the people in power will have hard time relinquishing these. Russia does not manufacture anything and its economy is S#$%.

    November 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
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