Interview: Putin’s crisis of legitimacy

A referendum characterised by unprecedented falsification theoretically clears the way for Putin to stay as Russian president until 2036. But as Ilya Matveev explained to Nick Evans from rs21, this move will do nothing to stem growing popular anger with the regime.

Stand advertising the referendum on corrections to the constitution. Photo: E.N. Solozhenitsin.

rs21: Please can you explain the context for the referendum?

Ilya Matveev: The whole thing started in January this year when Putin announced changes to the constitution in his annual address to the Russian parliament. At that point, it was not clear what he wanted to do. The one thing that was clear was that he had to solve the problem of 2024. His term ends then, and according to the existing Constitution, he could not run for three terms in a row.

He could solve this problem in different ways. One option would be to give the presidency to someone like Dmitrii Medvedev [President, 2008-12, Prime Minister, 2012-20]. The problem with that is that if he gives power to Medvedev for six years, he will be quite old in 2030.

Another solution was the ‘Kazakh scenario’. In Kazakhstan, [Nursultan] Nazarbaev had been president since 1990. He became head of the national security council for life [in 2018], with basically unlimited powers. But the presidency passed to another guy [Qasym-Jomart Toqaev, in 2019]. This is what most people thought Putin would do.

So everyone was discussing amendments to the Constitution. Then suddenly Valentina Tereshkova – who was the first woman to fly into space – a very respected person, and now a member of the State Duma from Putin’s United Russia Party, says, ‘You know what? I also have an amendment. My amendment is that Putin can run for President a third time.’ Then Putin comes to the Duma and says, ‘Actually, that’s a good idea.’

Suddenly everyone understood what was going on. It was the simplest and most brutal way possible of solving the problem of 2024. Before that, Putin had always said that he would not violate the constitution and stand for an extra term. It was a shock. Everyone thought he would choose a more sophisticated strategy. At the time, I had said this was one of the options but that I didn’t think it was going to be his choice.

Then Putin said: ‘Look. Technically, I don’t need a referendum. I have a constitutional majority in the parliament. But because I am a democrat, I will ask the people.’ The problem is that, this kind of referendum has no function in Russian law. If you want to change the constitution without the parliament, then you need to call a Constitutional Assembly. He never did this. He just said the parliament agrees on these amendments, and then called the Constitutional Court. The latter made its decision in just one day, even though there were several pages of amendments. It took them just one day to accept them all, including the one allowing Putin to stay president. No problem. All good. So from the start, this referendum is kind of fake, it’s just for show.

Nevertheless, they decided to go ahead. It was regulated by special laws because it’s not a normal referendum. The whole process was as botched as the decision to stay as president for life. Even by Russian standards, this was not a normal election in Russia. It was completely unhinged.

First of all, all public agitation in support or against the amendments was prohibited. You did not have space on TV to argue against the amendments. At the same time everyone was speaking in favour of the amendments on TV, of course. If you wanted somehow to agitate against the amendments then you needed to do it on your own. In St. Petersburg, some people printed stickers calling for a no vote and the whole printing house was raided by the police. They tried to prosecute people for extremism. The no campaign was limited to the internet and those kinds of small scale activities.

So then there was the discussion about what to do. There were two positions: to boycott or to vote no. Unfortunately, both were bad options. If you vote no then you legitimate the whole vote. But even if you boycott, they can still fabricate your vote. In Russia, electoral observers usually play an important role. It’s not normally that effective, but you can try. But in this case, the referendum was held for one week. This made it impossible to cover all the polling stations everywhere for seven days. They also put polls everywhere. People voting out of the boot of a car. A person sitting on the street with a box. Voting no or boycotting: it was kind of meaningless either way.

Still, there was a strong desire among ordinary people to go and vote no. The actual figures from independent exit polls show that over 50% voted no in Moscow and over 60% in St. Petersburg. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, pre-vote surveys showed that 35-40% of the people intended to vote ‘no’. I would say, among the opposition, the people who wanted a boycott were in the minority. Although I still believe the mass boycott would have been marginally better because the whole thing was such a sham.

rs21: Why had Putin’s system created such a crisis of succession in the first place?

IM: Political scientists call the regime in Russia ‘electoral authoritarianism’. There are no democratic elections – you cannot replace Putin. But they serve an important purpose. Putin can always say I won with 77% of the vote. I am the complete master of Russian politics. Elections are actually very useful to the regime. Even though the regime is authoritarian and the elections are falsified.

If you have elections, then you need to have some kind of constitution, and some kind of rules. The Constitution placed a limit on two successive terms. In 2008, Putin solved this problem very easily. He had served two terms: they were still four-year terms then. He said Dmitrii Medvedev would be his successor. But then, after four years, when he said I will stand again, people were frustrated by the cynical way in which he traded places with Medvedev when it suited him. This ignited the first wave of political protests in Russia.

2024 is a bigger challenge because Putin will be old in 2030, when another ‘placeholder president’ finishes his term. Sections of the elite will be thinking – ok, so there’s going to be an election. It’s going to be controlled by Putin. But what if? Maybe we can put forward some person. Maybe we can win, and then we will have all the spoils.

So in a system of ‘electoral authoritarianism’, elections become a point of contention. Still, there would have been ways to solve the situation without breaking the Constitution. But for some reason, Putin chose this course. Maybe it’s because he’s afraid that any kind of complex arrangement could be dangerous. So he chose the simplest strategy. In doing exactly the thing that he said he would not do. But this looks very bad, even to those who were not politicised.

rs21: Why did Putin perceive a risk that a section of the elite might pose a threat?

IM: Some of the oligarchs have been hurt by the confrontation with the west, and Putin’s more geopolitically oriented strategy. Of course, the regime tries to placate them by redistributing oil rents to the oligarchs. But, at the same time, they are not happy that their assets can be seized in foreign countries, in Britain and the US. They lose export licences, they lose access to technology, they lose financing from global markets. They are becoming disengaged from the global economy. The American empire has the power to do this to them. They are very minor compared to transnational capital.

So the oligarchs are not happy. They try to find ways to reintegrate themselves into the global market without showing disloyalty to the regime. For them it’s a tightrope. If they could, they might try to find a successor who would be more moderate in terms of foreign policy. They could try to find an alliance with liberal parts of the opposition.

rs21: That gives a sense of the threat from above. What about opposition from below?

IM: The opposition has existed since 2011 without interruption. We have had an opposition with its own organisations, its own resources, its own activities. Before that, popular support for the opposition was essentially non-existent.

The first movement was defeated simply because Putin was re-elected and so it lost its momentum. Then there was a huge wave of repression. The strategy was very simple. When you go to an unsanctioned rally, you risk going to jail. That’s pretty scary. If you are beaten by the cops, and you respond in any way, then you will end up in jail – not just for ten days, but for a couple of years at least.

More importantly there was Crimea, which totally marginalised the opposition. The ‘rally around the flag’ effect had a big impact. When sections of the opposition started to go to rallies with Ukrainian flags, it made it very easy for the government to say they are internal enemies. So for several years, we were in a very dark period of conservative nationalist consensus. It was very difficult for the opposition to do anything, even though those years were the years of economic crisis.

Then [Alexei] Navalnyi re-energised the opposition. He brought a very populist language of us versus them, rather than just focusing on electoral procedure. In 2017 he made a movie about Dmitrii Medvedev which was a huge hit. It showed Medvedev owned property, houses, yachts, vineyards worth at least 1bn dollars. He just looked like a caricature of a bourgeois in a top hat.

The crucial moment though was the pension reform in 2018. Putin had said he would never raise the pension age, and then he did. The rating of Putin and the government went down to pre-Crimea levels. The pension reform ended the period of nationalist euphoria. Finally.

Protests against the pension reforms in St. Petersburg. 9 September 2018.

So we live in new period with a re-energised, populist opposition, less liberal, less focused on laws and procedures, more focused on directly attacking the elite. And the population is not so much enthralled by nationalism as before.

The other thing is that Navalnyi should be credited with creating ‘smart voting’, a very advanced strategic voting scheme. Elections in Russia are fraudulent. But you can still win. Maybe you can’t get your preferred candidate elected (because he or she will be blocked from participating), but Navalnyi showed with careful targeting of resources you could get the second most popular candidate after Putin’s United Russia party elected. Last year, this tactic smashed the elections in Moscow city council. The authorities blocked most of the opposition candidates from taking part in the elections. But with smart voting, he almost managed to overturn the United Russia’ Party’s majority, mainly by getting Communist Party candidates elected. Which is quite funny given all the campists in the west who say Navalnyi that is a friend of Kissinger’s or whatever.

At the same time, people have been hit extremely hard by coronavirus. The Russian government has been very conservative in providing support. It’s not been like western governments. It is the best pupil of the IMF: they are determined to prevent a budget deficit, even now. We have one of the harshest quarantines in the world. Most small businesses were closed for a long time. Restaurants are still closed. The economy is in shit. Everyone is unhappy. Then you have an opposition reenergised with more populist rhetoric, and helped by smart voting.

The problem is that the regime will tighten the screws even more. My main fear is that they will make every election in Russia like the one we have just had. This will makes ‘smart voting’ senseless. In the long term this will be bad for the regime. But in the short term, what will Navalnyi do? The Russian opposition has learned that you need to connect electoral strategy to a street strategy. If you destroy elections, that’s also a problem for street protests. I fear we will see even more repression, and the final destruction of all free press. The regime’s problem is that you cannot destroy YouTube. You can block it but people can still watch through VPN – but in any case, they’ve not blocked it yet. Just now, Navalnyi had a YouTube show watched by 150,000 people live. It’s like TV.

The next step is the regional elections in September and there will be smart voting, and there will probably be street protests after that. For now, though, there will be no street protests. It’s still completely restricted under Covid-19 legislation… even though they allowed the voting itself.

rs21: Can you talk about some of the other amendments voted on in the referendum, such as the ban on gay marriage?

IM: It’s very simple. The whole point of having these amendments was to allow Putin to stay for ever. In order to somehow hide this, they added all sorts of other stuff. It’s about this, it’s about that, it’s about indexing the pensions, it’s about banning gay marriage, which is not legal in Russia anyway. Another thing is that you voted for all of the amendments in one question. Do you support them all? Or do you reject them all?

So they say if you vote no, you don’t support adjusting pensions to inflation? What kind of monster are you? On the official website, they didn’t even mention the main point, even though of course people understand, people in Russia aren’t stupid. Then the funniest thing was that as soon as it was over, all the media said: look this was a vote of confidence in Putin.

At the same time, we do now have the mention of God in the constitution. We also have this thing that a marriage is between a man and a woman. And the President has new powers over the Constitutional Court. So all kinds of conservative bullshit was inserted because they saw fit. A democratic government would have to completely rewrite the Constitution.

rs21: You have talked about how hard Russian people have been hit by Covid-19. Can the opposition have any solutions to the economic hardships ahead?

IM: Navalyni proposed his own programme to support the people. This programme would equal one of the most generous western programmes: paying large sums to individuals, and supporting small businesses on a huge scale. Of course, it’s very easy for him to say, because he won’t have to implement it.

Eventually, the government did slightly increase its support – but only for families with children. But it was only focused on families with children, and it wasn’t not enough. Navalnyi seized this moment. He proposed his own programme. He called it five steps.

Ironically, Navalnyi’s most trusted economic advisor is the neoliberal economist Sergei Guriev. Guriev had supported Medvedev, but was banished in 2012. He became a professor in Paris, and was the chief economist at the neoliberal European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But then Guriev comes out and says he thinks Navalnyi’s Five Steps programme is great. So we should understand the opposition discourse is not left wing, but social populist. It’s part of a general trend. Your own guy talks about Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is the way the world is going. Keynesianism is back in fashion.

rs21: But Johnson is hardly serious about offering a ‘New Deal’. And as socialists we need to go further than Keynsianism anyway. How do socialists get a word in?

IM: Navalnyi’s economic thinking is not left-wing. We need to recognise this. Some of us on the left have been criticised as ‘Navalnyi supporters’, but we recognise very clearly that Navalnyi is not an ally of the left. He is a populist politician who is fighting for democracy because it offers him a path to power.

For instance, he proposes a windfall tax on the oligarchs, for people who benefited from privatisations. Navalnyi says they should pay a one-off tax. This is actually a very bad idea, because they’re off the hook once they’ve paid. It closes the question of privatisation forever. Meanwhile, he is not in favour of progressive taxation.

In Russia, we have had this crazy situation with a flat tax on all income. The regime had always held onto this flat tax. Recently, though, Putin announced they were going to raise income tax from 13% to 15% for the highest earners: those earning more than 5 million roubles per year (around $73,000). They project that this increase will only generate about $1 bn additional revenue. Putin says we will raise this tax and we will spend it all on sick children. We don’t actually know where it goes. But it’s supposedly earmarked for ‘children with grave and rare conditions’. It’s such a cynical manipulation of popular support for the progressive tax.

But Navalnyi is against even this limited progressive taxation. He says it will be impossible to administer in Russia: people will just evade. So Navalnyi’s populism is very superficial. He says that there are corrupt oligarchs in Russia, and then there are good businessmen. He talks about inequality, but for him the problem is corruption, the regime, not capitalism, the existence of big business itself. It’s all very superficial. You have bad oligarchs who he wants to let off the hook with his one-off tax and then you have good businessmen who would probably have even lower taxes under Navalnyi. How will he reconcile this with his social spending promises? Currently he’s not bothered.

So the left has its own job in Russia. You cannot escape it. Without the left, no one will advocate for true redistributive policies, real progressive taxation, real welfare state, real limits to the power of business. Without the left, no one will do it.


Ilya Matveev is a researcher and lecturer based in St Petersburg, Russia, and the co-host of the podcast ‘Political Diary’ (in Russian).


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