Support for the Kremlin does not appear to be unwavering in the long term.
In an interview with Diplomaatia, Abbas Gallyamov, former speechwriter for Russian president Vladimir Putin, describes the Kremlin’s greatest short-term problem: the people of Russia cannot live in an emotionally heightened state indefinitely—due to a decline in living standards, exaltation will slowly be replaced first by apathy and then by irritation.
Gallyamov first worked in Putin’s speech-writing team from 2000 to 2001 in the presidential administration, and then from 2008 to 2010 in the government when Putin served as prime minister. According to Gallyamov, the speech-writing team consists of about 15 members.
Gallyamov left Putin’s team to work with Boris Nemtsov as press manager of the Union of Right Forces. After Gallyamov’s second spell with Putin’s team he left to work as the deputy head of the administration of Rustem Khamitov, who had been elected president of Bashkortostan. Gallyamov currently works as a political consultant in Ufa(capital of Bashkorostan) and comments on Russian domestic policy in Moscow’s leading daily newspapers as a political scientist.
Diplomaatia: The Kremlin has clearly begun to devise a so-called new agenda. The issue of the “retrieval” of the Crimea has been exhausted for Russians and is no longer sufficiently effective. How would you describe the main thrust of the Kremlin’s new policy? What are the Kremlin’s objectives with regard to this?
Gallyamov: The new policy is clearly focused on internal development, domestic issues. The Kremlin’s audience is no longer interested in events in Ukraine and opposition to the United States; these no longer resonate with the general sentiment. [This autumn, the Levada-Center registered a record high negative attitude among Russians towards the United States—71% deemed the US role in the world negative.—JP] More attention will now be devoted to what is happening in Russia itself. This does not mean that the Kremlin will forget about foreign policy. Not at all! It is currently ideally suited to the consolidation of society, because it allows the Kremlin to play on two classic archetypes to the maximum—“Russia is under enemy siege, so everyone has to unite and put aside internal disagreements”. Thus, in situations where circumstances allow—say, ISIS commits another atrocity or something equally dramatic happens—they will most definitely use it to their advantage. [The interview was conducted in mid-October.—JP] At the same time, the Kremlin has clearly realised that Russians’ interest in external events is in decline and therefore it is high time to tackle domestic issues in depth.
This new strategy could be called “putting the house in order”. Society is convinced that senior officials are completely corrupt—ergo, Putin is beginning to fight this corruption. Criminal cases will be brought and high-profile arrests will follow—especially among high-ranking regional officials, because people do not have much love for such “pot-bellied local bigwigs”. They are the ones in line to receive exemplary punishments. [In the past year, the arrests of the governors of Sakhalin and Komi were turned into sensational media events, and almost the entire regional administration of Komi was arrested in September.—JP]
And how long will this work?
It is definitely going to work for some time. People will eventually get tired of it, of course. This will lead to a situation where people can only be convinced by an actual rise in living standards. However, this is where [Putin’s] policy comes into conflict with the economy. “Establishing order” will unavoidably increase the political influence of the siloviki [Russian for security force officials] in the Kremlin, which doesn’t mix well with investment and economic growth.
Do you believe that the fight against corruption will reach Putin’s inner circle, or is it only for show? Was the dismissal of Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russian Railways, also part of the new strategy?
The exact reasons for Yakunin’s resignation remain unclear. According to one version, the reason was, indeed, corruption. Allegedly, Yakunin did not understand that times have changed and he could not and should not behave like he used to. It may be true. The problem with Putin is that he has acted on the principle of “I will not turn my own people in, no matter what” for so long that nobody will believe his plans are genuine for a long time, even if he really is going to fight against corruption in earnest. People will still see it as a PR stunt.
Corruption holds a very important place in the model of Russian society. It serves as a basis for governance and management systems as well as business, since there seems to be no alternative. If there really is a genuine fight against corruption, to what degree might this lead to systemic changes in Russia?
Yes, the fight against corruption brings with it serious conflicts within the elite. A familiar and important question will arise in Russia: “Who are the judges, anyway?” Who is going to fight against corruption? The siloviki? Are they really known for their conscientiousness and adherence to principles? No, they are not; everyone knows that they are actually one of the most corrupt professional organisations in the country. The criminal cases brought in order to investigate corruption are currently viewed as a showdown between clans. Consequently, it is evident that the elite will not come to an agreement on who is going to be punished for corruption and how. We see a fight between different groups who are using the anti-corruption agenda for their own ends.
If the Donbass conflict indeed ends with Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” returning under Ukrainian rule, how will this influence the domestic situation in Russia? What effect will it have on Putin’s personal approval ratings?
It all depends on nuances and interpretation. If the return is accompanied by some elements of self-government or federalism, it is not very hard for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to present this as yet another victory for Putin. However, our people will definitely welcome the triumph of peace and the end of the war with satisfaction. Of course, it must be noted that the ranks of Putin supporters among the most radical part of society will dwindle, but that segment is small and easily sacrificed from the Kremlin’s perspective. Moreover, Russia does not have another hero who would win these radical voters over from Putin. The Kremlin is not likely to even give this [hero] a chance to enter the picture. However, without a leader, the most they can do to express their discontent is simply not to vote. But such behaviour is not a threat to the powers that be.
How strong would you say nationalist sentiment is in society now? It rocketed after the Crimea was annexed by Russia and the Novorossiya project was initiated.
First of all, it is customary in Russia to use the term “patriotism” rather than “nationalism”. For us, “nationalism” represents everything with an ethnic background. However, the subject of ethnic nationality has been completely forgotten in Russia over the past 18 months. The decision to reunite the Crimea is supported equally by Russians, Bashkirs and Buryats, and they all hate the United States equally.
From a formal perspective, these patriotic feelings are as strong as they were six months ago when events in [Eastern] Ukraine were just starting. However, compared to the previous year, there’s been a very important change—emotions have almost completely disappeared. While a year ago, members of focus groups [of sociological studies] were ready to scream their lungs out to argue and prove that Putin was right, and that they had the right to take the Crimea, that willingness has essentially now gone. The respondents still agree that Putin is doing well and that Russia is a great and infallible power, but now people will formally state their agreement and go no further than that. They are exhausted. People cannot forever remain in this kind of emotionally heightened state, like we had last summer.
Might such emotional exhaustion pose some sort of threat to the Kremlin?
Yes, this is unpleasant news to the authorities. They must look for a new driving force and change the agenda. But this is rather difficult, because when you change the agenda in society, it is as if your previous merits are declared null and void and you have to start again from square one. However, this is not a sign of a systematic political crisis in any way! The Kremlin still has full control over the political landscape—there is no single institution in the country or in the media that could challenge it; the vast majority of voters take ideas from sources controlled by the authorities.
Do I understand correctly that you do not see nationalism as an issue? Do you think that a strong Russian nationalist movement is still unlikely to emerge even after such a rise, because the authorities simply will not allow it to happen?
Of course it’s possible that the language of hatred that currently dominates the Russian political sphere could heighten the question of ethnic nationality in some way as attention shifts from foreign policy to domestic issues. The people who previously blamed the [US] State Department for all their troubles may now [in a time of recession] accuse the foreigners who have flocked into their country. However, this is still a theoretical threat. None of the sociological studies conducted so far show that people want such an interpretation of events. The history of Russia does not support this kind of development, either. Russians are too statist to turn into plain nationalists. In theory, the rise of Russian nationalism could be a reaction to the nationalist wave among smaller ethnic nationalities—Tatars, Chechens, Yakuts. But the growth of nationalist tendencies cannot be seen even among them. It must be understood that nationalism seriously discredited itself in Russia in the 1990s, and it is not likely to rear its head in the next few years. The [Russian] nationalist movement is marginalised and headless. Moreover, the Kremlin is still too powerful to assume that it could not handle Russian nationalists, even if they suddenly decided to become active.
How is Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict going to influence domestic policy?
People see our operation in Syria as a great success right now. However, success in foreign policy always leads to two things: society rallies around the flag [this denotes a rapid but usually short-term increase in the state leadership’s popularity upon the emergence of an international conflict—Ed.] and the so-called bandwagon effect [people prefer to form opinions and behave in accordance with what they believe the majority is doing—Ed.]. In this situation, the authorities’ approval ratings increase and support for the opposition decreases. The discontented prefer to remain silent and only the voices of excited supporters can be heard. In short, everyone is thrilled and proud of their country.
Is this kind of enthusiasm likely to change soon?
If circumstances allow events in Syria to be interpreted as a victory for us, then not very soon. Putin will then cement his status as a firm and successful leader. However, if the Bashar al-Assad regime should fall, everything will naturally become slightly more complicated, because a defeat delegitimises the operation at one blow. But I believe that even then [Putin’s] approval ratings would not fall quickly; previous events have built up too big a reserve. Moreover, as I said earlier, people’s interest in foreign policy events is decreasing, and in a month’s time they will already have forgotten that Syria was once governed by someone called Assad, who was in turn backed by Putin.
While the subject of Syria remains unclear, the recession in Russia is painfully obvious despite Putin’s optimism. [This is not unique, if we recall Estonian prime minister Andrus Ansip stubbornly denying the situation in 2008.—JP] The decline in living standards cannot be overcome without having some effect, even in an authoritarian state. What effect will it have on domestic policy in the future?
It is unlikely that anything will change in the short term. Living standards have been in decline for a while, but Putin’s ratings have only risen throughout. The triumphalist messages forced on people by official propaganda appear to explain that they are not suffering in vain, but for a grand and important cause—strengthening the power of a great country. People will cling on to these explanations with all their might. Because rejecting them would mean admitting that everything—the triumphant joy, the burst of emotion—was for nothing and their suffering is meaningless. No one would like to experience such bitter disappointment.
I therefore believe that the main threat to the Kremlin during next year’s elections [for the State Duma in September, at the same time as several gubernatorial elections—JP] is that United Russia’s approval rating is going to fall slightly and that the ratings of the official opposition, mainly of the communists, will rise as a result, and two or three current governors may not be re-elected. [This autumn, a governor installed by the Kremlin lost at the polls for the first time. This was in the Irkutsk Oblast, where the governorship went to the communist candidate.—JP] However, this is just a loss for the official opposition, which does not threaten the foundations of the regime in any way. Right now there is no hope for the radical opposition—[Alexei] Navalnyi, [Mikhail] Kasyanov and others. Even voters who are dissatisfied with their life are not yet ready to vote for them.
But what about the longer term?
Things become less rosy in the longer perspective. As we know, over time drops of water can hollow out a stone, and similarly, everyday problems will drain all this exhilaration and enthusiasm from people. In time, this will be replaced by apathy, which leads to irritation. Essentially, this process has already begun. Sooner or later, society will find itself in the same situation as in the 1980s, when people’s main demand was change.
Which of these negative developments—recession, the “handover” of Donbass or possible failure in Syria—could have the most negative consequences for the Kremlin? How likely is a so-called “perfect storm” from the Kremlin’s perspective if all these negative circumstances coincide?
As I said earlier, none of these factors would prove fatal for the Kremlin on their own, but it could become a serious issue if they come together. The Donbass and Syria are currently used to distract people from real economic problems. They are offered “circuses” instead of “bread”. But what happens when the “circuses” turn out to be a deceit? Instead of the promised victory there is only defeat …
The biggest issue here is that the general quality of political leadership is deteriorating throughout the country. Anti-Western hysteria even led to the marginalisation of the conditional liberals currently in power and strengthened the position of the conservatives. This, in turn, caused a reduction in the quality of the leadership’s decisions. Balance and moderation have not been seen as respectable in recent years, as exaltation and passion have pushed them aside. However, it must be understood that political institutions cannot simply be replaced with emotions. A social mechanism as complex as Russia cannot be governed like a never-ending talk show.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.