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Putin, the Potemkin president

Published: (Updated: ) in European News by .

Russian president’s desperate tactics are undermining his legitimacy among supporters.

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Riga.

On paper, Vladimir Putin has won: The outcome of last week’s vote on constitutional amendments allows him to stay in power until 2036.

In reality, the Russian president’s legitimacy has been grossly undermined. There is a real chance that he may not last beyond his current term.

For the past 20 years, Putin has successfully maintained the appearance of a genuinely popular, majoritarian leader. Yes, the Kremlin subdued all major television channels, clamped down on protest movements and rigged elections to be able to show more convincing levels of support. But all of that happened with the apparent, tacit consent of a majority of Russians, as reflected in regular surveys by fairly trustworthy pollsters.

This time, things are different. It’s far from clear today whether a majority of Russians truly supported Putin’s amendments. And more importantly, most Russians genuinely don’t know where the majority stands. Even by Russia’s own very lax standards, the vote didn’t remotely resemble a procedure that reflected the will of the people.

As British sociologist Sam Greene demonstrated in his book “Putin V. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia,” conformism is by far the most important psychological characteristic among Putin’s supporters.

Voting irregularities were far too obvious. Authorities lured people into polling stations by linking the vote to a “million-prize lottery.” There were virtually no independent observers (under the pretext of COVID-19 restrictions), and makeshift, mobile polling stations popped up everywhere, making oversight nearly impossible. Electoral researcher Sergey Shpilkin was widely quoted in Russia’s independent media identifying a whopping 20 million votes as “abnormal” and indicative of possible ballot-stuffing.

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These flagrant breaches did not go unnoticed, and highlighted a new reality to many of his supporters: that of his increasingly questionable legitimacy. For many Russians, this vote may be the point they started to question whether Putin is really as popular, and as inevitable, as he claims to be.

Still, it would be a mistake to expect anything to change immediately. The president’s approval ratings still soared as high as 89 percent after his surprise move to annex Crimea. It’s unlikely his legitimacy will be truly questioned until 2024 when his term ends.

But if Putin chooses to run again, it looks increasingly likely he will come across as a usurper — not only among the sizeable and vocal anti-Putin minority, but also among those who currently make up his core base.

As British sociologist Sam Greene demonstrated in his book “Putin V. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia,” conformism is by far the most important psychological characteristic among Putin’s supporters.

These are people who stick with the crowd; their radar is permanently tuned to its shifting coordinates. They are largely non-ideological and motivated by a sense of pragmatism: More than anything, it’s the huge boost in quality of life during Putin’s first decade in power that has kept them onside.

This pack psychology is driven by survival instincts. In Russia, where stories passed down from generation to generation are mostly ones of unspeakable suffering, people have inherited a fear of the future. Previous experience — including the tumultuous 1990s, when millions of families found themselves with barely anything to eat and divided by newly emerged borders following the collapse of the USSR — has shown them that it is safer to keep your head down.

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For many, the motto is: Stay with the crowd or you’ll get bulldozed by it. Whatever you do, don’t stand out.

How and when tacit, mass support for Putin’s rule will shift is still a mystery of collective psychology. The nature of conformism suggests it could be a dramatic one-off event, perhaps triggered by a random, or rather insignificant-seeming, development.

Growing skepticism about the moral authority of the West could also stand in the way of radical change. Unlike during Russia’s democratic revolution in August 1991, the West today — in the age of U.S. President Donald Trump, Brexit and rising support for far-right demagogues — has lost its shine.

Even among the most Western-minded Russians, there is deep mistrust of the West. Many fear that, if the country were to adopt a more Western-friendly outlook and move toward Europe, for example, it would be punished rather than welcomed with open arms. Given growing fear and mistrust of Russia in the West itself, this is not entirely irrational.

The idea Putin has pushed from the start of his rule roughly two decades ago — that the need to protect Russia trumps political freedom — is still very potent, and it’s likely that anyone who succeeds him will need to display at least some of his qualities.

If there is to be a real shift away from Putin, it will have to go hand in hand with positive signals from the West — that there is another, democratic course available, and that Russia’s pariah status is not irreversible.

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