What keeps Putin in power?

Russian society has a profound desire for order. Few will criticise the leader for exercising power, as those who do will have to face the consequences.

In the evenings, President Vladimir Putin is on the television newscast, telling the Russian people how social issues should be solved. As the ruler, he holds a noble position.

"When you see that day after day, you start to believe it. It's a performance of power," Markku Kivinen, research director at the Aleksanteri Institute, said at the Mystery of Russia discussion, which was held at the Think Corner of the University of Helsinki in September.

Putin remains in power year after year — similarly to Urho Kekkonen, a former Finnish president who ruled Finland for 26 years. For nearly two decades, it seems that Putin's power has only grown. He also enjoys great popularity in the polls. At its highest, his approval rating was close to 90%, but it fell down to 66% this autumn.

The Western outsider struggles to comprehend how the Russian president perceives the world. What is Putin's doctrine?

An accidental leader

When Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, no one expected him to remain in power for long. He didn’t seem like anything special: a bland bureaucrat with a career in the KGB security agency, who later headed the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB).

President Boris Yeltsin and his circle had selected Putin to serve as prime minister, but many assumed that Putin was only holding the seat until the next person could be chosen.

"As a character, Putin suited the expectations of Yeltsin and his circle," says Vladimir Gel'man, a professor of Russian policy at the University of Helsinki.

However, Putin's first years as prime minister coincided with a significant economic boom. In the early 2000s, the Russian economy grew at an annual rate of 7%. Putin had provided the law and order that the country craved. His popularity is primarily linked to the increase in the material wealth of the population.

"This happens everywhere in the world: if the economy is doing well, the citizens approve of their leader. And Putin is no exception," states Gel'man.

How to seize power

After Putin and his supporters rose to power, they succeeded in gradually amassing more authority. Putin suspended the gubernatorial and mayoral elections. He had a hand in the reorganisation of the political parties in Russia and the creation of the current ruling party, United Russia.

Putin took most of the national and regional politicians under his tutelage. But above all, he managed to gain control of Russia's mainstream media.

"It's no wonder Putin's in power — there's no one able to compete with him," Gel'man says.

Silence the opposition

In Russia, members of the opposition have been imprisoned, poisoned and murdered. One of Putin's more vocal critics, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, was shot near the Kremlin in 2015. Five people were convicted of the murder, but the legal proceedings have been criticised. According to Nemtsov's family, the murder was politically motivated.

In addition to the opposition, NGOs have faced harsh times during Putin's reign. Their work has been restricted, for example by including organisations receiving international funding on a list of foreign agents. The state-controlled media is becoming increasingly hostile towards NGOs.

Academic freedom is also at risk. The European University at St. Petersburg lost its teaching license in 2016. After fighting the authorities for two years, the university regained its license this autumn. There have been suspicions in the media that the licence was revoked due to the University's reputation for liberalism and critical thinking.

The terrible 90s

Where does this desire for authoritarian policy come from? One explanation can be found in recent history. The 1990s were an economic disaster for Russia. The life expectancy of Russian citizens decreased. No other industrial country has experienced such a dramatic shift.

"In Russia, the life expectancy for men is similar to that in India, even though the standard of living in Russia is ten times higher," Kivinen points out.

According to Russia's current power elite, nothing good happened in the 1990s. Invoking the image of a "lost decade" has been a cornerstone of contemporary ideology, believes Tomi Huttunen, a professor of Russian literature and culture.

Control and power over the media

For decades, Russian television networks have been constructing an ideology based both on anti-Americanism and the concept of a period of chaos. Historically, Russia has experienced many tumultuous periods, for example in the 17th century and again in the 1920s, after the Russian revolution.

"The 'period of disarray' discourse is very effective. If the 1990s were a complete chaos from beginning to end, any alternative is better — even a system moving towards totalitarian power which demands strict control," Huttunen explains.

Over the course of the 2000s, the politics of television programming has intensified. Nationalistic Soviet and war films are popular, along with talk shows where foreign policy is discussed from the perspective of the political elite.

"The current kind of TV programming did not come around overnight. It's been allowed to change gradually."

Changing values

In the 1990s, there was talk of a new Russia which would join the democratic tradition. This mindset still existed the early 2000s. However, soon after the discussion about values took a turn for the conservative.

"Putin is flexible. Some might say, cynical. If an idea does not suit his agenda, the idea can be changed or amended," Gel'man says.

"If liberalism suits him, he will be a liberal. If nationalism suits him, he will be a nationalist."

In his key speeches, Putin has begun to quote Ivan Ilyin, a Russian conservative thinker from the early 20th century. Ilyin speculated what would happen to Russia after the revolution. He wanted to build a new idea of Russia, one with religious roots and a core of nationalistic sentiment.

According to Ilyin, the main duty in constructing Russian nationalism is to make sure that the best men rise to the top of society — men who are dedicated to Russia.

If such men could be elected quickly, Russia could be reborn within a few years. Failing this, Russia would descend into chaos.

Ilyin's book predicting Russia's post-revolutionary future is probably a fixture on the nightstands of every Putin subordinate, suggests Michel Eltchaninoff in his book Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin.

Philosophical support

Putin also has his officials read Nikolai Berdyaev, a Ukrainian religious and political thinker. An institute close to the Kremlin hastily put together a course on Berdyaev in 2014 after Putin quoted him in a speech.

The purpose of the course was to show that conservatism can steer Russian policy, and that there are great philosophers supporting this kind of thinking.

“If you want to prove your own exceptional nature, what better way to do it than to use Russian philosophers? But as Michel Eltchaninoff demonstrates, the texts of the philosophers are edited to only include phrases that best support the political agenda,” says Katri Pynnöniemi, an assistant professor of Russian security policy.

Not fair!

In his book All the Kremlin’s Men, the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar describes how Putin was disappointed by the dishonesty of many Western leaders at the beginning of his presidential term. For example, Americans may talk about democracy, and negotiate oil deals with the authoritarian leader of Kazakhstan at the same time.

Pynnöniemi believes that Putin's current policy is rooted in an experience of unfairness. This is why the primary goal of Russia's official foreign policy is to bolster the country's position as a superpower.

"In Putin's mind, being strong means being taken seriously," she says.

If a country wants to be strong, it will often invest in military force.

"There is a firm belief in Russia that major powers have more rights than smaller countries which are in a subservient position to their more powerful neighbours," Pynnöniemi explains.

Big countries rule

A paradox is created: as Russia strives for equal treatment, its actions are eroding trust in the concept of equality in international relations.

Russia doesn't ratify regulations that would enable equality between large and small nations. Russia's idea of equality is not one between all other countries but one in relation to other major powers, such as China and the United States.

"For Putin, power is paramount. He wants to be a key player in global politics, someone who must be involved in order for important decisions to be made," says Gel'man.

A long memory

Pynnöniemi is currently studying the image Russia has of its adversaries. After the year 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, the idea that Western powers threaten the unity of the country has become increasingly prevalent in Russia. The conflict with the West has made interpretations of Russia's position in the world more extreme.

There are two main reasons for the intensification of the conflict between the West and Russia. Firstly, the historical background. Russia has a long memory: European countries have tried to conquer Russia time and again. This is why Russia sees itself as the underdog, fighting against the technologically superior Europe.

The concerns are heightened by the fact that there is no geographical barrier between Russia and Europe, such as a mountain range, to protect from a Western assault.

At the same time, Russia wants to obscure its role in precipitating the wars in Ukraine and Syria.

"The war in Ukraine is depicted as Russia trying to rescue fellow countrymen, instead of telling how things actually are: that Russian troops are occupying a part of Ukraine in a military operation, and they are assisting troops that are engaged in combat in eastern Ukraine," Pynnöniemi says.

Russia is systematically maintaining a narrative in which the EU and the United States are responsible for the conflict.

What will come after Putin?

According to the Russian constitution, Putin's final presidential term will end in 2024.

"I do not expect Putin to leave his position voluntarily. My understanding is that Putin wants to be in power for as long as possible. The constitution can be changed," Gel'man points out.

Lately, Putin's popularity has dipped slightly. The war in Ukraine continues, and economic sanctions are having an impact on the wellbeing of the citizens. Russia's annual economic growth has been around one per cent for a decade. The minimum age for old-age pension was recently raised by five years, which did not please Putin's supporters.

The Russian leader, be it Putin or someone else, has to have an opinion on many conflicts troubling Russian society. The Russian economy is dependent on oil while the rest of the world is trying to get rid of it.

The welfare system is in crisis, but citizens expect services; the courts are developing, but corruption and preferential treatment of the elite continue to thrive.

No country is an island

Anti-conservative sentiments are also emerging in Russia. The demonstrations against Putin that began in 2011 continued last year, and members of the liberal opposition saw success in the previous local elections.

Russia is not synonymous with its government.

"Conservatism would require the country to close itself off in a peculiar world of its own, but this is not really possible in our modern world. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is not a closed society," Kivinen states.

"People, information and political movements can move freely across the border these days," he points out.

Vladimir the Great

One of the cornerstones of Putin's doctrine is that the president does not work alone. He has his circle and his circle has him.

Pynnöniemi emphasises that as power has become more centralised and the significance of democratic institutions has diminished, securing a position in the inner circle has become an overriding motivation. Security officials and ministries are competing against one another for the best place in the sun.

Zygar's All the Kremlin's Men describes an elite that supports its leader:

"Every day, dozens, if not hundreds, of people are deliberating what kinds of decisions Vladimir Putin should make. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin himself is deliberating what kinds of decisions he should make to be popular, to be understood and accepted by the vast, collective Vladimir Putin."

The Kremlin and the church

When Russian society stabilised and began to function in the early 2000s, Russian values took a turn for the conservative.

"Traditional religious values and the role of the Church gained prominence. The percentage of Russians belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church has grown from 20 to 80," Research Director Markku Kivinen says.

One significant turning point was 2012, when Russians held major demonstrations to protest Dmitri Medvedev's re-election as prime minister and Putin's as president. The switch orchestrated by the Kremlin did not please the people.

"The increasingly intense demonstrations were a crisis which motivated Putin's closest supporters to start thinking of a new ideological message. The Church emerged as a natural partner," says Kaarina Aitamurto, a docent of the study of religions.

A closer relationship has benefitted both parties. The Church is an esteemed institution and consequently an attractive partner for the powers that be. At the same time, the Church and its new patriarch, Kirill, was trying to gain more political influence.

Foreign policy is also involved. Since the beginning of the 2000s, Russia has been trying to generate a multipolar model of foreign policy. It has gone to the other BRICS countries for support — Brazil, India, China and South Africa — as well as the Muslim world.

"Russia is presenting itself as a champion of the conservative world. It claims that Western liberal thinking has gone too far and that the West is trying to force its values on others, including Russia," Aitamurto explains.

The article was originally published in Finnish in the Y/10/18 issue of Yliopisto-lehti.