The state’s dominance over society
Whereas in the 1990s the Russian leadership, benefiting from the social disorganization, did not push it in any way, the situation changed after Vladimir Putin came to power. Firstly, through systematic restrictions, the regime brought under its control the opposition parties inherited from the past decade. The creation of new opposition organizations was initially reduced to fiction, since a real alternative position made it impossible to be officially registered, and then completely blocked, as the experience of the last organization of this kind, Navalny Headquarters, testifies. Secondly, the obstacles to the creation of public organizations independent of the state gradually grew and eventually became insurmountable after the introduction of such legal qualifications as “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations.”
Thirdly – this played the key role, in my view – the Putin regime succeeded, albeit not without significant effort, in suppressing freedom of the press. Given that the role of opposition parties and public organizations was already modest in the 1990s, media independent of the state became central to structuring citizens’ preferences, which made possible critical mass attitudes in relation to them.
As a result, the state’s dominance over society reached a degree that was not observed in the foreign authoritarian regimes mentioned above. Whereas opposition parties, civil society structures and independent media had already taken shape by the time democratization took place in Mexico, by and large there was only the opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood when it did in Egypt, while in Indonesia there were only public organizations, mostly student and trade union. But that was enough. In contemporary Russia, however, none of the above are present on a scale that would pose an immediate threat to the regime.
It is sometimes said that Russian society is depoliticized. This is generally true, though it needs qualification. A lack of deep interest in politics is a basic characteristic of any society. Political matters are usually far from most people’s everyday life. This in itself does not prevent a person from forming a clear view on who deserves support – the government or the opposition – by the time the main (for many, the only) political event, voting in elections, happens.
However, their views are not formed by innate intuition but rather on the basis of information received from political parties during election campaigns; gleaned from non-political civic activism and the social circles it spawns; and extracted from the media. If none of this is available, then politically relevant information acquires a one-sided nature and generates mass attitudes that translate into mass support for the regime as shown in public opinion polls.A demobilization regime
Of course, such support can be exclusively passive. Some observers have expressed bewilderment (perhaps mostly rhetorical) that during Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny there were no mass displays of support for Putin. The reaction of the majority of Russians, as it was occasionally expressed in the public space, varied from fear to curiosity, but nothing more (see more about this in Grigorii Golosov’s interview
). There is nothing surprising here, however – it is a regime that seeks to demobilize.
In the late USSR, the lack of active support for the communist regime was due in particular to the dilapidation of mobilization mechanisms – their transformation into empty formalities – whereas in contemporary Russia they are not even trying to create them.