At Some Point Almost Everyone will be in the Opposition in One Way or Another – We Just Have to Live to See it’
April 18, 2024
  • Konstantin Gaaze
  • Maria Zheleznova
In an interview, sociologist Konstantin Gaaze explains why Putin’s current form of legitimacy is very costly for his regime and why the “successor” model no longer makes sense. He also examines the likelihood of a “thaw” and the prospects for the Russian opposition in exile.
The original interview in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.
Vladimir Putin, reelected for another six years, and his defeated challengers, Vladislav Davankov, Leonid Slutsky and Nikolai Kharitonov (left to right).
Source: Wiki Commons
The last election was actually something of a ritual, and it seems that the only thing that surprised everyone was the result of the winner. Clearly, convincing and unconditional support of the people for President Putin had to be demonstrated, but 87% – what was that and why? Or maybe this is not very important at all?

From an administrative standpoint, it’s probably important. Some of those participating in the process were overachievers and some were not. From an “export” standpoint, it was to show his new closest allies how “cool” he is.

But not as a means of influencing public opinion within the country. Public opinion is not very interested in Putin’s ratings; they were given to him as a fact – by the war. While the war is going on, the ratings will be however much is needed. Whoever needs it, let them count.

Why does Putin need 87% in this wartime logic? Probably as a substitute for a battlefield victory and as part of a formula for peace, some form of “peace” he is contemplating. He understands that he must become “post-war,” a president of victory, one way or another he is trying to do something about that.

The situation at the front is an unstable thing; in the third year of the war this truth has been accepted. So, in the rhetoric and tone of the election campaign, the war seemed to have already been won and stabilized.

In 2011, the street did not believe in the election results, and this became a problem for the Kremlin. Now, no one cares about the believability of the results, probably neither the Kremlin nor the street?

Putin is more legitimate than legal. Since the constitutional reform, since Covid, the legal framework of power has drifted. The war is partly a product of this drift.

For society, violence itself is increasingly becoming the legal basis of the regime. Violence is becoming a living constitution. This kind of legitimacy differs from normal legitimacy in that this violence can be made a point of consensus – repression instead of reforms or some kind of positive national campaign. We do not know how many people in 2024 want more fascistization. Ten percent may be enough to make it happen.

But this is a very expensive legitimacy. It is instrumentally expensive – to wage war, maintain social benefits at an almost utopian level, drive import substitution with government orders, and so on.
With this extraordinary legitimacy, Putin is bringing a thaw-style reboot of his own system closer.
Protesters in Moscow. Alexei Navalny in the middle of the front row. March 2017.
Source: Wiki Commons
After this kind of legitimacy – when the regime makes obedience more likely through violence, and society gets used to violence as the only form of communication with the regime and learns that any contact with it will end in violence – everything will have to be humanized again so as to restore trust on some less expensive basis for the state.

A year ago, you and I talked about the fact that following the election, an important fork in the road, including for Putin himself, would be recognition or nonrecognition of the results by the West. Statements were made that the election was illegitimate, but there was no outright nonrecognition of the results. Because they need someone with whom to negotiate an end to the war, or is there something else here?

Nonrecognition was the only meaningful form of influence on Putin’s power. And the death of Alexei Navalny was, in essence, the last and most expensive argument in favor of nonrecognition. But the opposite happened: with Navalny’s death and the subsequent tricks with his body, Putin frightened his allies and enemies.

In a sense, the monstrous idea of jailing and sending [Navalny] to the Arctic Circle was a success, Putin had to be recognized, and precisely as such – as an absolute political evil.

Political arguments (“there is no one else to sign a peace with”) were not the decisive factor – a peace can always be signed by the military. Rather, it was another fear, more historically rooted [that played a role in the West’s refusal to not recognize Putin’s reelection]. Who will ensure security in northern Eurasia?

Nonrecognition would mean a bid for intervention, not necessarily in Russia – though it depends – but in the region for sure. Macron, when he seems to be playing out loud with the image of French soldiers in Odessa, has been throwing out exactly this idea. There is no collective will [to not recognize Putin as the legitimate leader of Russia] and there cannot be in the foreseeable future.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and President Putin. Source: Wiki Commons
After inauguration, the president must name a new/old prime minister – is there any point in changing him and generally shaking up the cabinet? Do we need to look at new appointments, if any, in the context of the search for a successor – or is it not time yet?

[Prime Minister Mikhail] Mishustin emerged because of the constitutional amendments [proposed] in January 2020. He has obviously become a significantly larger figure, both as a lobbyist and as a distributor of money, but it is very difficult for him in his position to have any kind of political profile of his own. If not for some urgent need, which is now difficult to imagine, there is no point in changing him at the moment.

According to the new Constitution… you can change the prime minister without changing the cabinet, you can change the cabinet without changing the prime minister, etc. They are no longer legally bound constructs. Therefore, their significance, outside the context of a successor, is not very great.

What will be important for Putin in the coming years is a new social policy, including patriotic education, social payments and an employment ladder for war veterans, the development of the so-called new territories, construction in a broad sense. New figures could emerge here, possibly from the Kremlin.

About a successor: this is a completely corrupted trope that makes no sense. Stalin had no “successors.” Medvedev was once Putin’s successor; it was partly political games (politicheskaya tekhnologiya). There will be no more such games. There may be some kind of convulsive attempt toward the end of this term, but to seriously pass on such legitimacy is impossible. What kind of biography should a person have for this kind of legitimacy to be passed on to him? Only Prigozhin had such a biography.

How far can the creeping renationalization that has begun (as well as the redistribution of some assets of foreign companies that left Russia) go? For the authorities, what are there more of in this process – opportunities and advantages (a way to give assets and rent to new oligarchs and others) or risks and disadvantages (shattering the status quo, equilibrium, some will be “offended,” etc.)?

In autumn 2022, a lot of Western investors exited Russian business by selling their stakes to Russian management. Most of the contracts have a buy-back clause in five years.

This clearly does not suit the Kremlin. Very different people became the owners – some are known to the authorities, some are not. These are often large assets. They are beginning to be redistributed according to ideas about the hierarchy in the country. The buybacks do not matter then. The logic is very clear.

For the West, these assets have already been written off. In some cases legally, in others only in the minds of management.
The scale of the redistribution of major assets in Russia basically means a second privatization.
The process of urgently distributing important civilian and military production to more effective owners seems to have ended, yet nationalization does not have any clear clan or institutional logic.

Judging by the experience of the last 50 years, an authoritarian ruler whose main political opponent dies under circumstances that appear unnatural, as a rule, stays in power for a long time and can further increase repression, etc. What do you think will happen in our case? What will the death of Alexei Navalny change in Russian political and public life?

Well, statistically speaking, this is actually not the most common case – that there is a main, super-well-known opponent, like Navalny, and he dies prison.
A ruler does not stay in power by killing his opponent. He stays in power because he has carte blanche.
And what happens to the opponent happens because he has been given carte blanche.

What is Navalny’s political legacy? How viable are his ideas, structures and methods without him?

It’s a viable idea. Without a doubt. His idea is actually very hard to kill because it is simple: Russia can be normal. The way it is – with its history, with its traditions, with Tchaikovsky and Gagarin – it can be normal.

There is enough material for that in its culture, past and present. It is very hard to kill such an idea. Stand up and say: Russia is not normal, and that’s good! Not everyone is able to do that when ordered.

Navalny should have become the president of normal Russians, who are also more than 70% [of the population].

His structures and so on have more to do with political organization, outside and/or inside Russia, and some people’s personal prospects. If the structures manage not to lose the idea, they will continue to be relevant within the country. If they manage to build the emigration into a political collective body, they will be relevant outside. But this is still a completely different story.

Can we say that for the regime, with the death of Navalny, the problem/threat of the opposition has been definitively resolved?

It was definitively resolved quite a long time ago – but it comes back every time. Based on the logic of the intelligence services (spetssluzhby), after Navalny’s death they should now move on to “foreign intelligence centers.”

This could well resemble the terror unleashed by the OGPU against the leaders of the White emigration. I do not consider the fears of emigrants to be groundless – both in the sense of life being complicated by their Russian documents and in the sense of violence.

The 2010s were undoubtedly an era of political struggle between the regime and various oppositions, primarily the liberal democratic one. But there were others.
So, Navalny is an icon of our generation; one way or another we went into oppositional politics with him and under his banners in the 2010s.
This all ended in February 2022. Corruption is no longer the number one evil. The same is true of barring the opposition from elections, like in summer 2019 with the Moscow City Duma election. Uniting the country on an antiwar basis also failed.

There is another – new – opposition. The millions who left, who were part of the movement that began on Bolotnaya and ended in summer 2019. We do not yet understand how exactly they might influence events in Russia.

If these millions had not faced state violence, had not had political experience, it would have been more difficult for them to make the decision to leave.

A lot of people came to Navalny’s grave in Moscow. From a political standpoint – a lot. It was still not significant as an impulse for the country, but we saw that a lot of people from “normal Russia” have not gone anywhere. They are not an opposition, of course. More likely, it is some kind of mass dissidence in the sense of everyday personal disapproval of what is going on in the country.

If we talk in general about opposition to Putin’s line and Putin himself, then at some point almost everyone will be in the opposition in one way or another. We just have to live to see it.

At some point, the elite will become the opposition, maybe even these front-line soldiers, veterans of the special operation.

If we look at the queues at Russian embassies at noon on March 17, the vote for Davankov and the percentage of spoiled ballots as a test of the mobilization capacity of various opposition groups, should we consider it successful? Or is this just the echo of Navalny’s passing?

It is important that this happened.

Approximately 50% of the country legally supports immediate peace. The question is – what kind [of peace] exactly? Are they the opposition? Up to 40%, one way or another, are not happy with the way things are going, because of the war as well, though they are not the old opposition, they are not us.

This is much more than the 5% who voted (in the Duma election in 2021 Republic) for the New People party.
Disapproval of the war does not hinder the war.
It’s terrible, but true. Disapproval of Putin hinders the war. But as a group those who disapproved of him left. How to make an opposition out of those who remain?

Kirill Rogov said that the opposition should not wait until “after Putin” comes, that it should get to work so that by the time “after Putin” comes, the opposition has a ready-made, well-thought-out plan for this future. Do you think the opposition is doing something in this regard?

This is the third or fourth time that I remember when something is being planned “for after.”

It seems to me that there is an issue of political representation of Russians who left. There is an issue of protecting refugees who have not received a visa or status, including LGBT activists. This needs to be tackled somehow by consensus, without “leaderism” (vozhdism) – we are talking about professional curiae, about communities, not about a movement of like-minded people.

If progress is made in protecting the rights and normalizing the status of the new wave of emigration, at least in the EU, this will be extremely unpleasant for the Kremlin! The Russian government looks at people like serfs – I can flog you, I can protect you. If they are protected, and effectively protected, by someone else, it means that the Kremlin no longer has any power over these people.

I think that if before the “thaw” – which is structurally inevitable, as a social contract based on violence is not very durable – institutions are preserved, from distinctly Russian startups to Memorial and universities, and some new institutions created, then life will not have been lived in vain. The life of those who want to make some other contribution to Russia.
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