Why is the Kremlin Ignoring Social Problems Ahead of the Presidential Election?
January 30, 2024
  • Mikhail Vinogradov

    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation

Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov writes that two months before the presidential election, the Kremlin feels fully confident and is barely reacting to a buildup of problems – from protests to heating outages. This excessive confidence, however, may be a problem in itself.

Just over two months before the presidential election in Russia, within the race there have been no attempts to provide an outlet for people to blow off steam, no high-profile electoral program initiatives, no serious intrigues. Instead, the emphasis has been on sucking the air out of the agenda – much the same as it was in the run-up to the 2016 and 2021 parliamentary elections and the presidential election in 2018. The general message is that after the obvious victory of the current government, everything will basically stay the same.

Still, it can hardly be said that this January has passed incident-free. The beginning of the year was marked by serious problems with basic services, as heating disruptions plagued large urban areas and snow hampered traffic on major highways. At the same time, there have been signs that Ukrainian strikes against Russian infrastructure are becoming more effective. In addition, conspicuous protests took place in Bashkortostan, a region known for its loyalty to the Kremlin (see Russia.Post on the protests here). Since the Russian political system is quite robust, these events do not show up against the general backdrop of the presidential race. However, they raise questions about the effectiveness of the current governance model, which tends to attribute all internal contradictions and conflicts to the influence of external forces.
Heating failure in Moscow Region. January 2024. Source: Yandex
Utilities crisis

Contrary to stereotypes that the Russian climate is characterized by long and extreme winters, in the central part of the country cold spells of minus 25-30 degrees Celsius do not happen every year and do not last too long. In January 2024, however, there was a cold wave, and the utilities infrastructure struggled to hold up.

Large-scale failures of heat supply systems occurred in many large suburbs of Moscow and several cities with a population of over a million, including Omsk (in December and early January), Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Krasnodar. Local authorities had to take emergency measures, including moving thousands of residents of frozen multistory buildings to temporary accommodation centers.

These failures revealed a plethora of issues. Firstly, experts found it difficult to assess what caused the heating disruptions. A number of versions have been put forward: from the deterioration of the utilities infrastructure and the opacity of the communal services system to the unmodernized Soviet heat supply system and the decreased effectiveness of city management following enlargement – especially cities in Moscow Region.

Yet there was neither clear public analysis of the situation nor conclusions made from it. The government’s response to the crisis was very rigid.
As is the accepted tradition – like in recent years explosions have been called bangs and fires smoke – instead of heating outages officials this winter spoke about a decrease in the temperature of heating fluids.
Today, the communal services system itself is considered an important source of income for regional and municipal elites (see Russia.Post about the recent utilities crisis) – we are talking about both personal enrichment and the opportunity to use funds from utilities companies for extraordinary, nonpublic expenditures in the interests of the authorities. Meanwhile, the Federal Center has not demonstrated much interest or ability to understand what is happening in the sector.

The reaction of law enforcement agencies this winter was also traditional and rigid, boiling down to detentions and arrests of officials in charge of the utilities sector, which, in turn, hampered efforts to get heating restored.

Overall, the January utilities crisis put on display the limits of the state’s capabilities: though the authorities had enough resources to urgently relocate residents and try to restart the heating system, citizens’ confidence in that system’s ability to function in extreme cold has noticeably decreased. This anxiety could have been reduced through emotional appeals to residents and assurances that the authorities (local and/or federal) sympathize with those who had lost heat; however, in recent years, the governance model has rather emphasized the distance between itself and ordinary people, rather than its readiness to act on equal terms with those people to address their problems.

Military vulnerabilities

By the end of 2023, in Russian military circles pessimistic assessments about the Ukraine conflict began to give way to arguments that in a long-term war of attrition, resource depletion would prove a more serious problem for Ukraine than Russia.

Recall that in the spring of 2023, there had been concern about a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive; however, as it became obvious that the counteroffensive had not taken place, the hawks generally calmed down. It began to seem that maintaining the front line as it is now did not pose serious problems, while forecasts about the potential for a new Russian offensive even appeared.

However, for ordinary people who do not closely follow the course of events in Ukraine, these changes most likely went unnoticed. Perhaps there were expectations that symbolically important results would be achieved (be it an offensive or a breakthrough toward a peace settlement) before the presidential election, but if such expectations had in fact existed, it is obvious that they are gradually being eroded. Senior Russian officials in public comments have highlighted the correctness of the military decisions made, without specifying the point of those decisions.
In other words, officials have stopped believing that before the election citizens need to be told some significant news about the situation at the front.
Meanwhile, the psychological pressure began to be ratcheted up by the Ukrainian side, as seen in high-profile attacks on Russian targets, including the shelling of Belgorod at the end of the year, drone attacks on oil facilities near St Petersburg in Leningrad Region, and the downing of military aircraft. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky began to mirror the rhetoric of the Russian authorities about the “Russian world,” declaring the Russian border regions of Belgorod, Bryansk, Voronezh, Kursk, Rostov and Krasnodar to be part of the “Ukrainian world.”

In Russia, many perceived this statement by Zelensky as an attempt to provoke Moscow into taking rushed retaliatory steps. However, at this point the Kremlin apparently does not feel the need to respond to such challenges. It is possible that as the election approaches, Kyiv will further increase the psychological pressure, thus hoping to influence Russian public opinion and deepen the feeling among Russians of a long and even endless war that is producing extremely ambiguous results.
Protest in Baymak, Bashkortostan. January 2024. Source: Wiki Commons
Ethnic nuances

A series of protests in Baymak, a city of 17,000 people in southeast Bashkortostan, against the conviction of activist Fail Alsynov, together with a gathering in the region’s capital of Ufa, came as a surprise to most experts. Although there was periodic environmental and political unrest in Bashkortostan in the 2010s, in recent years the region was said to have become solidly loyalist. In addition, the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, has been more active than other governors in supporting Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.

The influence of Bashkortostan in Russian politics is less than that of Tatarstan or Chechnya, but historically the Federal Center has been reluctant to get involved in clan and interethnic processes in regions that it poorly understands. This issue had already made itself felt during the unrest in the autumn of 2022 after the first wave of mobilization. Back then, ethnic regions like Dagestan, Buryatia and Tyva became centers of protests. Even Chechnya announced that it would not carry out mobilization on its territory. The lack of effective control in these regions was also on display during the sudden storming of the Makhachkala airport by protesters last October (see Russia.Post about it).

Emergency measures to suppress the recent protests in Bashkortostan – including a week-long jamming of messengers like WhatsApp and Telegram – have created problems for local residents, including Kremlin loyalists, who use these tools for personal communication, to talk to their children’s teachers and as alternative sources of information.

Another element of the story is that this spring the Federal Center will decide whether to extend Khabirov’s time in office or replace him when his current term comes to an end in the autumn, and the recent unrest will be a factor. The Kremlin does not like it when external pressure forces its hand with personnel decisions, but keeping Khabirov on could look like a sign of federal weakness in the face of a local conflict.
An exhibition called Russia was opened in November 2023 to present the achievements of Russia’s regions during Putin’s presidency. Here, the Kaliningrad Region’s exhibit is shown. Source: Yandex
Parallel agenda

The above is an incomplete list of problems with which the Russian authorities have started the new year. The December decision of the Central Bank to hike its key rate made life harder for those who planned to take out a mortgage to buy a house and has already led to serious conflicts between banks and construction companies. Meanwhile, the problem of inflation remains very sensitive. A disagreement is intensifying between the government and the Central Bank over the extension of a requirement mandating the sale of FX earnings by exporters, an emergency measure adopted last year to stop the depreciation of the ruble against global currencies.

All these events do not quite fit into the logic of Putin’s reelection campaign. Or rather, its two versions. The first one is “peace” – it is reflected in a big exhibition about Russia that is taking place in Moscow, which presents the achievements – economic, technological, infrastructural – of the country’s regions and corporations during Putin’s presidency. There is practically no war theme there.

The second version of the reelection campaign is “war.” It promotes the thesis that Russia is waging a “defensive war for its existence with the collective West,” with a vote for Putin in the presidential election seen as an important contribution to defending Russia against external threats.

Since public opinion is weakly politicized, people in general are not reacting to the fact that in the official campaign there is no mention of the problems in January – the heating crisis, local protests, uncertainty at the front. Ordinary people “forget about” negative news relatively easily and do not associate it with the government or its opponents, or with the expectation of any changes at all.

It is another matter that the government itself faces internal contradictions. Ignoring them inevitably increases its self-confidence but also makes it difficult to foresee potential new points of friction and contributes to a general atrophying of the governance system and a decrease in its interest in managing risks.
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