Russian Officialdom Both Tense and Lax Following Presidential Election
April 22, 2024
  • Mikhail Vinogradov
    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation
Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov looks at the government’s response to the challenges that have popped up since Putin’s triumphant reelection – in particular, the horrific terrorist attack in Moscow and large-scale floods now affecting an increasing number of regions – and discusses the likelihood of major policy changes.
The Russian presidential election has not brought about a significant change in the political course so far. Challenger Boris Nadezhdin, who came out with an antiwar program, was not allowed to run in the election. But there was neither escalation in Ukraine, nor attempts to agree a ceasefire or explore the possibility of a compromise. More than a month since election day there is no new round of repression either, and YouTube and VPN services have not been targeted.

The record percentage of the vote received by Vladimir Putin (as officially reported) seriously demoralized the legal Russian opposition and brought into question the logic of maintaining even a nominal multiparty system. Still, the authorities have not tried to build on the momentum from Putin’s victory. On the contrary, recent events – in particular, the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall in Moscow and floods in southern regions of the country – have seemed to sap that momentum while revealing general laxness in the administrative system, which began to make visible mistakes.
However, after Putin’s inauguration on May 7 the authorities may well regain the initiative and put forward new projects.
Aftermath of the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall. Moscow, March 2024. Source: Wiki Commons
Terrorist attack in Moscow

The tragedy at Crocus City Hall on March 22 was a serious shock to the governance system and exposed a number of vulnerabilities.

Firstly, there had been suspicions that Moscow’s focus on Ukraine was diverting attention from other potential threats – primarily those emanating from the Islamic world. As a result, and despite warnings from the US, the authorities were caught completely unprepared.

Secondly, the terrorist attack, carried out by just four attackers, led to the death of at least 145 people, while the rescue operation was basically limited to putting out the fire. As far as one can tell, during the first hour and a half the security forces were not aware that the terrorists had managed to leave the concert venue. The actions of the siloviki were more reminiscent of preparations for an assault like at Nord-Ost in 2002 and in Beslan in 2004, not aimed at throwing everything into saving the people remaining in the building.

Thirdly, the terrorists’ ability to hide 350 kilometers from Moscow showed the limited capabilities of the video surveillance system. Although the system is widely believed to ensure almost total control by the special services over the streets of Moscow, it did not work in a situation where all efforts should have been focused on finding and detaining the perpetrators of the attack.

Crocus became a tangible challenge to the general calm and indifference across Russian society. According to the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), anxiety went up 10 percentage points. The 44% of respondents who said they were experiencing anxiety is significantly lower than the 55% at the start of hostilities in the spring of 2022 and the 70% after the announcement of mobilization, but is still the highest figure in the last six months.

Faced with this challenge, the Russian authorities responded in the public space in a number of ways.

At first, they demonstrated brutal treatment of the suspects. Thus, the demand for retribution from a segment of society was partially satisfied. Reports even began to appear about the possibility of bringing back the death penalty or transferring the suspects to Belarus, where execution by firing squad is practiced.

Then, the Ukrainian version of the terrorist attack began to sound in official statements. It cannot be said that officials were particularly persistent in this regard. It seems that the task was not so much to convince as many ordinary people as possible, but to provide fodder for all those who want to see in Ukraine a threat to the very existence of Russia. In addition, the Ukrainian version was intended to preserve Moscow’s freedom of action in relation to Kyiv and justify the focus on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, so as not to divert attention to deal with Islamist threats.

Another way the authorities responded publicly was statements about changing migration policy (see Russia.Post about it here), which somewhat jarred with the search for the “Ukrainian trail” in the terrorist attack. A pickup in checks on migrants, along with the voiced initiatives to limit migrant flows to Russia, made it possible to fill the public space with themes that are more understandable to average Russians, since in everyday life they are much more likely to encounter migrants than Ukrainian terrorists.
The played-up activity of the police and security forces was intended to compensate for what could be seen as their powerlessness with regard to the terrorist attack in Moscow.
Overall, the measures taken by the authorities helped to avoid a buildup of negative sentiment over the March 22 terrorist attack and the spread of the stereotype about their inaction and helplessness. Nevertheless, there is still no indication that the authorities have drawn political lessons from the incident and are working to identify and address security vulnerabilities. Two different lines of activity continue to compete: the idea about the “Ukrainian trail” and individual actions against radical Islamists, accused of preparing terrorist plots unrelated to the Ukrainian agenda.

Floods in the south

Less than two weeks after Crocus, reports of flooding in southern regions of Russia took over the news flow. Orenburg and Kurgan regions were hit the hardest. Today, the scale of what is happening is not completely clear, as alarms are being sounded in Tyumen, Tomsk and Bashkortostan regions, as well. In neighboring Kazakhstan, the large-scale floods have already been called the worst natural disaster in 80 years.
Of course, compared to terrorist attacks, floods are a relatively predictable and recurring problem, though the current ones are on a larger scale than in past years. However, amid the flaccid domestic political agenda they have turned out to be a more noticeable event than they otherwise would be. In addition, it is the general “laxness” of the authorities that is making people upset.

During the presidential election, the authorities had to “keep face,” demonstrating special attentiveness to the demands of voters. With the end of the campaign, there is a natural inclination to relax and settle back into the more comfortable and typical style of dealing with people. Against this “relaxed” backdrop, a series of unfortunate statements and signals characterized the response to the floods.
The authorities’ ill-conceived response was compounded by a very critical attitude on the part of people, who, in their interactions with officials, demonstrated rigidity and aggressiveness instead of the usual loyalty.
Evacuation from a flooded area. Orenburg Region. April 2024.
Source: Wiki Commons
As a result, signs of rising mutual irritation began to appear more and more often in the news.

The governor of Orenburg region, Denis Pasler, at a meeting with residents affected by the flood demanded that mobile phones be turned off, citing the public nature of the meeting and the presence of journalists in the room. This angered those gathered, who expressed fears that, due to censorship, the promises made by officials at the meeting would not appear in the press and would not be recorded anywhere, much less fulfilled.

The mayor of Orsk, two days before the local dam collapsed, stated that there was no risk of dam failures. After the flood, he had to answer questions (here and here) about his foreign real estate holdings and his son’s work in the Middle East. His answer flopped: the mayor of the flooded city explained that work in Saudi Arabia “is not honey either,” pointing to the “difficult climate” and “very hot [weather].”

Emergency Situations Minister Alexander Kurenkov outraged residents of the flooded areas by accusing them of refusing to evacuate for a week (even though the evacuation lasted only two days).

And the governor of Kurgan region, Vadim Shumkov, first organized a prayer by Orthodox priests in a helicopter over at-risk areas before putting the blame for the floods on Kazakhstan, which he said had sharply increased the discharge of water and created the threat of flooding.

These reactions contrasted with those of the Kazakh authorities: President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited disaster zones several times and met with volunteers, while government officials, led by the prime minister, were sent to the affected regions.

Judging by reports from Orenburg Region, the floods and the actions of the authorities spurred sharp negative sentiment among local residents: they said that the promised compensation for the loss of property was completely insufficient, doubted that the authorities would fulfill their obligations and spoke of the powerlessness of the police to deal with looters.

The floods – in particular, the practical actions of the authorities to compensate for the damage and protect residents from the effects of the disaster, as well as the general lack of sympathy for the victims on the part of officials – seem to contradict the notion of an “omnipotent” and “just” state.

The floods became the second stress test for the administrative system in a month following Crocus. And though they did not trigger major protests, they exacerbated the contradiction between the desire of the federal authorities to demonstrate that the source of all Russia’s problems is Ukraine and real vulnerabilities, which top officials tend to downplay.

Are radical changes in store after May 7?

The Crocus attack and the floods have put on the backburner, at least temporarily, key political issues: the formation of the new government and speculation about Vladimir Putin’s policies after his next term starts.

In Russia, elections do not necessarily entail a significant change of the political course. However, the 2018 pension reform, launched a month after Putin’s inauguration, shows that such a scenario cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, the earlier “shift change” that took place after the 2012 presidential election was not accompanied by major changes: the head of the Presidential Administration was replaced, and the name of the new prime minister was announced, even before the vote, but no meaningful policy changes emerged.

There is uncertainty around this now. On the one hand, Putin’s annual address to parliament at the end of February unveiled an increase in social and infrastructure spending, which can be seen as a desire to maintain and even strengthen the government’s current “chemistry” with its subjects. On the other hand, speculation among officials has gained steam in recent weeks that unpopular measures may follow the inauguration. There are two potential moves that could be negatively taken by the public.

The first is a new round of mobilization along the lines of September 2022. Technically, preparations for such mobilization have been carried out: at the very least, changes were made to legislation streamlining the process of drafting men into the army. Yet there are several arguments against such a move.

The announcement of another mobilization would signal an alarming situation at the front – as was the case in the autumn of 2022, when Russian troops retreated from Kharkiv Region. However, lately the public agenda, together with the mood of officials, has been dominated by optimism around and expectations of a successful offensive by the Russian army in the summer. Accordingly, mobilization would mean that the situation is not as good as advertised.

The annual conscription for mandatory military service continues in Russia until the end of June. As the experience of 2022 showed, military enlistment offices are organizationally unable to handle both regular conscription and mobilization. In the autumn of 2022, due to latter, the former was postponed for a month, but in mid-May 2024 regular conscription would be in full swing.

The first round of mobilization affected mainly rural areas and small towns, and now there are few men left to call up from there.
“If a new round of mobilization is indeed announced, then it will inevitably target residents of big cities, who are theoretically less dependent on the government and therefore able to voice their discontent with being mobilized.”
Flooded houses in Kazakhstan. April 2024. Source: Wiki Commons
The second potential move that would be unpleasant for Russians is tax reform – an increase in income taxes and the introduction of a progressive income tax scale. Such plans were hinted at in Putin’s February address.

This would be quite logical in the context of growing expenditures on the military, while the actual measures could be spaced out: an increase in corporate taxes could come in effect on July 1, with households only seeing a tax hike in 2025. Indeed, much will depend on the details, including the minimum level of income on which the higher taxes will be levied.

Several options are being discussed, with the lowest income level at RUB 1 million a year, which would affect all Russians with an income above RUB 100,000 a month. There have also been reports of more radical ideas – for example, the introduction of retroactive taxation of income from any bank transactions. This would be painful for everyone, since bank transfers are widely used to pay for household services and have not been taxed.

It is not yet obvious that the Russian authorities are ready to make unpopular moves. Thus, we are returned to the question of whether the 2024 presidential election was a purely technical event (a formal extension of Putin’s presidential powers) or whether the authorities believe that the regime is robust enough to take some radical steps.
The likelihood of major changes in the Ukraine conflict at this point depends on what the authorities will choose: escalation with difficult-to-calculate consequences or waiting for a possible second Trump term and more amenable US foreign policy.

Since Putin’s election program was never formally released, the government retains freedom of maneuver. One possible option entails maintaining the inertial course, which looks reasonable against the backdrop of the uncertain situation at the front. Another, more radical option includes sequestering the state’s social obligations and ratcheting up pressure on business in the hope that society will show its usual passivity. A third option – a full-fledged shift to a war footing of the economy and way of life in the country – also looks possible, but the political will to implement such a scenario remains to be seen.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy