Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia's Presidential Domestic Policy Directorate: HQ for Defeat-Proofing Russian Politics

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia's Presidential Domestic Policy Directorate: HQ for Defeat-Proofing Russian Politics

Article excerpt

Russia's political leaders maintain power through their ability to tailor domestic institutions and manage mechanisms as new challenges arise. The Presidential Administration's Domestic Policy Directorate has become a headquarters for managing society and elites not least in connection with elections. Instead of focusing on domestic policy, this directorate manage domestic politics. The main challenges facing the Kremlin are first, overcoming the information deficit; second, keeping society in check and not allowing the emergence of a credible political alternative or criticism that could evolve into mass demonstrations; and, third, ensuring that elites do not build coalition against the autocrat but instead participate in a power-sharing agreement. The focus and "curatorship" of domestic politics has changed with each per on to hold the role of First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, and also with the need for constant adjustment of the defeat-proofing structures within the system a new challenges arise or old ones become more acute.

Pensioners! We would help you,

but I tell you in earnest, what is unvarnished and true:

"It happens in life that things are fair!

But not now. Not here. And not for you. "(1)

By December 2016, it had become clear that there would be no second indexation of pensions in the foreseeable future. (2) Meanwhile, prices had continued to rise. At her annual press conference that month, the Governor of Murmansk oblast, Marina Kovtun, had countered a question on pensions by stating, "Not all things in life are fair." This created a minor scandal, as she was accused of having augmented her own salary, as well as being criticized for running up high hotel bills.

That small incident highlights some of the challenges facing Russia's authoritarian political system at the end of 2016. First of all, how could the government measure possible rising discontent among pensioners while at the same time controlling information and suppressing bad news'? The economic downturn was bringing increasing hardship for the population, making the task of controlling society more exacting. At the same time, the regional elites were under pressure to deliver: they were expected to fulfill the costly May 2012 Presidential Decrees at a time when budget transfers from the federal center were shrinking. And those who would be in the first line of fire had no intention of remaining patient. How could the leadership ensure that the regional elites stay loyal under such conditions? Adding to the picture were the looming presidential elections in 2018, where governors are expected to help secure votes for the incumbent.

At the same time, there appeared to be little risk of major political protests in Russia in late 2016. Vladimir Putin's approval ratings never dipped below 80 percent and Levada polls measuring "protest potential" indicated a low propensity for protest and demonstrations. (3) Yet repression increased, and Russian policy documents and policymakers pointed to the dangers of "destabilization of the domestic political and social situation in the country, including inspiration from 'color revolutions'." (4) The political leadership thus appeared as vulnerable to challenges from below as before. The challenge entailed in defeat-proofing (5) the system is threefold. First, there is the need to control society, for example, curbing dissatisfaction among pensioners before it develops into large-scale protests. Second, elites, including the governors, must be co-opted and power-sharing designed in such a way that they refrain from challenging the Kremlin, especially during the 2018 elections. Third, there is the information deficit problem: how to know the actual extent of dissatisfaction among various segments of society? How to keep track of the true ambitions of the elites when they are not allowed to compete for power openly?

Recent interest in how autocrats develop mechanisms for staying in power has been spurred by a backlash (6) against the previous wave of democratization. …

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