The past 12 months were a turning point for Russia not only because of the pandemic but also because of the constitutional changes Vladimir Putin pushed through, Tatyana Stanovaya says. And the two came together in the expression “Putin in the bunker” which captures the new political reality in Russia today.
The Russian analyst says that as a result of both shocks, Putin was constantly on television but he was absent as far as being a source of new proposals. Instead, he “commented, criticized, and praised successes but himself only observed and called for the preparation of proposals” (carnegie.ru/commentary/83537).
Except for the constitutional amendments where the Kremlin leader played the defining role, all the other policy moves “were proposed and developed by the government, the governors, deputies, senators, the Presidential Administration and the siloviki,” Stanovaya continues.
In fact, she argues, “the system established by Putin and earlier centered on him alone began to come to live and act in a chaotic fashion.” Until recently, many officials had been afraid to show initiative unless Putin had given his approval. But now, “inaction is becoming dangerous” and they are seeking to show how active they can be.
“The president has begun to willingly delegate the most important questions of government administration, public policy to his administration, the struggle with the opposition to the FSB, the economy to the government, and the pandemic to the governors.” In sum, for the first time, he has given the government “a serious mandate to take decisions.”
Putin remains a public presence but seldom gets directly involved in specific actions; and in this way, he “is gradually being transformed into a symbol … the guarantor of stability but involved in global issues and thus not available for decisions about day-to-day matters.” In his place for those are what one can call “a collective Putin.”
“The collective Putin is a faceless mechanism consisting of hundreds of thousands of technocrats, acting from t he outset out of conservative, preservationist convictions, acting according to inertia, automatically, without clear signs, and in an uncompromising fashion,” the commentator says.
“Having received such a carte blanche, the apparatus is opposing itself to society because it is now acting under conditions of the erosion of traditional institutions of representative democracy and declining trust.” As a result, “the government is beginning to be transformed into a repressive machine working on autopilot.”
In the coming year, Stanovaya suggests, regardless of what formal decisions are taken, “Putin in fact will pull back, further removing himself from routine matters, delegating decisions to his entourage, and closing himself off from petty problems.” But “this will not happen without consequences,” she warns.
To an increasing degree, Putin will appear to a growing number of people as isolated and poorly informed about what is going on. The bureaucracy at all levels will further degrade, and internecine conflicts will increase as each tries to make proposals, take decisions or act to implement things in ways that will benefit it rather than the system or the country.