restricted access Protest and Legitimacy: Emerging Dilemmas in Putin’s Third Term
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Protest and Legitimacy:
Emerging Dilemmas in Putin’s Third Term

In the course of 2016–2017, collective protest action has steadily gained ground in Russia. The electoral cycle protests of 2011–2012 have been replaced by single-issue actions against corruption, and more sustained protests against the so-called “renovation” (renovatsiia) program in Moscow. Additionally, long-distance haulers in Siberia and in Russia’s central and southern parts have since 2015 demonstrated against increased tariffs on the utilization of Russia’s road system, among other things, by blocking transport in and out of regions in the south of Russia. Finally, the non-systemic opposition has succeeded in holding two major demonstrations against corruption, one in March 2017 and one in June 2017, thus marking continuity with the electoral cycle protests in 2011–12.

These sparks of collective action raise many questions as to the efficacy of Russian hybrid regime governance and highlight the more acute political dilemmas arising in Putin’s third term. The limits of selective interventions are put more clearly on display, and the narrowing of opportunities for society embedded in the numerous restrictions imposed by the Duma on demonstrations, financing of NGOs, media-ownership and international organizations after 2011/2012 have not pacified society. Moreover, the containment of the non-systemic opposition (the Naval’nyi-PARNAS coalition) in the local elections in 2015 and the national Duma elections in 2016 has not discouraged movement entrepreneurs from testing out social media campaigning. On the contrary, in 2017, the Russian populace seems active, and economic and socio-political issues are playing an increasingly important role in public demonstrations.

The current special issue of Demokratizatsiya is one of several results of the project “New Political Groups and the Russian State” (NEPORUS), which has been funded by the Research Council of Norway through the NORRUSS program. The NEPORUS project proposal was written in February 2013 and centered on exploring developments in the Russian executive, perceptions of Putin’s announced promises for his third term, changes in the framework of opportunities for NGOs and the [End Page 205] non-systemic opposition, and, finally, the effect of social media mobilization on state Internet policies. In this thematic issue of Demokratizatsiya, project contributors seek to tap into the numerous dilemmas that have emerged in Putin’s third term: How does the Russian regime perform in periods of higher economic expectations? Does the Kremlin “policy directorate” still control society and political developments, and if so, how? Is Putin’s charisma still an embodiment of a prevalent mythscape of political stability and legitimacy? And what can case studies of collective action (youth protests and strikes by long-haul truck drivers) tell us about protest sustainability, grievances and framing?

Researchers within the project attack these questions from several angles. Professor John P. Willerton of the University of Arizona draws on material from the project’s ROMIR poll taken in October 2014 to discuss popular support for a “national idea” (in the widest sense of the term) and the performance of the Putin executive on 11 distinct policy concerns. He finds, among other things, that while respondents consider a strong state and democracy as two sides of the same coin, respondents are less impressed by the Putin team’s high-profile battle against corruption and its welfare, healthcare and housing policies. Willerton concludes that despite these deficiencies, most Russians are “buying into” the Putin policy and he expresses moderate optimism as to the future trajectory of Putin’s and the executive’s pursuit of a national idea for Russia.

Other contributors are less optimistic. Bo Petersson from the University of Malmø discusses the charismatic legitimacy of Putin’s “eternal” incumbency qua Weberian legitimacy, and finds that although there are different legitimizing mechanisms at play in Russia, the single most important dilemma for the Putin reign lies in the lack of political alternatives and executive checks and balances. Putin uses the myth of foreign encirclement actively as a pillar for his legitimacy, Petersson holds, but the Putin mix of “legitimacy by default” is making the question of succession more acute. Petersson points to the Weberian paradox that charismatic legitimacy is the least durable of...


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