Vladimir Putin makes only a single appearance in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan: His picture hangs like an Orthodox icon above a roomful of corrupt officials going about their business. The shot portrays one of the many dualities characteristic of modern Russia. Russia’s President, while seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent, is at the same time absent and disinterested. As a political actor, he inhabits a higher plane than the rest of the state. Look no further than his approval ratings: For the past five years, the presidency has enjoyed support some 20 to 30 percentage points higher than Prime Minister Medvedev, the government, and the Duma. Or consider the fact that he is no longer part of the United Russia party, his administration’s policymaking vehicle in the Duma. Kremlin elites do not compete against Putin, they compete for him in terms of access and sway. Angry Russians just as often beg for his intervention against corrupt officials as they agitate for his ouster.
It was his absence from day-to-day politics that helped Putin become and remain as popular as he did in his last term. Seizing on crisis in Ukraine and an increasingly tense geopolitical climate, he was able to deal almost exclusively in a policy realm beyond the grasp of average Russians, benefiting from the perception of a stronger Russia that would not yield any ground to real or perceived enemies at the gates. The country had risen “from its knees,” in local parlance. It was no coincidence that his approval rating rapidly jumped into the neighborhood of 80 percent and remained there until this summer. To a large extent, foreign policy served as domestic policy for the past six years. Putin delegated quotidian matters—the management of the economy and other domestic policy—to others, leaving them to make gaffes and soak up popular dissatisfaction due to the increasing financial costs of an aggressive foreign policy. And through no small effort, the human costs of adventures abroad have been kept hidden as well.
As seen in a recent, highly personalized retreat on pension reform, this dynamic has now appreciably changed. As recession has given way to prolonged economic stagnation, the salience of Crimea’s annexation—and to a lesser extent the intervention in Syria—has diminished in terms of its impact on public opinion. In response, Putin and his team needed to deliver a bold domestic agenda to boost economic growth and jumpstart a sputtering economy. Some agenda items are popular: After being neglected in favor of defense spending, social spending is set to see an influx of cash and the state is taking the lead to boost infrastructure investment. Others, such as pension reform, are less popular. With Russia’s workforce shrinking, the government will need to allocate an increasing slice of budget expenditures as transfers to the pension system. That would mean less money available for growth-generating investment. The problem is that a domestically focused agenda necessarily involves policy far closer to average Russians. And because his absence from the domestic policy realm for the past six years has allowed other institutions (i.e. Dmitri Medvedev and United Russia) to soak up unpopularity, Putin is now the only figure in Russian politics with enough political capital to drive the agenda.
It is not a surprise, then, that as Putin has become more involved in more concrete domestic matters, his approval rating has come back down to earth. 67 percent of Russians now approve of their President’s job performance as measured by the independent Levada Center. That’s the lowest that figure has been since the annexation of Crimea. The fact that Russia’s generous (as measured by retirement age, at least) pension system is a legacy of the Soviet Union, a concept many Russians still associate with “greatness,” further complicates things. Yet none of this seems to have swayed top-ranking officials, who comment that Putin will only take a more active role in selling reform as the Duma prepares for its second vote on the reform bill—usually the one that sees most substantive changes—in September. That should offer little solace to his allies. Indeed, some of Putin’s most uncomfortable moments have come as a result of his interactions with regular Russians, on issues directly impacting them, and particularly when they are angry. His tone-deaf management of the Kursk incident and the more recent Kemerovo mall disaster serve as cautionary tales. Though this rumored political push will be tightly managed, it will also anchor Putin to an unpopular issue.
Even a job approval rating of 60 percent would be high by international standards; despite reports to the contrary, Russia’s President is not on the verge of being toppled, not least because there is by design no credible alternative to him in Russian politics. However, he will also find it increasingly difficult to operate with his characteristic distance from politics, which he has used to protect his political capital. The Kremlin will cite sanctions as a means of building cohesion, but it is difficult to think of messaging that could credibly pin pension reform on the West. While not in immediate jeopardy, Putin will be operating in uncomfortable territory. He’ll have to dirty himself in conversations with commoners about unpopular policy in which he has little personal interest. His agenda, and his necessary participation in it, will also draw protests—as witnessed across the country on Sunday—that increasingly blur the line between political and economic grievances, a distinction that has insulated him in the past.
Barring a miraculous economic recovery in the coming years, Putin will face an even greater potential challenge: elevating a deity to replace himself. As he is learning all too well, it’s hard to be a god.