Inside, confidential and off the record
Sergei Guriev Says More…
This week, Project Syndicate talks with Sergei Guriev, a former chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a professor at Sciences Po in Paris.
Project Syndicate : Last December, you predicted that the reality of ordinary Russians' “empty refrigerators” would eventually “overwhelm the eternally optimistic messages coming from their televisions and computers, and the foundations of [President Vladimir] Putin's informational autocracy” would “begin to crumble.” With the COVID-19 crisis having pushed Putin's approval rating to an all-time low , has the moment of reckoning arrived?
Sergei Guriev: Putin's low approval ratings do not bode well for his leadership. His recent decision to schedule the constitutional reform vote – essential to reset term limits, thereby enabling him to run for two more six-year terms after 2024 – for July 1 shows that he is well aware of the danger he faces.
The vote was previously planned for April 22, but surging COVID-19 infections forced it to be postponed. Yet Russia hardly has the outbreak under control; the number of daily new infections and deaths in Russia remains high . Nevertheless, Russians will head out to vote in a week.
Putin could have set the referendum for Election Day in September, when Russia traditionally holds national and local elections. But that would have meant that independent observers would be present at the ballot counting. And a new law explicitly bars such observers from this vote on constitutional amendments.
Moreover, Putin knows that his chances of securing a positive outcome are declining. Polls conducted in April indicated that about half of the electorate opposed the constitutional reform. Judging by Putin's approval ratings, this share has most likely grown larger. Despite his grip on Russia's information channels, Putin is no longer confident that he has the support of a majority of its citizens.
PS: Of course, Putin has already laid the groundwork to safeguard his power and extend his rule. You wrote in January that the constitutional changes he recently made were essentially moot, because even a “dramatic overhaul of political institutions implies no change in Russia's political regime.” But if popular support for Putin continues to decline, could that change? Would elites begin to desert him?
SG: This is an existential crisis for Putin's regime. The World Bank and the OECD expect Russia's GDP to shrink by 6-8% in 2020, returning to 2019 levels only by 2023. While oil prices have recovered somewhat, they are not likely to return to 2019 levels any time soon, either.
Furthermore, Putin's wavering response to the COVID crisis has severely dented his strongman image, which is vital to maintain public and elite support. After all, Russia's handpicked elites are loyal to Putin because they believe their power and privilege depends on it. If his approval ratings fall too low, they may begin to reckon that he is more of a liability than an asset.
Nonetheless, it is very difficult to predict when and how regime change will occur. Deeply entrenched yet brittle regimes like Putin's can collapse overnight, but they can also survive for decades.
PS: Moving away from Russia, in 2018, Danny Leipziger, Jonathan D. Ostry, and you proposed concrete steps to support more sustainable and broadly shared economic prosperity, from ensuring fair competition to strengthening social protection. As the world confronts the prospect of a severe economic recession, a protracted pandemic, and rising social tensions in many countries, will an inclusive, sustainable growth agenda gain more traction or lose ground?
SG: An “inclusion agenda” like the one we proposed.
Project Syndicate / June 23, 2020