The weak spot of Putin’s image
July 4, 2022
Abbas Gallyamov
Independent political consultant
Abbas Gallyamov writes that the war in Ukraine is starting to disappear from the front pages and soon the economy, living standards and social problems will again be in the spotlight. This represents an opportunity to criticize Putin.
Deng Xiaoping billboard in Shenzhen, Guangdong, 2007. Source: Wiki Commons
In terms of their perception by the public, all political leaders can be divided into two types. The first can be called "visionaries" – politicians whose strategy and tactics are determined by their ideological preferences. They have ideals into which they try to fit reality. The second, opposite type – politicians like, for example, Deng Xiaoping – believe that “it doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.” They can be called “problem solvers.” They are pragmatists who just tackle the problems facing society without caring too much about the purity of their approaches. In real life, many leaders try to combine the two types, but in critical situations public opinion still forces them to one side or the other.
“Thanks to his control over the country's media and political space, Putin has so far managed to sit on two chairs."
On the one hand, he looks "ideological,” promoting values like “patriotism,” "traditionalism" and anti-Westernism. On the other hand, he is presented as effective, an experienced and competent manager. Herein lies the weak spot of Putin's image. Until now, most of the political attacks on him were ideological, accusing him of violating human rights, the principles of democracy and so on. He fended them off relatively easily using the ideas of "patriotism" and "traditional values.”

Falling living standards make the regime vulnerable

However, the visionary playbook works poorly against attacks from the other side, those that call into question his effectiveness. There it begins to look like "hot air," "empty chatter." You can be whatever "patriot" you like, but if you turn out to be a bad crisis manager and do a poor job of managing the system, then you are of little use to the Fatherland. Putin hasn’t been systematically and consistently attacked from the standpoint of effectiveness, and this was a big mistake of his opponents. If someone were now trying to seriously and professionally undermine Putin’s image, then this is where he would focus his efforts. He would launch, so to speak, a “second front.”

The fact is that the Russian regime will have a hard time proving its effectiveness while living standards are falling. The only thing that such an opponent must do is not to allow Putin to shift the responsibility onto the "traditional" domestic scapegoats – sloppiness, red tape, bureaucratism and so on. Thus, criticism should be focused on the personal decisions of the leader.

The war is already starting to disappear from the front pages and soon will fade into the background. Issues like the economy, domestic policy, living standards and social problems will again come to the fore. This will be a moment of weakness for Putin – in such situations his ratings start to decline even without any focused external influence. If organized, such influence could significantly speed up the process. If a political actor was actually carrying out a major targeted campaign against Putin, then he would create a pool of experts who, having given up fighting a war with the regime on the “ideological” front, would take up public analysis and criticism of the economic policy pursued by the government from a non-ideological standpoint.
“Simply put, rather than show that import substitution, for example, is flawed in its essence, they would show that the policy has failed."
They would repeat that "the slogans are correct, but the execution is awful." If someone purposefully took this line, then at some point all state propaganda would begin to work against the regime: "All talk, no action." To centralize the flow of information, this hypothetical actor could even unite experts into some kind of “expert shadow government,” which would come out and say: “In the context of unprecedented sanctions, which threaten a sharp drop in living standards and the implosion of the state’s social infrastructure, we consider it necessary to offer Russian society alternative options for saving the domestic economy. We see that the government – whether out of incompetence or driven by the selfish motives of influential oligarch groups – doesn’t always make optimal decisions. We will develop our own course of action and offer it to Russians.”
Putin and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, President of Turkmenistan, in October 2017. Source: Wiki Commons
Challenging the main argument of Putin’s supports 

Non-ideological criticism of the regime’s ineffectiveness would help to boost non-political – socially rooted – resistance. This is exactly what is needed in the face of repression. The main groups in society will be more willing to go for this, while the regime won’t suppress them so cruelly. At the same time, overall this would work no worse than politically based resistance to destabilize the situation. In fact, for the broad masses revolutions begin with such things. Politicization comes later.
“Firm, focused efforts to call into question the regime’s effectiveness would strike at the main argument of its supporters: 'if not Putin, then who?'."
If the electorate constantly hears that there are people offering alternative solutions and developing alternative trajectories, then this argument will disappear by itself. Moreover, it is “non-ideological” critics who, for objective reasons, will be the most acceptable candidates to take power after the fall of the regime. They would look like compromise figures capable of keeping the radical opposition from a full-fledged revolution. The most important thing is for the "non-ideological" critics to eventually shift to presenting an alternative image of the country's future, developing a strategy for future reforms, holding discussions, conferences and round tables, organizing votes on various options, etc.

I’ve already written that such work is critical to undermine the social base of the regime. Currently, it is precisely the lack of a clear outlook, along with the fear that “it might get worse,” that keeps the majority loyal. As soon as people believe that there is a future and it has been clearly outlined, they will refuse to support the regime. The Kremlin loves to accuse its political opponents of being "agents of the State Department” – yet judging by how Putin is criticized, the State Department seems far removed. Rather the resistance that we see is organized by many unconnected points, each of which acts how it wants, while a united front, controlled from one command post, can’t exist in nature. If it did, then it would certainly organize the resistance I’ve described.
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