This essay considers the establishment of a social contract between Putin and the Russian people and examines the evolution of this social contract within the past 16 years.
What is a Social Contract?
According to D’ Agostino et al. (2012), the core idea that the concept of social contract carries, is that ‘in some way, the agreement (or consent) of all individuals subject to collectively enforced social arrangements shows that those arrangements have some normative property (they are legitimate, just, obligating, etc.)’. (Feldmann & Mazepus, 2014). This contract dictates the actions between the authority figure and the public. In this regard we see that, as such the contract would evolve as the public’s idea of what constitutes as security and order changes and evolves over time. Rather than a creation by Putin, Markarkin explains the Russian social contract to be one that was ‘based on the state’s ability to guarantee a reasonable quality of life for the majority of the population; the prompt payment of pensions and salaries; and the possibility to make realistic plans for the future’ (MAKARKIN, 2011) and established decades before Putin’s presidency. However, breakdown of the Russian social contract occurs when there is the inability of the government to provide the Russian public with an acceptable quality of life. As such the inability to secure higher quality of life, the subsequent unrest, and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in 1980’s marked the end of the Russian social contract, which was not again developed until Putin’s rise to power.
Pre-Putin: The Legacy of Yeltsin
Over Putin’s tenure as President, and briefly as Prime Minister, the Russian people indeed has had an ever-changing view on what they consider to be provision of security and order. To evaluate the establishment, or rather the reestablishment of the Russian social contract, it is important to consider and the legacy that he was coming into and then evaluate how this impacted the re-established the Russian social contract and then consider its evolution.
Prior to Putin’s presidential inauguration in 2000, Russia experienced a period of transition as the communist Soviet Union ended and Russia moved rapidly from a communist society to a capitalist one. The economy had taken a hit from the post-communist economic reforms that took form in the form of the IMF endorsed shock therapy program that was further backed by western governments. This program entailed liberalizing prices and slashing budget expenditures (Gordon, 2000) as well as privatization of state owned industries. When implementing these reforms, Boris Yeltsin, the then President, assured the Russian public he would raise the standard of living (Gerber & Hout, 1998) however this was not the result. Living standards fell, material insecurity increased, and decreasing birth rates and life expectancy’s saw the population decreasing. By the time Putin was taking power GDP had fallen by more than half. (Murrell, 1993) These economic conditions helped to inflame anti-West sentiments in the country. The Russian public felt that Russia, upon moving from communism to capitalism, had lost their status of a world power. The participation of western countries and western institutions such as the IMF in the implementation of shock therapy aggravated anti-west sentiments and helped to enforce the idea that this was a scheme of the West to bring down Russia. This was exacerbated by the image that Yeltsin had portrayed during his presidency; which was that of an irresponsible drunkard, having being shown appearing publicly while intoxicated on many occasions. The Russia people held him accountable for the descent of Russia from a superpower to a country in crisis, as he allowed the West to influence and bring Russia down due to his weak leadership. Yeltsin’s improper behavior and subsequent image combined with his closeness to the US, specifically Clinton and the economic struggles of the 1990’s created what the Russian people saw as a weakening of the once great Russia. The lack of an improvement in the quality of life saw the halting of the reestablishment of the Russian social contract.
The Nature of the Social Contract
Considering the legacy of Yeltsin’s leadership and the Russian socio-economic climate of the 90’s there developed a relatively clear expectation of leadership from the Russian people. First, and likely the most pressing expectation was that there would be an improvement in the quality of life. As already discussed, the economic and political reform under Yeltsin had disillusioned many Russians to the benefits of capitalism, with many people believing that the command economy under the Soviet Union was far better. Makarkin captures the key element of the initial Russian social contract to be re-established between Putin and the Russian people; a leader that would be able to provide not only economic stability and increased quality of life but also a leader that would bring political stability and a restoration of the greatness Russia had as a superpower for the majority of the 20th century in exchange for the loyalty of the people. What is interesting to note however is the context in which the quality of life is assessed differs under the two different market structures. While the Soviet Russian contract functioned under the provision of ‘universal price controls, full employment guarantees, and fully public social services’ these were exchanged instead for ‘other social programmes and entitlements, including pension provision, industrial subsidies, and health care.’ (Cook & Dimitriov, 2017)1
Putin in Power: The Reestablishment and Evolution of the Russian social contract under Putin
The question of how this social contract was restored can be answered with a straightforward reply; the improvement of the quality of life through the means of ‘restoration of income stability, industrial employment protections, and health care guarantees’ (Cook & Dimitriov, 2017). However, the answer becomes more complex when we look to understand how this improvement came about. While the Russian public may consider these improvements to their quality of life to be because of Putin, in fact. ‘It is unclear how far this improvement stemmed from rising oil prices and how far from the government’s sound macroeconomic policy, though it seems that oil prices were the more important factor.’ (MAKARKIN, 2011). Putin didn’t create any program or policy with aims of creating a social contract. He did however, realize that the provision of these state benefits would earn him the aforementioned ‘loyalty’ of the Russian people. The increase in the price of oil, was a large boost to the Russian economy as a large oil exporting country. This boost to the Russian economy allowed for the increased investment of state funding of pensions, healthcare, and increased salaries all of which helped boost the quality of life of the people. While Putin didn’t implement any economic reform to gain this economic boost, he used this boost to establish a new social contract with the Russian people. Putin’s understanding of the Russian public’s desire allowed him to from there shape a policy that would further cement this social contract and secure his authority and legitimacy in Russia.
Whilst quality of life was the basis of the social contract, over the years as Russia developed further, there were additional elements that were added into the social contract. That is the social contract did not remain stagnant over Putin’s rule while the quality of life was still a foundation of the social contract, the definition of security and order evolved to mean additional things other than simply just economic stability and evolved to include other aspects of both domestic and foreign policy. This is seen in the lack of outcry following the 2008 global financial crisis. While Putin’s popularity fell from a percentage in the high 80’s to 50-55%, there was an absence of the expected breakdown in the social contract due to the economic instability that was presented during this time. Whilst the economic stability played a role it became clear that ‘the social contract between the political authorities and Russian citizens incorporates other dimensions and that it could no longer be sustained purely on the grounds of economic performance.’ (Feldmann & Mazepus, 2017).
The major dimension that developed and evolved the social contract was the use of the increasing nationalistic sentiment in Russia. Putin presented himself as a leader that could restore Russia to it’s great position of power as they were throughout the majority of the 20th century during the Cold War and present a strong opposition to what they felt to be the malicious intent of the United States. Putin has very well developed a reputation, domestically and internationally, for resisting Western and a well-established defiance for the ideologies and politics of the West, specifically America. Assertion of power was also not something that was restricted to the global level but also within the region the goal of foreign policy in Moscow was to reclaim Russia’s regional power. (Bugajski, 2013). Putin’s actions in the regional area, particularly concerning the annexation of Crimea, bolstered his claim that he was indeed making Russia great again. In the case of the Crimea, it gave a sense of a return to the imperialistic glory of Russia. While the annexation was a gross flaunting of international law, it was considered a patriotic victory to the Russian people who saw it as the ‘return’ of the Crimea and this view was pushed by the state controlled media. (Pinkham, 2017). This pushed the idea of Russia taking its place at the centre of Eurasian society as a beacon of conservative ideals and values of a traditional family at the centre as well as the conservative and orthodox catholic religious element. By doing this Putin brought the Russian people closer to Russia’s destiny on the international stage.
The evolution of the social contract to include the pursuit of nationalistic ideals was one that was necessary. After the 2008 financial crisis and the plummet in the price of oil, economic factors would not have sufficed to keep the social contract and there would surely have been a breakdown of this unwritten agreement. 2
In this essay, I have outlined the nature and history of the Russian social contract and evaluated its re-emergence under Putin and the way in which Putin saw the transformation of this social contract. It is interesting to consider how Putin established the social contract in Russia, the social contract was enabled by economic conditions that were not directly in the control of Putin; so, Putin didn’t create or instigate the new social contract that was developed, rather it was reignited by economic conditions. However, Putin did proactively use this economic climate towards fully establishing the Russian social contract. The evolution of the social contract was on that was necessary due to the breakdown in the economic foundations that lay in the social contract. Whilst Putin was able to successfully evolve the social contract to preserve his legitimacy in this instance, this may not always be the case. If most people are satisfied with the quality of living within the country, then the Russian social contract will be maintained. However, it is crucial to note that as there was a change in the requirements for a good quality of life from Soviet Russia to Putin’s Russia, it can easily change again; perhaps increased freedoms and rights may develop into an aspect of the social contract. It is not possible to accurately assert how Putin respond to such a development, or even if this development is possible. However, this development whilst not likely anytime soon, it may be a crucial element in later years and Putin’s government is unaccustomed and ill-equipped to deal with developments of this nature.
Bugajski, J., 2013. Russia as a Pole of Power: Putin’s Regional Intergration Agenda. In: S. J. Blank, ed. Politics and Economics in Putin’s Russia . s.l.:U.S. Army War College Press, pp. 175-202.
Burawoy, M., 2001. Transition without Transformation: Russia’s Involutionary Road to Capitalism. East European Politics and Society, 15(2), pp. 269-290.
Cook, L. J. & Dimitriov, M. K., 2017. The Social Contract Revisited: Evidence from Communist and State Capitalist Economies. EUROPE-ASIA STUDIES, 69(1), pp. 8-26.
Elahi, M., 2005. What is Social Contract Theory. s.l.:The Sophia Project.
Feldmann, M. & Mazepus, H., 2014. SOCIAL CONTRACT AND LEGITIMACY: THE CASE OF PUTIN’S RUSSIA, Salamanca: s.n.
Feldmann, M. & Mazepus, H., 2017. State-society relations and the sources of support for the Putin regime: bridging political culture and social contract theory. East European Politics, pp. 1-20.
Gerber, T. P. & Hout, M., 1998. More shock than therapy: Market transition, employment, and income in Russia, 1991–1995.. American Journal of Sociology, 104(1), pp. 1-50.
Gordon, C., 2000. Institutions,Economic Interests and the stalling of economic reforms. In: N. Robinson, ed. Instituions and Political Change in Russia. Houndmills: Macmillan Press Ltd, p. 111.
MAKARKIN, A., 2011. The Russian social contract and reigime legitimacy. International Affairs, 87(6), p. 1459–1475.
Murrell, P., 1993. What is Shock Therapy? What Did it Do in Poland and Russia?. Post-Soviet Affairs, 9(2), pp. 111-140.
Pinkham, S., 2017. How annexing Crimea allowed Putin to claim he had made Russia great again. Online Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/22/annexing-crimea-putin-make-russia-great-againAccessed 15 December 2017.
1 . On this note, it can be fair to say that the evolution of the social contract is not one that must be radical or large but can be very subtle. A very interesting note when considering the potential evolution of Russian social contract.
2 It should be noted that whilst the nationalist rhetoric has currently preserved the Putin-Russia social contract, this contract may not be able to withstand the wave of liberalism that is beginning to root in Russia through the uprising of communities such as the LGBTQ+ and feminists.