“Russia Without Putin!” Such battle cries by anti-regime protesters took sharp aim at a pillar of Russia’s electoral authoritarian regime: Vladimir Putin’s personalist link to voters. With chants of “Putin-Thief” and “Putin-Leave” accompanied by derogatory posters and cartoonish effigies, Russian protesters crossed a very bright line: equating Putin with regime failings. The Kremlin countered with mass rallies, referred to as “Putings,” which were designed to insulate Putin from opposition charges and to link together regime stability and national pride to Putin’s candidacy. Dueling street actions became battlegrounds over competing political narratives, centered on Putin.
Political economists Jan Hadenius and Axel Teorell persuasively argue that personalism is best analyzed as a component of regime support in authoritarian regimes rather than a distinct analytic category. Over the last decade, Putin-era personalism has played an increasingly important role in the system that maintains regime durability. Putin’s popularity ensured elite bargains and secured votes for the regime. In turn, vote support guaranteed Kremlin dominance of key political institutions—the parliament and presidency—and through these institutions access to revenue streams, clientelist networks, and policy levers essential to maintaining power without resorting to widespread coercion. The protests aspired to weaken the state capacity to win votes through this system by undermining personalism as a mechanism of state-society linkage and regime legitimacy. […]