Russian opposition media suggests that Evgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary company leader known as Putin’s Chef, plans to create a “patriotic conservative movement.” The stories noted that among the indications were more frequent appearances of Prigozhin in the public arena and his increasingly strong attacks on the Russian “elite”, as well as information from sources described as close to the Kremlin.
According to these sources, the Soviet-era convict would offer an anti-elite and revanchist agenda, cultivating a sense of betrayal for Russia’s litany of military failure in Ukraine. It’s presumed the project would be run by the Kovalchuk brothers, oligarchs who like Prigozhin himself are close to Putin, and is designed to lure an ultra-patriotic audience that “does not support the authorities in everything and is critical of elite officials and businesses.”
The popular pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Nezygar sought to dampen the rumors, stating that Prigozhin “has cooled to the processes of party building and turned to other projects.” His expertise is needed for military activities rather than internal politics, it said.
The Communist Party of Russia’s (KPRF) representatives meanwhile attacked the idea and declared that it was “doomed to fail.” The party’s concerns are fully understandable given that any Prigozhin party would seek to occupy the same ground as the KPRF.
Political analyst Sergey Starovoytov described the purpose of such a political force as clear; to corral the radical patriots, especially those who will return from the war and demand social change. “Something must be done about anti-establishment and ultra-right sentiments, otherwise the ultras will get out of control . . . Therefore, they should be provided with a shepherd and a leader,” he said.
Prigozhin has often played the part of Kremlin fixer-in-chief, promising Putin’s desired outcomes when no one else is able or willing to deliver.
And any such scheme would fit with past Kremlin efforts to bring rising radical sentiment under control by creating simulacra of political parties which are actually under the direct control of the Kremlin. Considering the growing popularity in Russia of left-wing and pro-Soviet ideas, past iterations have so far been essentially pro-communist.
More than 10 years ago their role was filled by a whole variety of “new Russian ideologues,” such as the Stalinists Sergey Kurginyan and Nikolay Starikov, as well as United Russia State Duma deputy Yevgeniy Fedorov. One way or another, they promoted the conspiracy theory that today’s Russia is partially occupied by the United States, and this is the reason for its continued failures. The aim was to channel discontent away from Vladimir Putin.
All of Russia’s difficulties could be blamed on the intrigues of “external enemies” and a “sixth column” of traitors in power. Kurginyan was especially active in this regard, berating the political class in Russia while describing himself as the architect of a new “red project” for the resurrection of the USSR. He became a leading organizer of the movement to suppress liberal protests in 2011-2012 and as “the enemy of the color revolutions,” did all he could to help Putin remain in power in 2012.
Kurginyan was not the only “leftist project” run by the government. In 2018, the Military Review website, close to the Ministry of Defense, proposed the head of the Left Front movement, Sergey Udaltsov, as the ideal “opposition” to the government, hailing him as a man of pro-Soviet and anti-liberal views who endorsed the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy. Indeed, Udaltsov supported the annexation of Crimea and called pro-Russian separatists in Donbas “heroes.” He also actively spoke out against the leaders of the non-systemic opposition.
Another leftist ideologue, the leader of the Movement for a New Socialism, Nikolay Platoshkin, participated in Russian TV shows sharply criticizing liberalism and the West, and called Ukraine “Banderite” and worthless. In 2021, the Kremlin permitted the KPRF to include representatives of both these movements in the party lists, which apparently was intended to channel the protests into the mainstream of the Communist Party.
It may now be that the Kremlin has decided to shuffle the deck. Communists, after all, promise a return to the cozy (for some) certainties of guaranteed jobs, low crime rates, and non-existent inflation, i.e., huge state subsidies. A Russia at war and under sanctions is incapable of delivering such an all-embracing welfare state. The Kremlin’s pre-war social policy was already causing discontent, especially after the unpopular increase in the retirement age in 2019. Now, against the backdrop of war and mobilization, the standard of living continues to fall.
The head of the Central Bank of Russia, Elvira Nabnulinna, has warned of an impending decline in economic activity next year of up to 4%. According to forecasts of the Central Bank, this year and in coming years, household expenditure will shrink by 3%-3.5%. The media, citing a NielsenIQ survey, offered an even darker prognosis, pointing to worsening consumer solvency caused in part by mobilization that has removed large numbers of working-age males from economic activity.
As for the budget bill for 2023 and for the planning period of 2024 and 2025, which will soon be adopted, it explicitly indicates a reduction in social spending, including on healthcare. Overall healthcare spending will fall in real terms because of 5.5% inflation, and by an additional 16.7% in 2023 due to budget cuts.
Despite his enthusiastic support for the war, Communist leader Gennadiy Zyuganov has criticized the bill and suggested some cuts will be much worse; for example, funding for the pharmaceutical and medical industries will be slashed by 29%, and the cancer treatment program will lose 19% of its funding. Zyuganov said the cuts would also apply to education, science and housing, and communal services. Government priorities can meanwhile be seen through rising defense spending and a more than threefold increase in funds for government propaganda services.
For the government, a broadly loyal but critical leftist opposition may no longer be tolerable, and it may therefore think it worthwhile to foster a more reliable conservative-patriotic grouping expressing unconditional support for the war, and to support even the most painful spending cuts for the sake of militaristic goals.
However, the Kremlin should not forget that such sentiments can easily get out of control, and the alleged leader of the jingoists may not be satisfied with the role of a pro-government puppet.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.