The durability of the Russian political and economic system molded by Vladimir Putin has been the subject of much analysis and speculation, both Russian and foreign, generating a veritable cottage industry of opinion pieces and forecasts. Some observers have long argued that structural economic problems (e.g., endemic corruption, a poor business climate, and overdependence on hydrocarbon revenues) and increasing political repression would ultimately cause the system to melt down. The Ukraine crisis and subsequent cratering of energy prices beginning in 2014 have provided still more grist for assertions that Putinism is in for a very hard landing, with doomsayers predicting inevitable and even imminent collapse. Other analysts, while acknowledging Russia’s serious challenges, both structural and events-based, point to signs of recovery from the post-2014 economic downturn and posit the Kremlin’s continued capacity to muddle through for the foreseeable future—quite possibly long enough for an upturn in Russia’s fortunes. Putin’s many admirers, for their part, point to his sky-high popularity and bold foreign-policy moves, and argue that it is a befuddled, rudderless West rather than a vigorous, purposeful Russia that is staring disaster in the face.
Offering a timetable for the demise of the Putin regime is a fool’s errand that I will not undertake. Russia’s short-to-medium-term trajectory will be shaped by thousands of decisions that have yet to be made, and by developments that we probably cannot even foresee. Much shallow analysis has involved projections based on a short time frame and a narrow choice of indicators. Certainly breathless assertions in the recent past that the Russian economy or the ruble were “in free fall” sound premature now—but so does Putin’s early 2015 boast that Russia had already weathered the worst of the crisis. One can make the case that the expected return to economic growth (however feeble) by 2017 heralds the end of the crisis—or argue that the focus of the crisis has merely shifted from GNP and the ruble to falling real incomes, state and regional budgets, and the health of Russian corporate balance sheets. The announced 5 percent cut in the 2016 Russian defense budget can be perceived alternatively as a panic move signaling that the regime is quickly running out of options, or as a prudent fiscal measure undertaken calmly by a government that remains fully on top of its game.
Whatever ultimately transpires, economics will play an enormous role in the fate of Putinism. I offer no sweeping predictions, but merely a few observations—first and foremost, that the popular wisdom about Russia’s recent economic history is riddled with misconceptions that complicate an assessment of the current situation and any dispassionate evaluation of a possible future trajectory.
Some analysts posit that the Kremlin will avoid root-and-branch structural economic reform because, at least in part, of the supposedly dire track-record of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Of course, perestroika did not actually involve any thoroughgoing structural reforms whatsoever. Gorbachev’s entire premise was that socialism was an entirely viable economic system that merely needed a bit of tinkering—better central planning and tighter labor discipline—to make it flourish. Far from constituting thorough, purposeful reform, Gorbachev’s half-measures neither resuscitated socialism nor laid the groundwork for a new, post-Soviet market economy. Perestroika hardly represents a model, good or bad, for deep structural reform.
Another odd notion is that Russia should avoid market reforms because malign Westerners and their naive/sycophantic Russian acolytes already foisted neo-liberal economic policies on Russia in the 1990s, with catastrophic results. The actual state of economic affairs in the Wild ‘90s was considerably more complicated, and nearly the opposite of the popular misconception. Gorbachev’s focus on salvaging socialism meant that, when the Soviet Union ultimately broke apart in 1991, the successor states had only the barest rudiments of the institutions required for a market economy. As Russia emerged from beneath the rubble of its erstwhile Soviet economy, the country had no stock market, no commercial banking, no body of applicable commercial law, no anti-conspiracy or -racketeering laws (which would have been useful for prosecuting the pyramid schemes that flourished in the early post-Soviet years), and a tax system unsuited to raising revenue in a market economy—to name only some of the problems. The combination of decades of socialism and prolonged low energy prices had bankrupted the country, and the failure to prepare in the 1980s for any sort of transition ensured chaos as Russia attempted to build a complex market economy before the institutional foundation had even been laid.
Moreover, if shock therapy were an Olympic sport, and Leszek Balcerowicz’s Poland were the paradigm of a perfect “10,” then Yegor Gaidar’s Russia might charitably be awarded at best a “4.” Russia began promisingly enough with the painful but unavoidable step of freeing most prices. However, unlike in Poland, the Russian Central Bank long failed to get a grip on the money supply, allowing inflation to rage. The government insisted on maintaining substantially lower domestic (vs. export) prices for most raw materials, ostensibly to shelter Russian industry during the transition to a market economy. In practice, the two-tiered price structure for valuable commodities allowed a handful of Russians to profit handsomely from the arbitrage between the two prices, launching the careers of numerous oligarchs and depriving state coffers of desperately needed revenues. To the extent that privatization occurred at all, it was conducted in an opaque manner, enriching a few individuals while generally failing to break up monopolies or reform the management of the enterprises—and once again short-changing the state treasury. Companies were typically reorganized not to make them more efficient, but merely to strip out assets for personal enrichment.
Critics of the Wild ‘90s are correct that Western partners offered copious economic advice during the period—but most of it was simply ignored. The policies pursued in Russia prior to the 1998 financial crisis bore at best only a superficial resemblance to Polish-style shock therapy or neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. As a result, Russia received, to paraphrase Strobe Talbott, all of the shock and virtually none of the therapy.
Soviet citizens grew up imbued with the conviction that capitalism is a hellish system in which a handful of fabulously wealthy individuals ruthlessly exploit and pauperize the toiling masses, who have no rights and no legal recourse. Perceiving after 1991 that they would need to build capitalism on the ruins of socialism, Russians evidently proceeded to create it based on their Soviet-era understanding—and it had little to do with any actual Western advice or practices.
In one final paradox, the Putin-era recovery has been hailed as the time when Russia stopped aping the West, threw off Western economic tutelage, rose from its knees, and pursued independent policies commensurate with the country’s own interests. Once again, the reality is considerably more complex and largely at variance with the popular stereotype.
First, the key element in the Putin recovery was the cyclical upturn in commodities prices, which was extrinsic to any policies pursued by the Kremlin. Unlike his unfortunate predecessors, Putin wasn’t compelled to improvise policies in a time of scarcity.
Second, although not trained as an economist, Putin evidently recognizes economic talent when he sees it, and has placed competent individuals like Alexei Kudrin and Herman Gref in charge of macroeconomic policy. They achieved impressive results in bringing down inflation, liquidating Russia’s sovereign debt, ending wage and pension arrears, balancing the budget, and establishing funds to manage Russia’s huge hydrocarbon revenues. In short, they finally implemented market-oriented macroeconomic policies long after the West had ceased to proffer advice in this regard. Ironically, Russia never followed Western economic precepts so closely as when the Kremlin was publicly repudiating the West and all its perverse ways.
Third, it was during this period that trade and investment with the West boomed. Russia tapped into Western financial markets, pursued business interests in the West, and increasingly succeeded in attracting foreign—principally Western—investment. Moreover, the Putin era is precisely when Russian elites became personally integrated into the West, buying up real estate and educating their children there, setting up companies, and even obtaining dual citizenship. So, far from slipping its Western economic shackles, as myth would have it, Russia under Putin became thoroughly integrated with the West—and thrived like never before. Had it not been so, Moscow could have shrugged off post-2014 Western sanctions, rather than having to scrounge the funds to finance looming Russian budget deficits or shore up shaky corporate balance sheets.
Despite the undoubted gravity of Russia’s economic predicament, anyone anticipating a sudden, near-term economic collapse in Russia will surely be confounded. Putinomics, notwithstanding its initiative- and wealth-destroying aspects, is unlikely to prove as economically pernicious as Soviet socialism—and even socialism lingered on through decades of stagnation before giving up the ghost. Moreover, unlike during the Wild ‘90s, Russia now has most of the basic institutional elements of a market economy, not to mention a team of capable economic-policy managers who have so far handled the post-2014 downturn rather well. Having brought the economy battered but intact through a difficult stretch, they now argue for thoroughgoing reform to help Russia weather a lengthy period of low commodity prices and high international tensions.
On the other hand, Russia’s current orthodox macroeconomic approach is criticized by Sergey Glazyev and like-minded individuals from the Stolypin Club, who argue for jump-starting the economy through massive government funding of “national projects,” positing reindustrialization as the driver for a new burst of sustained economic growth. Putin has long retained Glazyev as an adviser without, however, paying much heed to his economic advice. If Putin ever decided instead to put Glazyev in charge of economic policy, then we could anticipate Russia quickly transforming itself into a large, cold, nuclear-armed Venezuela, with a calamitous denouement virtually a foregone conclusion.
Indeed, as far as the Russian economy is concerned, there is little indication that Putin feels any particular inclination to choose at all between systematic market reforms or the return to an essentially command economy. As Maxim Trudolyubov has observed, “[t]he Kremlin favors none of the suggested cures to the current economic malaise,” adding that “[a] managed stalemate seems to be a better solution than potentially disruptive growth.” By not choosing any program, the Kremlin is placing its wager on muddling through, with extended low growth (if not outright contraction) until Russia is rescued—again—by the next cyclical upswing in hydrocarbon prices. Given the alternatives, it might well seem the safest course of action. However, it is worth recalling that Russia survived sudden, sharp contractions in 1998 and 2009; it was, by contrast, the long, wasting disease of the Brezhnev stagnation that finished off the Soviet Union. If the Kremlin eschews urgent structural reforms and contents itself with cosmetic fixes due to fear of another debacle like perestroika, Putin risks learning the real lesson of perestroika the hard way.