The defining characteristic of the Putin era, so far at least, has been the repeated and cumulative choice of centrally imposed order in the face of new challenges demanding new approaches. The question as Putin’s third term approaches is whether Russia’s power structures1 will continue to be governed by this rule, by choice or because they must.
There is a clear line of descent between the Yeltsin years and what has happened on Putin’s watch. The Kremlin has drawn succor from a story of chaos before 2000 and the benefits of stability since then. Both propositions are persuasive in their different ways, but also misleading. The problems of the 1990s were also problems of transition. Yeltsin’s legacy was patchy, but not without its achievements. Other actors, his opponents among them, also shaped events. Putin inherited options for transition toward a better form of liberal democracy that he chose not to take, preferring instead the option of working towards authoritarian rule.
Three linked strands in the process between then and now, together with the consequences for Russia’s relationship with the outside world, need sketching in before a look at future possibilities:
- Putin began by enacting economic reforms that Yeltsin had been unable to get past the Duma, and earned further credit in the West for the responsible fiscal policies followed under Kudrin as Finance Minister, and largely since. But what initially appeared to many to be a market-based and liberal approach was compromised from the first by a parallel determination to assert state control over “strategic industries”, oil and gas not least. The destruction of Yukos in 2003 was a milestone on that score. It was also confirmation of the Kremlin’s intention to prevent Russian companies from becoming multinational corporations with the potential to escape its control. Russia’s economic difficulties in the wake of the global financial crisis were not enough to persuade Putin on his return to the Kremlin in May 2012 of the need to pursue ideas for economic reform discussed during the Medvedev interregnum. On the contrary, state control, and the participation of security factions within that, have since then become the guiding realities to a still greater degree—along with the concomitant rise in corruption.
- Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May 2012 also heralded a qualitative political change. The process of establishing the authority of the Executive at the expense of the Legislative and Judiciary branches of constitutional government, including at the expense of regional authorities, was set in train from the beginning of Putin’s first term as President. Putin’s choice in May 2012 was for a tougher form of authoritarianism. By now, the Prime Minister may on occasion be a convenient scapegoat for the Kremlin, but he and the government he heads are plainly no more than the instruments of the Kremlin. The Duma is a stage prop not a place for effective political debate: On July 16, Vedomosti reported that all parties with the exception of United Russia, including those representing the official opposition in the existing Duma, were finding it difficult to persuade potential candidates to run in the future because of the reduced status of deputies, the greater risk of their mandates being revoked, and a wish not to spoil candidates’ relations with Russia’s organs of power. The next Duma is unlikely to be any more effective, in short, than the present one. The same goes for the Judiciary. Regional Governors are elected in form but selected in practice by Putin.
- The regime has, thirdly, by now made public criticism, whether hostile or constructive, increasingly dangerous. That process, too, has been in place from the beginning of the Putin years. A July Human Rights Watch report, On Line and On All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression, outlined the present state of affairs. It had already become harder over the course of the 1990s to face up to the crimes of the Soviet era, or to recognize the societal and economic problems inherent in its legacy. Russia is not of course the only country whose people and rulers prefer not to look too hard at past wrongs, and such reluctance is all the more understandable given the perception among Russians of the territory now ruled from Moscow as the Soviet Union writ small, not as a Russia newly set free. But it is also the case that history has been rewritten in the Putin era, and falsified in the interests of a narrow patriotism in the interests of the presently ruling regime. No country ought to hold the likes of Ivan the Terrible or Stalin as its heroes. Nor is it healthy for a distorted worship of an eventual victory in World War II (The Great Fatherland War) to be entrenched and celebrated with military pomposity each May. The search for legitimacy by such means masks a failure to denote a persuasive vision for the future.
What I describe above as a narrowing of vision and choice over the past two decades has been extensively analyzed and interpreted over the years, most recently in the new English version of a work by Andrei Kovalev, Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin. Russia’s domestic evolution has been a principal force behind Russia’s retreat into itself as a Fortress to be defended against the outside world, and especially the United States. There is a clear link between the proposition that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy that, at least by implication, could have been avoided had Gorbachev not been in charge, on the one hand, and the allegation, on the other, that Russia was exploited by the West during its years of weakness. That allegation fits neatly into the story of the Yeltsin years as ones of chaos and failure. The present Kremlin narrative scarcely acknowledges the Soviet roots of change in Central and Eastern Europe, or in the former USSR. One could in any case hardly expect a country to be law-based and market-oriented in its relationships with the wider world yet building corrupted state capitalism at home, politically open to new ideas abroad yet closed to them at home, or liberalizing its international preconceptions yet nurturing national myths at home. The Putin regime had it comparatively easy in dealing with its contradictions when the oil price was high and seemed likely to continue to rise. But since 2008 things have become tougher and Russia’s relationships with the West have worsened.
Putin’s problem in securing another term in the Kremlin is not one of getting the votes, but one of doing so on the strength of a fresh and convincing mandate that will last him and his circle through the six years after his inauguration. The nation wide street demonstrations against corruption in March and their convincing follow up in June this year showed up the acclaimed 80-plus percent poll approval ratings for Putin as less impressive than they seem to be to outside observers. They came as an unpleasant reminder for the ruling cabal of the 2011-12 demonstrations against electoral fraud. Blaming the United States and the West in general for unexpected unrest is one instinctive reaction, but not an adequate answer for the regime. The fears expressed from time to time by Putin and his circle of color revolutions also reflect an understandable degree of doubt as to how far and how long the Russian public can be expected to behave itself. The current mood of the electorate is apathetic, as far as next year’s presidential context is concerned as well as for Duma elections. Russians have after all good reason to doubt if their votes will make a difference to the outcome. Putin, however, needs a reasonably convincing opponent for the contest to seem anything other than one only for show. Hence the current mix of harassment of Navalny and his organized supporters but reluctance to press home the threat of his imprisonment or preventing him running by some other means.
Significant policy changes, promised for 2018-24 or possibly delivered, might therefore arguably be in the Russian national interest yet too risky for Putin and his entourage to pursue:
- Economic approaches need rethinking, with more urgency than attempted in the run up to Putin’s re-election in 2012. It was recognized by then that the rent-dependent model based primarily on world oil and gas price rises, had run out of road. Russia had been particularly badly hit by the 2008 financial crisis. The hope of returning to the days of $100 or more per barrel of oil on a long term and sustainable basis seems even vainer now than it did nine years ago. The Russian economy is now more dependent on oil and gas than it was even under the Soviet Union. The reputable energy analyst Dieter Helm wrote in his recent book, “Russia, as a fossil fuel economy, is a big loser from the fall in prices, and will struggle to come to terms with the consequences of medium to long term declines.” Helm noted Russia’s few advantages in the new technologies, its corruption, autocracy and the absence of leading global companies in the country. These weaknesses were “not accidents” but “what you would expect of a resource cursed country…. Russia faces a bleak future.”
The past several years have indeed been difficult for ordinary Russians. The country will be hit hard in the event of a further global financial crises. Health and education have suffered at the expense of security spending. Regional budgets have come under particular strain. There are at present indications that the economy is bottoming out, and that modest growth of the order of 1.5 percent is in prospect for 2017 and 2018, but as the OECD has reported, the upturn is fragile and rests mainly on a rebound of commodity prices. There have been no bankable indications of significant planning for the sorts of changes in the structure of the economy or the political and societal framework necessary to secure long-term prosperity. Those changes would be disruptive. They would have to be clearly set out, and consistently argued through. That argument would have to include recognition of past failures to address the difficulties. There would be losers among those who benefit from current conditions, corruption and all. And destruction, even if necessary and ultimately creative, is never well received by those who lose out, be they ordinary or privileged. The temptation for Putin will therefore be to argue in seeking re-election that the economy is recovering despite the hostility of the West, as proof of the validity of the policies his Administration has overseen. But events will test such a claim over 2018-24 will be another. Putin’s future authority will suffer without a more significant economic recovery than is in prospect at present, with the consequence that without such a recovery his dependence on the security forces to preserve his regime might well deepen still further. That would indeed be “bleak.”
- The instruments of government need attention if Putin’s next term is to move beyond the sterile and potentially dangerous ground of self-preservation for its own sake. The unspoken but necessary condition behind the ideas for economic diversification discussed during the Medvedev presidency was political change, notably an independent and effective judicial system. Russia has moved further since then into governance by “understandings” executed through a compromised and largely corrupted bureaucratic hierarchy. Such a system is inherent in the Putinist idea of a country run by a vertical of power, that being in contradiction with a country governed by the rule of law, with all its citizens subject to that law. Russia’s Constitution favors presidential rule, and its other branches have been drained of independent authority. It is not evident that any successor to Putin, however liberally inclined, could now devolve authority and public accountability to the Duma or the courts. Nor is it clear how far such a person—or an improbably transfigured Putin—could change the nature of the bureaucracy to respond to such a possibility. The governmental machine is for now geared toward the understanding that its purpose and interest lie in protecting the status quo, while its operators profit from the task as best they can. There is no sign so far of a further Putin term proclaiming a different mandate, or of defining the nature of its policies more closely. The risk is that without such guidance as to what is needed and what is forbidden the bureaucratic machinery on which the executive must rely will continue to decline in its effectiveness, biddability and sense of public duty.
- The search for Great Power status will remain a constant, and has over the past decade or more acted as a necessary counterbalance to Russia’s inability to sustain the political and economic momentum of Putin’s first two terms. Putin’s proclaimed intention in 2012 as he re-claimed the presidency was to build a Eurasian Union with Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan as its core elements and Russia as in practice its dominant power, or hegemon. The right or even duty of protecting Russians beyond the borders of the Russian Federation has for years been proclaimed by Moscow—meaning ethnic Russians. Ethnic Russians had in practice a directing role to play in the USSR despite their relative demographic decline, and the Russian assumption of an inborn right to rule in ”their” space is still very much alive. But believing something is right and achieving it in reality are different. Ukraine has yet to collapse and return to what Moscow sees as its natural home, in effect as part of Russia. Belarus and Kazakhstan work with the Kremlin as best they can, but guard their independence as best they can too. It would be sensible for Putin and his colleagues to reflect on why it is that trying to force others to be friends does not work, but for now there are no signs of rethinking Russia’s approach to its immediate neighborhood, or the wider world. Nor are there indications that the Russian push for greater military strength will relax.
The overall conclusion is that Putin has nothing new to offer his country, and that he will have to rely on the drying laurels he has now. Given the central role that he fills in the power structure of Russia, and the reluctance he has displayed toward allowing others to exercise devolved power, the option of shifting real authority to a new set of politically empowered colleagues over the next six years looks like a long shot at best. Even if Putin were minded to diversify power in this way, it would stir uncomfortable rivalries within the ruling group, where support for significant change over the next few years is hard to envisage. If that remains the case, it might well follow in strict but increasingly surreal logic that Putin, health permitting, would have to succeed himself in 2024, or to nominate an untried substitute, perhaps one ready to tandem it again. But strict logic based on present realities rarely applies to developments that far ahead. Much will depend on how ambitions and moods within the elites may shift and how Russian society may develop before the succession issue is faced, as it must be sooner or later. That issue is of course more than just a question of who might take Putin’s place, but how that might come about and what that might mean for Russia’s domestic and international future. Imposing order as the first priority of Russia’s power structures will have its price. Such order itself changes the status quo, narrowing the options of the powers that seek to impose it, and widening the distance between them and broader parts of the nation they seek to control.
1Vlast is the generic term for power structures in Russia and a better one for its spirit of government than “state.”