Vladimir Putin will be again elected as Russia’s president this Sunday. Despite the protest movement that has risen up since last December, the actual outcome of the election isn’t in doubt, both because of the Kremlin’s penchant for rigging things in Putin’s favor and simply because a viable political alternative to Putin has not emerged.
Unfortunately, this new era of Putinism will have a lot in common with another era from recent Russian history, the era of stagnation experienced under former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose rule in the 1970s is marked by, well, not much. It is a condition likely to repeat itself under President Putin, despite the mass public protests with their calls for more democracy and an end to Russia’s endemic corruption.
For Putin to launch into a package of reforms would be to bite the hand that feeds him. His Kremlin is filled with insiders (often referred to by the old Soviet-era term siloviki) who have grown fat off the state and have given him a base of power in return. For public consumption, Putin occasionally calls one out like Oleg Deripaska, or exiles a particularly troublesome member, like Boris Berezovsky; but Putin has no interest in truly tackling corruption or challenging the cozy relationship the state has with a cadre of powerful corporations as this would directly erode his base of power.
A Russian professor of mine contended that Putin was the perfect Soviet man. It’s worth remembering Putin’s KGB past, since Putin himself has never forgotten. Nor has he ever lost the Soviet suspicion of their own people, whom they regarded as unpredictable and troublesome. This is why the Kremlin rigs elections that will turn out in their favor anyway (like last December, and possibly this Sunday), and why Putin will not be swayed by the passionate protesters who take to the streets.
To placate them, Pres. Putin may offer some gestures towards reform: a publicized crackdown on corruption or promises of democratization, but these moves will be designed to be ineffective. The grand order of things will not change, even though Russia is in great need of a shake-up. Russian manufacturing is woefully inefficient; their aerospace industry is suffering from brain-drain as older engineers leave the field with fewer younger ones to replace them, a contributing factor to several recent high-profile failures in their space program; their oil fields are rapidly maturing with production levels beginning to decline.
During the last decade, Putin relied on windfall profits from oil to flood Russia’s coffers, allowing him to embark on public spending that moved Russia past the economic chaos of the 1990s and laid the foundation for a middle class. But Russia has gotten greedy, their budget today is built on the idea of oil selling in the range of $110/barrel, an optimistic level considering that OPEC has publicly voiced support for an $80-90/bbl price range for oil. The result will be that Russia is unlikely to have the huge oil revenue surpluses that they did last decade. Pair this with an ineffective manufacturing sector and rampant public corruption and you have a recipe for a period of stagnation like the 1970s.
The wild card of course is the public, which has remained energized since last December. Their challenge will be to find ways to affect a political system that actively opposes attempts at public participation. It is a tall order, but it is also Russia’s only chance to avoid a decade of stagnation.
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