Factors and scenarios to consider in predicting post-2008 developments

The question of what will happen in 2007 is rapidly becoming a preoccupation in Russia. Many had assumed this issue wouldn’t arise until 2006, but in fact people have started considering it sooner. There is a rapidly-growing gulf between the problem and methods being used to solve it.

The question of what will happen in 2007 is rapidly becoming a preoccupation in Russia. Many had assumed this issue wouldn’t arise until 2006, but in fact people have started considering it sooner.

There is a rapidly-growing gulf between the problem and methods being used to solve it – or rather, to not solve it.

It’s interesting to note that the Kremlin, perhaps by instinct rather than analysis, has already sensed this loss of uniformity in how citizens perceive political realities.

Analysts have been discussing abstractions all along, and politicians have been making their covert preparations; but in recent months there have also been distinct rumors to the effect that the Kremlin will soon take some resolute steps – anything from a Cabinet dismissal to early parliamentary elections. Even if such steps are taken, however, they will not change the situation fundamentally. They would only keep part of the elite busy for a while. A single change of government, or even an early Duma election, is not enough to change such institutions as the electoral system, housing and utilities services, the law enforcement agencies, the practice of reporting business activities to state agencies, or methods of receiving state contracts.

As yet, these are not signs of impending chaos; they are more like a collection of weak links and uncertain factors that might tip the balance in the situation at a decisive moment.

First factor

This factor is subjective, and in Russia that means it has every chance of becoming decisive: what if President Putin picks the wrong person as his designated successor, making it clear that this is his final choice? Kremlin insiders admit, with a sigh, that Putin does make mistakes about people sometimes.

So let’s imagine that Putin picks an individual who is rejected by a substantial part of the elites: those who control a certain amount of power and money, and fear to lose what they have. Consequently, the elites will either start playing their own game, or ignore Putin’s wishes if those wishes diverge from their ideas about what is expedient.

Already, the elite isn’t looking united or consolidated. And it certainly doesn’t seem prepared to fight to the end for the ideals of political stability, a developed parliamentary system, and a market economy.

Among the “chekist” (ex-KGB) faction of the elite, for example, some are in favor of the “siloviki” (security and law enforcement people) penetrating all areas of the economy, while others are opposed to this. The latter argue that the role and purpose of a chekist come down to one thing: preventive action. So they should not “take over” anything. Thus, a clash between interests might arise even here, and such an intra-faction conflict could have some rather far-reaching political consequences. After all, due to the nature of their professional background, members of this faction are accustomed to taking resolute action when necessary.

No one is seriously considering the coup option at present, of course. The Kremlin officials who assume that such a thing is possible are probably just using this danger to justify their own actions – presenting them as “preventive measures,” since they are inexplicable from a logical standpoint.

In theory, however, a “creeping coup” scenario is possible. In recent years, many members of the elite have acquired what one political consultant has described as “vital interests.” Such interests fall into two categories: the safety of their families, and their business or money (often far more vulnerable).

Some ill-considered political actions might only lead to dissatisfaction among the ruling elites, without going as far as thoughts of finding a more suitable leader. For example, the rising discontent among the silovoki on the grounds that Putin isn’t upholding Russia’s interests properly within the former Soviet Union, permitting one revolution after another to happen – this is hardly a sufficient cause for the siloviki to take resolute action. Similarly, the business community’s dissatisfaction with the tax system, or the protests by pensioners against the monetization of social benefits, can hardly escalate to a spontaneous revolution nourished by money from corporations. Something else is more dangerous: encroachment, or the threat of encroachment, on those “vital interests.” This fact now serves as a guarantee of the elites’ loyalty, as well as the source of their potential unpredictability.

Finding an individual who could please all the factions is probably an impossible task. Thus, rather than pleasing everyone, the objective should be to determine which factions would definitely not reject any specific individual. The idea is that the unanimity of some sectors of the elite would outweigh the wavering of others.

Complete rejection, or simply strong rejection, of the successor figure could prompt various strata of the Russian establishment to take active or passive measures. Passive measures have already been mentioned. Active measures could involve seeking an alternative candidate who could gurarantee, or at least promise, that “vital interests” would remain undamaged.

In a democracy, this would not present a danger. In democracies, covert discontent among the elites only leads to one team losing and moving into opposition. Horizontal links and layers in the form of non-governmental organizations, along with a national consensus regarding what is lawful and what is not (the limits of what is acceptable), serve as stabilizers that prevent a country from being sent into another round of redistributing spheres of influence and powers.

In Russia, things are different. Russian society is loosely-bound, and a lack of clear understanding of its class character makes it inclined to abrupt changes in mood.

Second factor – speaking ability

The problem with the Russian electorate – so far, at least – is that it’s overly inclined to trust fine speeches and simple, readily-understood words. People fall for that. It’s both good and bad. It’s good because it offers any colorful orator a chance to shine. It’s bad because extremely few Russian politicians are capable of making themselves understood, and thus gaining real voter support. And it’s very bad that Russian politics is entirely lacking in responsible orators.

In his latest address to parliament, Putin noted that state officials and bureaucrats are incapable of talking to the people in the same language. So there is already some understanding of the problem. Still, the scale of the problem is probably greater than it appears from the Kremlin.

Such people are extremely rare in Russian politics at present – and even the rare few don’t inspire optimism. If a changeover of the elites takes place, the situation could generate an entirely new figure – someone who would shine so brightly on the political firmament, clouded as it is by intrigues and mercenary interests, that the impact would be enormous.

Third factor – the regions

This factor is made up of the mood of ordinary voters in the regions – and, more significantly, the moods of the regional elites. These elites, with their money, powers, and partial media resources, are capable of actively influencing voter attitudes, especially if regional leaders are trusted.

Oddly enough, few people in Moscow are prepared to acknowledge that regional moods might get out of control. Still, there are some who share these fears – particularly a few people in the Kremlin. Many countries have experienced a series of national leadership changes, or even regime changes, in the wake of some unexpected outcomes in regional elections – so unexpected that the voting results couldn’t even be fixed by fraud.

Moscow may have been guided by such considerations, in part, when it went ahead with those famous initiatives last September – essentially abolishing elections for regional leaders. However, even having lost their “elected” status (although not their “elect” status), regional leaders could suddenly cease to obey Moscow’s policies.

Fourth factor – nationalism

Within Russia, a new outbreak of nationalist sentiments is being discussed, but is still generally viewed as a hypothetical threat. The alarms are mostly being sounded by foreign observers, who argue that Putin has gone too far in centralizing government.

Fifth factor – struture

In recent years, the prevalent reaction to failure has been to increase pressure across various “fronts.” Only in the past few months has the Kremlin decided to declare several thoroughly liberal intentions. All the same, Moscow is still generally holding firm to its tried and tested principle: no further steps can be taken without a strong state.

In principle, many of the latest events in Russia indicate serious problems, to put it mildly, with the performance of the system’s fundamental institutions.

A major outbreak of hepatitis in a region adjacent to Moscow; a blackout in the capital itself; spills of pollutants contaminating lakes and rivers; fractures in the load-bearing walls of residential buildings which haven’t been repaired for years; a drastic rise in drug use and HIV infection; hundreds of thousands of orphans and homeless children in the 21st century. This is where disintegration starts; it doesn’t only start when some region declares it is seceding.

The factor of institutional weakness is also perceptible in foreign policy. The last post-Soviet imperial “bonds” are now falling away from Russia. As they drop out of Russia’s orbit, other post-Soviet countries immediately try to use their window of opportunity to leap into NATO, the European Union, or other authoritative international clubs. Russia is waiting. Thus far, it hasn’t managed to gain anything in exchange, and has mostly taken a reactive approach to these events.

Intentions have to backed up with some strength. This strength can take three forms. The first is military force – and Russia cannot boast of that, alas. The second is economic power – another area where Russia has problems. Finally, the third is strength of spirit. Strength of will. This is what many other post-Soviet countries are demonstrating. But Russia isn’t very strong in the ideological dimension. The response to these events within Russia could take the form of various forces becoming more active – some saying it’s good for Russia to get rid of its imperialist legacy and hang-ups, while others appeal to the power of the former USSR.

If one or more of the abovementioned factors take effect, there will be two possible scenarios. The first seems hypothetical, since it could be a catalyst rather than a resolution in a tense situation. This would involve, for example, early parliamentary elections and a change in the political system to emphasize the government. This scenario is generating continual rumors about a party-aligned president, a presidential prime minister, or the need for Putin to stay on as Russia’s leading political figure after 2008. Yet this scenario seems to be more of a fanciful, alarmist proposal – since everyone, even its proponents, is well aware of its likely domestic and international consequences.

The second scenario involves the search for a worthy successor – and rumor has it that such a search is well under way. This scenario could also bring many surprises. In Russia, after all, things often work out that way: what actually happens is very different from what was discussed and planned. What actually happens is something that no one knew, or no one guessed, or no one mentioned aloud.