The lessons of 2005 and the outlook for 2006 in Russian politics

But hoping for stability in Russia is just like hoping that a rusty water-pipe won’t spring a leak. All right, it might not do so today – but God knows what will happen tomorrow. We should also note that Russia’s political class remains absorbed in sawing through the branch it’s sitting on.

Power and doom in the same package

Outwardly, President Putin seems to be in an enviable position compared to Gorbachev or Yeltsin: as well as controlling all government resources and enjoying great public support, he’s also been lucky with regard to oil prices. In contrast to his predecessors, he isn’t forced to keep proving his own right to hold power, protect himself from rivals, and make humiliating deals with the bureaucracy, the military, or the oligarchs.

Nevertheless, Putin’s second term is all too reminiscent of Yeltsin’s second term: in its lack of strategy, its sudden moves, and the stronger role played by the president’s favorites.

The impression that Putin’s subordinates are growing increasingly arrogant as they get away with one failure after another, unpunished. Why does Putin tolerate them? For various reasons, apparently: he doesn’t like personnel shake-ups, doesn’t trust new people, doesn’t like to make any extra effort. Or perhaps he understands that the failures stem from the system itself, with errors generated by the rules of the game more than by the quality of decision-makers.

There could be various reasons behind Putin’s political tolerance; but the results indicate that Putin prefers to forgive his people for failure. This turns loyalty into lack of accountability, with Putin reproducing this to the detriment of his own leadership.

Can Russia stay afloat on its own?

The past year has delineated not only the direction of Russia’s self-identification in international affairs, but also the principal problems connected with this. Both Russia and the West have stopped discussing the extent to which Russia can be integrated into the Western community.

Russia is attempting to transfer its hybrid nature into foreign policy: that is, it’s trying to combine partnership with the Western community and reinforcement of its own status as a world power, which implies self-sufficiency. The West has accepted Russia’s self-identification, regarding it as a partner and rival simultaneously, even playing along with Russia in acknowledging its ambitions in return for cooperation on security and energy. This “symbols for compromises” deal has resulted in Russia’s participation in the G8 and impending chairmanship, as well as the Russia-EU “cooperation areas.”

In practise, however, it’s proved exceptionally difficult to implement the partner-rival model. The events in Ukraine marked the first open conflict between Russia and the West in the former Soviet Union; it demonstrated the extent of incompatibility between Russia and the West. Note that during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Russia’s clash with the West largely involved differences between civilizations and systems, not geopolitics. Then again, these same events also confirmed that Russia is not ready for a direct confrontation with the West.

The partner-rival model has been tested outside as well as inside the former Soviet Union. Moscow’s attempts to defend Iran and Syria from the West’s pressure served as evidence of Russia’s growing confidence in foreign affairs. But these attempts also revealed something more serious: the differences between Russia and the West, in their perceptions of democracy and ways of ensuring global stability and security.

Putin and a substantial part of Russia’s political class don’t want Russia to become too distanced from the West, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the difference between the trajectories of Russia and the West in world politics. In this area, Russia is striving to maintain the status quo – that is, something similar to its domestic policy agenda: trying to preserve the remnants of the erstwhile international system for as long as possible.

Russia describes its foreign policy hybrid as multilateral. This translates very simply, as “We’ll be friends with anyone we choose!” So far, Russia has the resources to play an independent role – but these resources are not sufficient for Russia to meet global and domestic challenges on its own.

Besides, while Russia is escaping the West’s gravitational pull, it isn’t strengthening its own sovereignty at all; rather, it’s becoming influenced by other global centers of gravity. Moscow is already playing an active role in promoting China’s interests by strengthening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which the Chinese are using to expand into Central Asia and counteract the United States.

Russia is still living in the USSR

Russia’s reaction to events in the “near abroad” demonstrates that Moscow still views this area as part of domestic policy. Our political class continues to regard the New Independent States (NIS) as its sphere of influence: territories with limited sovereignty. Influence over the “near abroad” remains an instrument for consolidating the Russian political elite and a factor in strengthening the Russian state. The Kremlin’s outward pragmatism, which Putin spent so long cultivating, shattered as soon as it was tested by the color revolutions. The imperial great power syndrome of the Russian elite can be seen in the way its political mindset prioritizes territory and force, as well as its intuitive perception of post-Soviet territory as a new form of Russia’s existence.

Given this approach, of course, real partnership between Russia and the West is inconceivable – especially if the West assumes it has the right to bypass Russia in relations with the NIS. Democratization in Russia is impossible as long as Russia keeps regarding post-Soviet territory as its property; this way of thinking is an obstacle to Russia’s transformation. The existence of the CIS will continue to alienate Russia from Europe, until Russia accepts the idea that the former Soviet Union’s shift toward the West is advantageous for Russia itself.

The United States and Russia: between idealism and realpolitik

Moscow and Washington have outlined a certain area for their relationship, and both sides are attempting to keep within its boundaries. Outwardly, everything appears unchanged; the leaders exchange friendly handshakes, and the familiar trio of issues dominates the agenda for Russian-American relations: international terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, energy dialogue. But this impression has been disrupted by Russia’s decision to sell some Tor air defense missile systems to Iran. It made Washington turn pale, and demonstrated Russia’s rather light-minded attitude to its own security. The problem is that polite smiles are serving as compensation for the lack of real progress on all three agenda items. There’s the impression of a microscopic amount of progress in mutual understanding on the question of Iran’s nuclear status. Moscow seems to have grown concerned about Iran going too far in its confrontation with the West. But the most popular issue – cooperation with the United States in the energy sector – has ground to a halt, primarily because Russia won’t allow American corporations to acquire any substantial stakes in extracting or transporting Russian resources.

Russia makes no secet of its ambition to expel the United States from the former Soviet Union. Using the SCO to push the Americans out of Central Asia is just one aspect of a policy aimed at restraining American globalism.

Everything is in perfect order, your ladyship!

There are a number of circumstances that keep Russian society in a state of semi-slumber. First, oil prices – still the key factor in stability. Second, economic revival continues in Russia, and maintains a positive tone among part of society. Third, the nation has not recovered from fatigue from the previous stage and is not ready to go out into the streets (the Levada Center polling agency says that only 29% of respondents say they might take part in protests). Fourth, people are frustrated by the existing opposition both to the left and to the right and do not hurry to support it expecting appearance of new persons.

Fifth, it is important that the incumbent regime tries to incorporate the slogans and the ideas taken from the opposition. Sixth, the authorities manage to co-opt all more or less influential and known personages. Loss of the opposition attitude by intelligentsia is a separate story. Seventh, we need to mention a relative softness of the regime that allows survival of the discontent, which relieves the pressure too. Eighth, political technologists manage to create temptation of closeness to the authorities for the elite and to fill the political vacuum with dross limiting the chances for formation of live social and political movements. Ninth, the Kremlin is permanently ready to react to fluctuations of the attitude. This is confirmed by the turn of the President towards social policy. The matter is obviously not only about interception of ideas of the leftist opposition but also understanding that state employees have been neglected too much and too long.

Everything is relative

I will name only three undermining factors. The first is the conflict between the personified authorities and their democratic legitimization, which makes self-reproduction of these authorities doubtful. The second factor is a wish of the authorities to ensure status quo with simultaneous re-distribution of resources, which changes the balance of forces inevitable. The third factor is preserving of the system on account of a cyclic overthrowing of the regime, which in turn causes perturbations.

Let us pay attention to the way in which the rule of unpremeditated circumstances works. Take the Civic Chamber. Its appearance shows that authorities are seeking for new forms of a distracting maneuver. To put this short, we deal with institutionalization of loyalty. This is quite a technological solution if we speak about the needs of the situational statehood. However, it is possible to feel that a part of the members of the chamber tries to combine loyalty with preserving of at least visibility of the freedom of opinions. This is confirmed by the demand of the Civic Chamber to the Duma not to hurry with passing of amendments to the bill on non-commercial organizations that would close the air supply for entire civil society. At any rate, we need not cherish too many illusions about the unruliness of the new body. Most likely it has been authorized and serves as a pretext for establishment of the Public chamber as an allegedly independent actor. Let us see to which extent the authorities are ready to preserve dissidence in their antechambers. In any case the authorities face a dilemma. Imitation should look credible but excessive credibility will ruin the idea.

The fact of establishment of a series of imitation bodies means that authorities are concerned about the things that may happen in the society. At any rate, the more actively the authorities try to create a virtual civil society the bigger the likeliness that a part of the society will go out of the legal fields. Structures opposition included into the system is a condition for stability of the society and the state. On the contrary, opposition ousted to a ghetto is always unpredictable and anti-systemic. Meanwhile, 61% of respondents wish to have opposition (only 25% treat it negatively) and 47% of respondents say that there is no opposition in the society (30% say that there is). This means that the nation is waiting for appearance of influential opponents to the authorities.

National Bolsheviks are the first bell ring that has heralded beginning of an epoch of non-systemic policy that starts if the society is discontent with systemic policy.

There is an impression that the Kremlin is advised by political scientists who believe that the world has been frozen on the level of the 1970s-1980s. Meanwhile, today policy as a social phenomenon is changing the forms getting adjusted to a more elastic world. Thus, parties, labor unions and mass movements are losing importance in our eyes and the role of groups of interests is growing.

However, there is also a more alarming trend. I mean evolution of the post-Soviet system in the North Caucasus where it has acquired an extreme clan and authoritarian expression and rests on federal bayonets and subsidies. Moscow became a hostage of local chieftains like Ramzan Kadyrov and other sultan regimes. Leaving all responsibility to the federal center they only strengthen the anti-Russian attitude in the regions. The idea of Kozak to introduce external governance of the republics is a recognition of the hopelessness of the situation. It is possible that in case of inflammation of the Caucasus Moscow will have to introduce extraordinary governance mechanisms there because Russian statehood does not contain any other mechanisms of response to challenges of this kind. Of course, this will be the last blow on the federation and may provide to be undermining of the statehood that builds itself on imitation.

The situational factors that work for stability today may start working in the opposite direction tomorrow. Let us take oil as a source of quietness. I advise those who rely on its stabilizing role to read “The Prize” of Daniel Ergin that explains periodicity of collapse of oil prices and says what follows this up inevitably. There is also another tool of pacification, namely formation of political clones. Is there any guarantee that what has happened to Motherland will not happen to Our Own (Nashi) or Youth Guard. Motherland had all signs of artificial conception but afterwards turned into a loose cannon. There was even a need to take disciplinary measures against Motherland and to push it from the elections in Moscow to make them feel to which extent they went too far. In turn, the idea of interception of nationalist slogans from the opposition has been implemented so successfully that now the Kremlin needs to take effort to bring the genie back to the bottle.

With regard to the national projects, the problem is not that they can split state employees. This would be even useful for political stability. The problem is more serious. How it is possible to satisfy the growing expectations of the society having 180 billion rubles? Allocation of more money would mean acceleration of inflation. Just note that opening the stabilization fund the authorities are going to offer to the needy fish and not the fishing rod with assistance of which they can catch fish on their own. This means not only strengthening of dependence of the population, especially its underprivileged part, on the authorities but also transformation of this dependence into a factor of protest if the authorities fail to provide financial guarantees for their populism. There is no doubt that money of the stabilization fund will be sufficient to provide a presidential springboard to the Putin’s appointee but what will Dmitry Medvedev or his double do to the encouraged populism after 2008?

This is an ungrateful occupation to guess to which extent it will be able to preserve stability in a closed system that has started working for itself. So far, situational stability does not cause any doubts. However, let us imagine coincidence of several events, namely reform of the housing and public utilities sector, raising of energy tariffs, traffic jams in large cities, non-payment of wages to state employees, discontent of students and technology catastrophe like electricity blackout in Moscow.

Another thing is equally dramatic. The tensed situation when there are no influential liberal democratic forces in the society and liberal democracy is associated with worsening of living standards can only increase the nationalist populist inclination. The Kremlin official who warn that the incumbent regime is an embodiment of civilization in comparison to what may appear if it collapses may prove to be right. However, the reason is that these are the incumbent authorities that have generated the logic of which they are afraid and in the framework of which Putin looks like the only European.

So far, the number of signs showing that Russian elite is not convinced even of its future is growing. One of the Kremlin celestials confesses, “We are simply afraid.” Activeness of the authorities in creation of decorative organizations, cloning of politicians, ousting of independent persons from public life, petty control over elections and attempts to isolate the society from foreign influence, all this shows that authorities do not feel that their position is strong.

The rapidly growing Russian population of London and flight of Russian billions abroad that is now called “export of capital” is an indicator if not the fear than apprehensions. Not a single representative of Russia’s elite can be sure of successful emigration. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Lazarenko spending time in American prison, former Russian Nuclear Energy Minister Adamov waiting for a trial in American prison, refusal to issue American and other visas to a number of powerful Russian oligarchs despite the attempts of the Kremlin to solve this problem on the topmost level, all this makes representatives of the post-Soviet elite nervous. They may be unlucky unlike Mikhas and Borodin.

Meanwhile, looking at the fuss of the authorities the society evidently feels that authorities are not self-confident and lack of self-confidence of the authorities may tempt the society to test their stability.

Ending with an ellipsis…

Russia is moving into a new year: 2006. All instruments of government, and even objective trends, seem geared toward maintaining stability in Russian society. Both the nervous political class and the general public want stability. By an irony of fate, so do the Western states, and even a substantial number of alternative thinkers in Russia itself, who understand the likely consequences of any upheavals, given widespread disillusionment with the liberal project. But hoping for stability in Russia is just like hoping that a rusty water-pipe won’t spring a leak. All right, it might not do so today – but God knows what will happen tomorrow. We should also note that Russia’s political class remains absorbed in sawing through the branch it’s sitting on. So it isn’t very likely to take an intelligent approach to housing and utilities reforms, help state-sector workers without increasing inflation, reduce the threat of terrorism in Russia, or restore confidence among most Russian investors.

Thus, we should expect the unexpected – including unexpected moves made by the Kremlin in its attempts to avoid undesirable developments.