Putin knows that Russia is heading for disaster

President Putin could almost certainly stay on for a third term in office – if he wanted to. But he is well aware that despite Russia’s superficial prosperity, it is actually in a state of stagnation and a crisis is imminent. Putin doesn’t want to be held accountable for that.

Of all the doubts expressed about whether President Vladimir Putin really will refuse to seek a third term in office, perhaps the most weighty are observations that Russia lacks any substantial, noteworthy politicians who might have a chance of being elected president. Recent practice, however, provides convincing evidence that the next president could easily be the person indicated at the last moment by his predecessor. Thus, in principle, there shouldn’t be any problems with finding a new president. The real question is why President Putin himself very clearly doesn’t want any complications connected with violating constitutional norms.

The prevailing (and entirely well-founded) opinion is that if it becomes necessary, the people would easily vote in favor of amending the relevant article of the Constitution. This would be all the more easily done, given that the overwhelming majority of citizens are unfamiliar with the Constitution and unused to the idea of it having any serious significance in real life.

Therefore, the more important question concerns Putin’s own subjective desire not to remain in office any longer than the Constitution permits.

My opinion is that Putin has indeed made a firm decision against staying on. There are substantial grounds for such a decision. Let’s try to analyze the factors that have played and are playing the decisive role in inducing Putin to decline a third term – making an entirely voluntary, conscious, considered, and unequivocal decision. The factors in question aren’t so much concerned with Putin’s ambition or lack thereof, as they are with the situation of the country he governs.

There can only be one answer. Putin has no grounds to believe that another four years in office would produce any perceptible achievements for Russia – or for himself, as the leader and the person responsible for Russia’s well-being. What’s more, there are substantial grounds to believe Putin is well aware that Russia, despite some visible achievements and sky-high oil and gas prices, is not only failing to move forward, but is more and more evidently finding itself in a state of stagnation. Given the vigorous evolution of not only the old countries of the industrialized West, but quite a few countries in the East, this condition means that Russia is gradually declining on all counts with regard to economic effectiveness (that is, a successful industrial economy) – notwithstanding its unprecedented quantity of petrodollars.

The essence of Russia’s tragic situation is that in its present condition, it’s practically incapable of the radical reforms that could extricate it from the severe crisis in which it finds itself. Moreover – if we can be blunt and prepared to face a rational judgement courageously – Russia is actually on a downward slope and quite likely almost on the brink of disaster. In most sectors of the economy, the old system of industrial production is hopelessly obsolete, with equipment extremely worn out. Infrastructure is extremely antiquated. The system of administration is mired in an unprecedented degree of corruption.

Putin can see, understand, and judge all this better than anyone else, since he has maximal access to information that makes an accurate analysis possible. And, having made such an analysis, Putin doesn’t want to remain at the helm any longer than he should.

But why has this happened? What has prevented Putin from establishing efficient state administration, reining in corruption, successfully continuing reforms, and leading Russia out of its impasse, to stop its downhill slide?

For all his indisputable merits as a leader who demands results, Putin has never been one of Russia’s active reformers. Moreover, his education, career background, and official duties never prepared him to be the person who would shoulder the heavy burden of completing the democratic reforms Russia needs. He was neither a politician nor an economist.

After taking up the state’s highest office – in Moscow, an unfamilar city where he had very few connections or reliable helpers – he started promoting new people: personal acquaintances, on whom he could rely. Most of them didn’t turn out to be the kind of people who were inwardly ready to pursue radical reforms.

This soon had a perceptible impact: reforms slowed down.

In the blink of an eye, the hitherto-democratic parliament was transformed and the electoral system changed – and this led to one party running everything in parliament, while most others were excluded by a high vote threshold created specifically for that purpose. The media were brought under control, the executive branch reestablished its waning power over the courts, and so on. These were reforms of an entirely new kind, essentially amounting to a retreat – back to the habitual norms of existence for Russia and its people, particularly the older generation. This couldn’t fail to impress a significant proportion of the electorate, acutely dissatisfied with Russia’s democratic transformations.

Many now blame the crisis on the reforms that were beneficial for Russia, but were rejected by the majority of voters. In fact, it’s quite obvious that the reason for the crisis is just the opposite: the fact that those reforms were not completed, but replaced by reforms moving in the opposite direction. This is what has generated the crisis. This crisis is systemic and all-encompassing. It will remain relatively indistinct as long as our country continues its rapid transformation into a gigantic gas pump that brings in stable and substantial earnings. But how long can these earnings be expected to last, when our industry is uncompetitive and almost all sectors of the economy (except oil and gas) are run-down?

The ill-considered military activity in the Caucasus, which has diverted an incredible amount of energy, not to mention claiming many lives, seems to be showing a tendency to weaken somewhat, if not actually end. Despite the flourishing corruption at all levels of state administration – corruption which the authorities are unwilling and apparently unable to fight – the inflow of petrodollars easily covers the costs of corruption. What’s more, Russia has accumulated a vast, unprecedented Stabilization Fund. Logically, it would seem that this money should be spent on relieving the plight of those citizens who are most in need, at least. In practice, this isn’t quite that simple. Like a cancerous growth, corruption not only weakens Russia, but is gradually killing it, in effect, by rendering the authorities incapable of controlling the whole administrative system to any effective degree. And this is not the only difficulty. More important is the paradoxical fact that petrodollars, which have brought countless benefits to countries from highly-developed Norway to underdeveloped Arab monarchies, can’t help the unfortunate country of Russia. Why not?

It turns out that what can be done easily in oil-exporting countries with small populations is impossible to do without severe damage to the economy in such a large and populous country as Russia. It’s impossible because many people are unemployed or underemployed – so they don’t produce the quantity of GDP that might be realized in a competitive market, which is essential for restraining inflation.

In short, instead of “stabilization” (official propaganda’s favorite concept of late), Russia’s present condition would be better described as stagnation. The stagnation perceived by ordinary citizens is what’s generating increasingly angry discontent. Although they don’t really understand the reasons behind what is happening, or even have a conscious awareness of the fact that Russia is in a state of stagnation, people are still experiencing increasing alarm about their future. Not the remote future, but the very immediate future.

Most citizens, according to habit, believe that everything bad is due to the plots and schemes of treacherous enemies. There are the treacherous conspiracies of the detested West, allegedly seeking to humiliate and enslave Russia. There are the ubiquitous Jews, many of them quite clever, who easily do better than us Russians. There are the people from the Caucasus who fill the outdoor markets and dictate prices. There are all kinds of foreigners with different-colored skin, of other races, who come here to study at Russian universities, although there aren’t enough university places for Russians. And there are the migrants from various countries, including former Soviet republics, who are prepared to do the kind of work that Russians are reluctant or completely unwilling to do. Finally, besides all of the abovementioned factors, there’s the conspicuous disintegration of the Russian Armed Forces, and population decline, and the increasing numbers of the elderly.

For years, Russia’s youth was neglected and effectively forgotten by all; left by the wayside after the uncompleted reforms. Naturally enough, it turned into a numerous army of the marginalized. Now, among these young people, envy and hatred of everything that prevents them from leading normal lives are growing at a frightening rate. And the primary obstacles – at least, from a superficial and unsophisticated viewpoint – are outsiders.

Perhaps the most important point is that all the abovementioned factors not only don’t promise stability or progress, but are actually full of negative social time-bombs. People don’t trust anything. They fear everything. And even if (thanks to petrodollars) living standards are rising slightly, as we’re continually reminded, this isn’t improving the situation. The rich but feckless Russia is sliding downward relative to other countries. Beyond stagnation, there is the grim beacon of something even worse.

Given all this accumulated hatred, Putin cannot fail to take into account that the people want a scapegoat – if not the national leader, held responsible for everything, then at least those whom the people hate most of all, looking on their achievements with envy. That means the nations of the West, headed by the United States and NATO, who are allegedly obsessed with humiliating the unfortunate Russia or even destroying it entirely. It might be imagined that Putin wants to maintain some sort of balance by this method. Such a balance seems capable of satisfying public opinion in Russia while not generating storms of outrage in the West. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that such a balance is very difficult to maintain in practice. Everything tends to slip out of your hands when you’re accused of inconsistency, and especially when you’re under attack from both sides. All you can do is cling even more tightly to Russia’s gigantic gas pump, attempting to intimidate the discontented, particularly in the West. But this doesn’t produce the much-desired stability either. On the contrary, what it produces is tension.

Under the circumstances, this clarifies a great deal about President Putin’s behavior. Logically, the nation’s leader, who cannot fail to know and see what is happening to his country, ought to multiply his efforts to achieve a breakthrough in the existing state of affairs, emerge from stagnation, produce a forward surge that is real, not only declared in addresses to parliament. But there’s the problem: in order to do this, the president would need not only a good knowledge of what should be done to fix the situation, but also the resolve to oppose all obstacles. And such a step demands the outstanding qualities of a truly charismatic leader, one who could – despite everything – take on a great deal of responsibility, and, despite the displeasure of many, including his close associates, find the courage to swim against the powerful current of habitual expectations. To be more precise, what we’re talking about here is the need for a decisive change in Russia’s direction of development, and a continuation of the incomplete reforms. But neither Putin nor any of his team want to do that. They probably aren’t even capable of doing it. The attempt would involve the risk of many serious complications. And Putin would have no one to rely on in implementing a new policy.

The Khodorkovsky affair showed Russia and the rest of the world that Putin wants the people to see him as their chief protector from the rich. The petty persecution of defeated opponents is evidence that Putin has no clear awareness of exactly what he’s trying to achieve. Naturally, the people, accustomed to the “take away and share out” principle, are firmly behind Putin. His approval rating has risen to record heights. The main goal seems to have been accomplished.

Now put yourself in Putin’s shoes. He can’t achieve much more. The measures taken to reinforce his power cannot be changed rapidly. The situation in Russia is growing worse, not better. He has 18 months in office left. There’s a good chance that no disasters will happen during that time. But as for four more years… No, thanks. Putin isn’t prepared to pay the price in 2012 for what might have happened to Russia by then. He clearly doesn’t want to run that risk. He’s not a dictator by nature; he doesn’t find power so attractive that he’d give up everything for its sake. He’d be quite content to serve out the term God has granted him, with no one holding him very strictly accountable for what might happen. Let someone else answer for that, in due course. And this is why there are substantial grounds to believe that Putin is sure to refuse to seek a third term – precisely because he is apprehensive (to put it mildly) about what might happen to Russia in the not-too-distant future, by 2012.