Russia feels the strain as Putin prepares to step down

In Russia’s climate, October and November are the grimmest months. This October has produced a noticeable increase in nervous tension. Is it seasonal, or is it likely to continue? It will be maintained for at least another year, in the lead-up to President Putin’s departure from office.

In Russia’s climate, October and November are the grimmest months. This October has produced a noticeable increase in nervous tension. It all started with the escalation on the Georgian foreign policy front – rapidly echoed by anti-Georgian hysteria in Russia. Next there was the threat of “restoring conclusive national order” in Russia’s produce markets. Before our eyes, the specter of state nationalism started coalescing into flesh and blood. And as a tragic peak, there was the murder of Anna Politkovskaya – obviously an act of provocation, and therefore particularly foul.

Then, during his latest visit to Europe, President Vladimir Putin got his chilliest reception in recent years – in Germany, no less. Angela Merkel and Jacques Chirac, largely under pressure from public opinion, essentially refused to establish a special relationship with Russia in the oil and gas sector. Putin was greeted with horrific newspaper headlines, and even protest rallies. This sort of thing hasn’t happened since the acute phase of the war in Chechnya. Inevitably, all this raised the level of tension. Well, forget the West; but what impact will all this have in Russia?

There’s something alarming in the air. Although the authorities are obviously trying to restrain the wave of nationalism, their efforts aren’t entirely reassuring. What we need to know is this: is this October’s nervous tension of a seasonal nature, or is it likely to continue?

In a state with an established hierarchy of governance, calm for the state as a whole depends primarily on the calm of the people who make up that hierarchy. With one year to go before a presidential election, these people cannot be calm. What’s more, the most intense part of the show is about to begin: the final curtain-calls and farewells. Well, even old established democracies can slide into crisis during the transition from one head of state to the next. In a young democracy, especially a sovereign democracy, such a time becomes a survival test. Ultimately, both the president and his team have to pass this test. They all have to ensure their own security in the future, ensure that they’re part of the next president’s decision-making circles, find a new place in life – but before that, they have to achieve their current goals.

This whole range of issues is entirely understandable. Admittedly, Putin’s team has far more reasons to worry than Putin himself. He will leave office while still in possession of his most important asset – the asset any ruler of Russia wishes to have: the public’s whole-hearted support. It’s hard to imagine any successor gaining anything like Putin’s level of support – unless a successor resorts to powerful tools such as nationalism.

Meanwhile, all the prominent figures in the hierarchy of governance, and the associated groups, cannot be as calm as Putin. They’ve grown accustomed to a certain configuration of forces. They know how to survive in this particular situation, and how to secure decisions that work to their advantage. Even if the changeover of presidents goes exactly according to plan, it will automatically entail a great many changes. Of course, none of the present era’s leading lights will be left begging in the streets – but some of them will certainly have to leave the arena, making way for the new president’s associates. And the most unpleasant aspect of this, a year before the elections, is that nobody knows exactly who will be unlucky, or how. And there’s still a long way to go before 2008, and many influence groups have the illusion that they’re still capable of influencing and changing a great deal.

For these two reasons (it’s still unclear whom Putin will choose, or what this will mean; but there is still enough strength to play the very greatest games) nervous tension is sure to rise to extremes in the year before the elections. Factions are fighting each other in the dark, striking vicious blows at unknown targets, in a clumsy attempt to bring the situation under control. Multi-step maneuvers and long-term alliances are impossible. Essentially, it’s everyone for themselves and against everyone else. And this situation won’t change until the designated successor is officially announced. Only then will each participant be able to work out exactly what they can hope to gain. Most importantly, they will understand that any deviation from the official course of action will mean instant and automatic expulsion.

This is unlikely to happen before next autumn. Until then, a great many people who make up the current government and administration will be under continual stress, even if they don’t always realize it.

During this year, any external irritants – any disobedience, or even disagreement – will draw a much stronger response than before from the Russian authorities. A stronger response than necessary, of course: because they’re already feeling short of time and energy, and are inclined to lash out at anyone who fails to support them. This will result in a vicious circle. The more the authorities let their stress show, taking it out on everything around them, the more incompetent they will seem. And the feedback – from the surrounding environment to the authorities – will only make the situation worse. The authorities will tighten the screws to the limit. The overall imbalance in foreign policy and domestic politics will grow.

Something like this scenario is being played out already with regard to public opinion in the West, which is not inclined to pay attention to the “civilizational challenges” that the most progressive members of the Russian leadership love to talk about. The West is inevitably annoyed by the bizarre manifestations of Russian sovereignty. Consequently, it directs some very harsh accusations against the Russian authorities – as President Putin’s latest visit to Germany demonstrated. This give Moscow a pretext to accuse the West and its media of being unfair and venal. And Russia’s reaction could involve an even greater desire for “sovereignty” – or isolationism.

Matters have already reached the point where many highly experienced people are convinced that Anna Politkovskaya’s murder might have been masterminded by the most reactionary forces in Russia’s hierarchy of governance, with the aim of forcing a conclusive break between Putin and the West – and then using this “besieged fortress” climate to maintain tension, for various purposes, perhaps even cancelling elections and replacing the successor.

Whether this is actually true, or just another attack of conspiracy-phobia, remains undetermined. But one fact remains: Politkovskaya was indeed murdered, and it was a very calculated murder. It happened straight after Putin allegedly said at a news conference in Sochi that he had made his final decision about a successor.

So the conclusion is clear: we’re all in for a very difficult and nerve-wracking year. Things that seemed possible and normal only yesterday will suddenly become wrong and dangerous – and vice versa. The spring will be pressed down further and further, until it is suddenly released in early 2008.