Julius Caesar’s fatal flaw – the mistake that ended his reign and rent his empire in two – was not his despotism, but his ambition to make that despotism permanent. It is a lesson authoritarian rulers have failed to heed throughout history, most recently in North Africa, but earlier in Ukraine, Serbia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. And now in Russia, elements of Vladimir Putin’s own regime are calling on him to beware the Ides of March.
Earlier this month, the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), a liberal-leaning think tank founded and chaired by President Dmitry Medvedev, released a political platform titled “Gaining the future”, designed explicitly for Medvedev and which begins with the following dire warning: “At the start of the 21st century, Russia again stands at a crossroads. But the choice today is not between two paths ahead, but between having a future for Russia and having none.” And on March 28, the press ran with a leaked report [in Russian] from the Center for Strategic Development (CSR), a state-funded economic analysis center that serves as chief advisor to the government, calling for rapid, full-scale democratization to ward off imminent catastrophe.
The reasons for concern are myriad and the story, as always, starts in the economy. Oil prices grew some 22% in the last eight months of 2010 (and even further so far this year), but industrial output fell 6%, the production of basic goods and services fell 3% and retail turnover fell 2%, according to official figures. This is not a picture of economic catastrophe – indeed, the economy continues to grow, if anaemically. But neither is it enough to sustain the pact among Russia’s elites – fed by an ever growing pool of resources for distribution and re-distribution – that moulded the all-out wars of the 1990s into the ‘administrative’ competition of the 2000s.
Thus, while oil continues to fill the coffers of those businesses and elites who benefit from it directly, those who profited pre-crisis from the retail, real estate and financial services booms have yet to see a recovery. What they are seeing, however, are the oil barons – the most powerful of whom, like Igor Sechin, also hold official favour of one sort or another – continuing to strengthen their already strong positions, at the expense of the rest of the economy.
The upcoming elections, then, are less about choosing the next president than about locking into place an increasingly rigid distribution of resources, creating permanent groups of winners and losers who may not have the chance to re-settle the score until six (or, possibly, 12) years down the line. It is the fear of that certainty – of the inexorable closing off of opportunities – that is driving many in Russia’s elite, as well as in the upper and upper-middle classes, to reevaluate their own positions. Witness the sale of juice-maker Wimm-Bill-Dan to PepsiCo, or of investment bank Troika-Dialog to Sberbank. Russia’s State Home Mortgage Lending Agency recently reported a major up-tick in sales of investment properties bought during the real estate bonanza of 2004-7.
The population feels it, too. According to polling by the Levada Center, only 14% of Russians believe the economy strengthened in 2010, only 20% believe it will strengthen in 2011, fewer than 40% are optimistic about their own personal outlook over the next three years, and fully 81% are highly worried about inflation, which the government barely held to single digits in 2010 and will be lucky to hold in the low double digits this year. The result, as both INSOR and CSR note, is falling trust in both Putin and Medvedev: the approval margin (approval minus disapproval) for the president has fallen to 34%, and to 40% for the prime minister, while respondents who think the country is headed in the wrong direction outnumber those who think it is headed in the right direction for the first time in more than a decade (42% to 40%).
The good news for Russia’s ruling tandem is that such public discontent may not matter, and not only because more than 60% of Russians would prefer to avoid the sorts of protests that brought down longstanding dictatorial regimes in North Africa. The social and economic situation in Russia, at least outside the Northern Caucasus, is nowhere near as dire as that in North Africa, and Putin’s reign, while well established, has seen nothing like the longevity of Mubarak or Qaddafi. More fundamentally, while CSR is right to note the “rapidly declining legitimacy” of the tandem, it overestimates the role that such legitimacy ever played in Russian politics. Russian citizens long since ceased expecting their rulers to be accountable to them and, with the exception of pensioners, rely relatively little on the services provided by their state. Indeed, the very idea that the state is “theirs” – as opposed to the elites’ – is only weakly entrenched in Russia.
Rather, the real threat to the regime – as to Caesar’s rule – comes from within. In pointing to public mistrust, INSOR and CSR are in truth laying bare the misgivings that have crept into the ranks of the elite. These are the misgivings that lead the rich and powerful to divest, that allow activists like Alexey Navalny to take on the regime publicly and judicial clerks to accuse their bosses of servility, that begin to chip away at the fear of stepping out of line – because they undermine the confidence that staying in line will bring rewards.
The platform put forward by INSOR – itself a loose conglomeration of progressive technocrats, moneyed intelligentsia and semi-empowered liberals – is bold, but it still lacks a real constituency. CSR, on the other hand, speaks for virtually the entire economic bloc of the government and the myriad private-sector interests that bloc represents. And while INSOR is pressing Medvedev to challenge Putin, CSR says they both need to go: only a third candidate, one not part of the current regime, their report says, can restore trust.
The reality, though, is that this regime may prove incapable of restoring trust it never really enjoyed. The public sees both the INSOR/CSR liberals and the regime itself as cut from the same cloth and clearly recognizes the impossibility of the system reforming itself, as amply demonstrated by on-line discussions of the two documents.
And yet that is what the regime is trying to do, with even the liberals fearful of what may result from an unmanaged electoral process. By piecing together a new liberal party with the tacit backing of the state, allowing it to compete fairly in elections, letting it rule in coalition with United Russia or even occupy the Kremlin after the 2012 polls, Russia’s high-level doomsayers may indeed put the right people in power. But unless they are prepared to take on the entrenched interests and dismantle the deadly link between power and property, yet another generation of well-meaning Russian politicians will end up right where we are now. And in so doing, they will be doing a great disservice not only to themselves, but, as voters’ hopes are once again dashed, to the entire concept of democracy in Russia.