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One of the key slogans of Vladimir Putin’s first presidential terms was “catch-up development,” used as both a goal and a means of achieving that goal. But with the agenda change that occurred in 2012 when Putin returned for his third term, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, target-setting was more or less abandoned. The era of Russia’s “end of history” set in, to use the U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, for the goal to end all others had been achieved: making Russia great again.
Even before the unpopular move to raise the retirement age, the ratings of the authorities were falling, demonstrating that the era of the “Crimea majority” was coming to an end. A new era is beginning that will require a drug just as powerful as Crimea to unite the nation around the flag once again. But the Kremlin has nothing comparable up its sleeve.
Changing the constitution to allow Putin to remain in power once his current term expires in 2024 was one more desperate attempt to mobilize the people. It had an extremely short-lived effect that gave way to a new episode in the war between the state and civil society, featuring arrests and sentences and the Khabarovsk protests, which were no help at all to Putin’s flagging ratings.
In January, attempts to find a mechanism for handing over power to a successor in 2024 showed that there is no clear way out for Putin, and no obvious successor. Putin accordingly put off making a decision, and appointed himself his own heir. The unsolved problem of the succession is one of the main challenges facing the Russian regime in the wake of the public vote on changing the constitution.
The second obvious challenge is the lack of tools for rallying society around the flag. Since 2018, Russians have failed to be inspired by their country’s foreign policy exploits. So, in 2019, the search was moved to the history archives, with a new enemy declared: European organizations that dared to consider the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact a trigger for World War II. But that kind of mobilization cannot last long either.
Meanwhile, economic problems have persisted since 2014. Amid the crisis caused by the pandemic, the state is prepared to extend support to companies (and individuals) close to it, as well as to state sector workers whom it may call on to solve political problems later on, but it is not prepared to provide serious help to independent private businesses, which are predominantly small and medium-sized enterprises.
This limited state help for ordinary people and businesses has already led to a decrease in taxable income and a lack of trust in the state among the business class. These are long-term politico-economic and psychological trends that will make themselves felt for a long time to come.
This policy will lead to deepening inequality, the shrinking of the middle class, more widespread poverty, the preservation of a distorted labor market model (low official levels of unemployment while many people are not working full time and not receiving a full salary), and the growth of the gray market.
Another fundamental problem is linked to the driving economic philosophy of Russia’s state capitalism and its inertia and poor ability to adapt to new global trends. Russia’s reliance on revenue from extracting and processing hydrocarbons is now under threat from the global move away from fossil fuels. The EU plans to be carbon-neutral by 2050. This policy will cause Russia’s oil and gas markets to collapse, prompting an economic crisis that cannot fail to impact on the political system.
Meanwhile, the protests in Khabarovsk show that in certain situations and regions, the authorities are unable to deal with crises, while the ordinary people are unhappy with their choice (in this case, their choice of governor) being taken away.
The Kremlin has long been faced with a permanent revolution of dignity among differing levels of society. It has been going on since 2011, and each new wave of protests—whether political or initially depoliticized (over landfills, housing development projects and so on)—is at heart prompted by an insult to people’s dignity.
This revolution of dignity exists like an underground fire that will spread above ground at any opportunity—and those opportunities are created not by civil society, but by the authorities themselves. It may create problems at unexpected times and places.
There are limits to how far the system can be improved from within, without changing the political framework and getting rid of the ideological ornamentation, and this is a clear challenge to Russia’s authoritarianism in the wake of the vote to change the constitution.
Another problem is the four-party construction that has existed for years. It can’t be said that the model hasn’t worked: it’s one of the longest-running and most resilient structures. Between them, the Communists and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) have successfully neutered both extreme left and far-right sentiment.
As for the United Russia ruling party, it stands firm as a line on election ballots that law-abiding Russians tick the box for when they go to vote. But the leaders of the Communist Party and LDPR are not getting any younger, while everyone has forgotten that former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is head of United Russia—maybe even Medvedev himself. Perhaps the structure could continue to exist, but who will replace LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov?
The party system is in crisis. Because of the lack of ways to legally register a protest other than voting for the Communists or LDPR, both parties are at times excessively and unexpectedly popular.
One final serious challenge is the lack of a foreign policy strategy. A global spoiler is by no means the same as a global player. Unlike the Soviet Union, modern Russia has no model for its relationship with the rest of the world.
The Russian “end of history” has been canceled. History continues, after all.
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