The psychology of loose wheels 

How annoyed would you feel if you had to make an utter fool of yourself, day after day, for benefits that are gradually decreasing? Probably about as annoyed as Sergey Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs did when he recently mumbled expletives into his microphone in the middle of a press conference. Little does it matter if the text that caused Lavrov’s outrage came from an assistant, a family member or Vladimir Putin himself. The head of a country’s diplomatic corps is not supposed to lose it like this. Or take Vladimir Yakunin, a Putin confidant and former head of Russian Railways who unexpectedly resigned last week to become the representative of Kaliningrad in the Russian parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council, a position that comes with a lot less influence and money. Was he the victim of a struggle inside the elite? Was he replaced, as Leonid Bershidsky suggested, because desperate times call for efficient managers rather than kleptocrats? Has he taken a different career direction? Again, this is not what really matters. What matters is that visibly, the power engine of the Putin era – material benefits in exchange for unwavering political loyalty – is failing. And not only inside Russia.

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The curious art of questions

In political science, there are some questions not worth asking. These typically begin with “what if”, or take the form of “what does [insert name] really think about [insert issue]”. When Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s former Prime Minister and Boris Yeltsin’s first anointed successor passed away this week, many asked the question what would have happened if he, rather than Vladimir Putin had ended up succeeding Yeltsin. Leonid Bershidsky even claimed to have known the answer: under Primakov, Russia would have taken an anti-Western course earlier than with Putin. Do you see my point? And there are so many other such questions coming to mind, it is difficult to ask the right one. 

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The A. B. C. lies

Despite their sky-high ratings and recent attempts to consolidate the political status quo, the Russian president and the government do not behave like the firm and confident authority whose image they try to project to the world. On the contrary: they show the signs of increasing anxiety. Vladimir Putin’s recent decree on the classification of military losses in peacetime hints at how, under worsening circumstances, the Kremlin expects to maintain or raise its public support.

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A rebalancing act

Vladimir Putin’s annual televised Q&A session last week revealed more about the present state of affairs in Russia and Putinism in general than it was obvious at first sight. The Russian president has made several moves suggesting that he wants to return to “business as usual”, which, however, will require further tightening of screws and several replacements. The European Union has one month to decide what it wants to do with the new normal in Russia. Here is why.

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An obituary

Yes, I read the news today. Vladimir Putin is alive and seemingly well. His handshake is firm, judging from the expression on the face of the president of Kyrgyzstan, and he may even have driven the car between two places in St. Petersburg. Despite an avalanche of hashtags, conspiracy theories, Austrian physicians and illegal children, when the main question – that is, whether Putin was dead, or even worse, dethroned – was solved today, the world seems to have lost interest in what caused the eleven-day hiatus in his public appearances. Putin is certainly alive in the physiological sense of the word. But there is a smell of decay lingering around the system that he built.  

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The bonfire of rationality

Yesterday I was going to post a long and detailed entry about Vladimir Putin’s priority list. About the way priorities were exposed during times of crisis and scarcity. I was going to draw a comparison with my college days in Dublin, where, due to my meagre funds, I had to decide which parts of a full Irish breakfast I wanted to keep, as I could not afford them all. I was going to tell how I decided the lack of which ingredient would not disrupt my morning. I was going to point out how Putin seems to have decided which elements of the Russian political system were essential and worth keeping and how others were being cut off. At the end, I was going to point out how this ended up producing a very different system from what it was before – just like a student’s breakfast was not nearly the same as a proper one would have been. But I was late. The murder of Boris Nemtsov told more about the state of Russia and Putinism that I could have. Regardless of how important or unimportant a personality Nemtsov was in contemporary Russia, and regardless of a series of similar murder cases in the past years, the context makes this case different. It shed light on the weakness and the vicious circle hiding behind the robustness of Russia’s geopolitical posturing.

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A tale of two choices

Oil prices tumble, the Russian economy is in recession, the Russian elite is nervous, but Vladimir Putin is smart enough to avoid the traps that the Soviet Union fell into – in a nutshell, this is the argument of Richard Sakwa’s opinion piece, published in The Guardian three weeks ago. There’s no way out of this crisis and Putin will soon have to handpick a successor, argues Alexander Morozov on openDemocracy. Between these two, somewhat extreme opinions that supposedly contain some wishful thinking, we have seen a myriad of scenarios emerging in the past month about the end game of the crisis in Ukraine. All of them sound somewhat plausible, yet it is difficult to argue that one of them has significantly higher chances of happening than the rest. This ambiguity paints a perfect picture of Russia at the beginning of 2015.

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