Bumps ahead

2013 was clearly the year of Vladimir Putin. After an embarrassing 2011 and a whacky 2012, the Russian president solidified his grip on the domestic political realm, tightened the screws so efficiently that by the end of the year he could afford loosening some of them, and, making use of the weakness of his rivals, he showed unexpected muscles on the global stage. At his press conference in December, the President was bursting with self-confidence. Even more importantly, though, in 2013 everyone got a good picture what Putin’s third – and, I still think, last – term will look like. Why can everything be quite different in 2014?

New foundations

First of all, let us take a look at the way developments seem to have taken, a.k.a the peculiarities of Putin 3.0:

  • Octopus: facing a substantially, though not yet radically changed situation at the global energy markets, redistributable revenues have plummeted. In order to stay in charge and stabilise a shaking system, Putin needed to switch from overwhelmingly material incentives (rent for the elite, welfare for the population) to using more “hard” incentives. This resulted in an increasing crackdown on the opposition, as well as the President taking full control over anti-corruption measures and strategic institutions of financial oversight. This is an important new repertoire of tools that may be able to ensure that Putin keeps on small leash the Russian political elite that is increasingly interested in his succession.
  • Playmate of the (un)willing opposition: Adding to the above is a condescending hand Putin extended towards the “cooperative” opposition, essentially allowing them to eat the crumbs that fall off the masters’ table, thereby also keeping regional elites at bay. A promising, but not sufficiently impressive showing of Alexei Navalny in Moscow and success in Yekaterinburg got to be last year’s greatest hits of a still fragmented, lacklustre and politically elusive opposition. The relieved sigh of Putin could be seen in the yet-again condescending pardons granted to Mikhail Khodorkovsky – which he was practically scared into by the rumoured prospect of yet another trial –, the Pussy Riot girls and the activists of Greenpeace. Notably, Khodorkovsky’s release went against the wishes of certain conservative heavyweights in the elite, such as Rosneft chief Igor Sechin, but the negative effects of the pardon granted to an obsolete opposition figure must have seemed so insignificant from the President’s point of view that he could even afford to defy these people for the sake of a PR stunt.
  • National greatness: Putin, a full-fledged pragmatist has moved on from the insecure “ideology” of increasing life standards to the more palpable dogma of restoring national greatness. Something that translates to appealing nationalism for many of lower-middle-class Russians that feel vulnerable and threatened by immigrants and globalisation; and that, for the elite, translates to protection from dangerous opposition movements and, more importantly, new sources of wealth.
  • Building an empire: even more importantly, Putin has already started to act like the “tsar” he seemingly fashions his third term to fit. I have blogged about the overwhelming importance that the Euromaidan protests and their management carried for the Russian government, the business elite, and, most importantly, Putin. This is a hurdle that the President seems to have cleared with relative ease: Ukraine was bought for a one-third reduction of its gas price and a 15 billion dollar loan – which is, just to be safe that Ukraine keeps her word, redeemable at any time the Russian government wishes.

So, from Putin’s point of view, all is well on the home front, is that it? Well, not quite.

The Volgograd conundrum

At the first sight, it may have seemed that even the horrific terror attacks on Volgograd benefitted Putin’s political agenda. First of all, worsening public safety usually leads to tighter security measures, which in turn usually (at least in Russia) result in a harsher crackdown on the opposition. Also, an attack perceived as external (as Islamic militants are, even if they are Russian citizens) leaves little room for any domestic political force opposing the government’s agenda. Third, there’s the factor represented by the Sochi Olympics. If a major international event like the Olympics is credibly threatened by terrorism, it will push any other conceivable political activism related to the event concerned – such as boycotts – into the background. This is something that would come quite convenient for the Russian president.

In fact, many of the international media now entertains the thought of a real terrorist scheme to attack the Olympics – even though, as Mark Galeotti noted, potential targets are all still quite far from Sochi where security measures are paramount. Those interested in conspiracy theories (mind you, perhaps even serious analysts) may start building wild theories about a sham terrorist attack’s being organised, just to be uncovered and “prevented” from happening before the Olympics, making an international hero out of Putin.

This does not seem to be happening, however. Putin was very cautious in responding to the Volgograd attacks, and when he did, his answer was quite low-key, even mundane. In fact, Putin has much more to lose on the terror fright than to gain from it.

First of all, he does not really need to increase pressure and violent crackdown on the opposition any more. It does not seem to be part of the strategy either – just days after the series of attacks in Volgograd and Pyatigorsk Putin revoked a presidential decree that would have prohibited protests during the Games. However, this is only a minor problem.

Security services in corrupt political entities usually work with a significantly lower degree of efficiency than their counterparts in fully functional states and therefore are worse at preventing attacks, as experience has shown in Russia several times. Putin knows better than anyone how corrupt the system he leads really is, and for sure he gets cold shivers seeing a seemingly unstoppable series of terror attacks as the Games draw closer. Even considering the limited resources of terrorists and the incredible manpower Russian authorities have allocated to Sochi, they cannot be entirely sure – and less and less so – that they are able to prevent an attack on the Olympics.

One cannot help drawing a parallel with the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, a series of ghastly terror attacks in the course of two weeks that claimed the lives of almost 300 people and by planting fear into Russians greatly helped Putin to take over from Boris Yeltsin as smoothly as possible. The timing was so suspiciously right that many analysts and political commentators speculated that the Federal Security Service (FSB) may have been behind it, and the sheer amount of fishy evidence gave rise to an enormous bibliography related to the events, something that raises some questions relative to the present attacks as well.

The 1999 events exposed a corrupt system that had failed in every single way that mattered to Russians: it had failed them economically, it had failed them militarily and it failed them when it came to guaranteeing their security. While the situation is certainly not as dire as it was in 1999, it is a fact that Russia has been facing economic hardship, and will face a worsening economic outlook at least in the next couple of years. Also, with nationalist riots and nationalism-cum-conservatism high on the agenda – which is otherwise quite useful for Putin – the population is already agitated enough to respond badly to a major terrorist attack. If authorities can prevent a major one, Putin is glorified. If, however, they cannot, all hell may break loose. 

Escape through the minefield 

Putin does not only walk on thin ice with the Sochi Olympics. He has major concerns regarding the economy and foreign policy too. The problem seems to be the scarcity of resources – material and financial as well as political – that simply does not allow the President to win at all tables.

To name an example, the 15 billion euro loan given to Ukraine came from Russia’s National Welfare Fund. Surely it solved a series of short-term problems, but in the face of a seriously worsening economic outlook that money may soon turn out to be needed more somewhere else – for example in pension funds, in investment schemes, or, to be more exact, in Russia’s investment-ridden Far East or in single-industry towns, also known as monogorods, carrying a great importance both economically and socially. Also, what if this year, with its main export markets slowing down and no political will to address systemic problems Ukraine suddenly finds itself in need of more money that Russia will find increasingly harder to provide? In pure political terms: what happens when unsure future benefits become too small to make up for instant losses resulting from the scarcity of resources redistributable within the elite and the population? The latter may cause larger problems than expected, as in the past two years Putin has increasingly relied on the support of the relatively uneducated, rural, poorer „Russia B” – he cannot afford not to have their benefits readily on hand.

If all else fails, Putin may try to substitute hard money with ideology – something that he is already trying to do. Nevertheless, he cannot go too far with nationalism either, and even a “nationalism light” may be tricky, considering that the legal status of migrant workers from Central Asia has become one of the hottest issues in the past years. Recent complaints – or rather, grumbling – coming from some Central Asian nations show that these countries will eventually want something in return for joining a trade bloc led by Russia, thereby making Putin’s vision of a renewed Russian empire contradict its nationalistic core. Knowing that China has upped the ante by its new leadership courting these very same countries in an increasingly open manner leaves little room for Putin to juggle.

Last, but not least, it will not be easy for Putin to find an expendable scapegoat if needs be and yet keep the intra-elite balance. As I have blogged before, Dmitry Medvedev, a politician defeated in most of his policy endeavours, could possibly be a perfect candidate for this role: he has little popularity, a decreasing number of supporters within the ruling elite, he has exhausted his good-cop role abroad as much as he has exhausted his bad-cop role domestically, and most imporantly, he has his golden parachute ready: the chairmanship of the reformed Supreme Court. I suppose, if not expect, Medvedev to get dismissed this year, possibly after having accomplished all unpopular tasks he was assigned to do.

His dismissal would simply carry more political benefit to the man in the middle than keeping him in his current position – that is, if Putin can fend off aspiring presidential successors just yet by appointing a „technical” Prime Minister. As the 2016 Duma elections draw closer, he will find this increasingly harder to do.

Liberals in the government are likely to leave together with Medvedev, but still can do valuable service to the regime by being appointed to senior positions in the judiciary, or, alas, even by being appointed to head economically problematic regions.

This latter would be a bold experiment, and Russia’s political system seldom allows any bold move. But Putin cannot keep on winning this potentially very difficult year without bold moves. Releasing Khodorkovsky was nothing more than a sleepy stretch before the real exercise.

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