Does Putin realize what year it is, as he prepares for his inauguration? A silly question, I know, but at a time when pundits, activists and Kremlin strategists alike are busy trying to get a handle on the new Russian politics, I am puzzling over whether the man himself is fully aware of these changes. After all, he does not seem as tuned into the zeitgeist as four, let along twelve years ago, and there have also been suggestions that he is now cocooned within a protective carapace of yes-men and media that speak to his prejudices and confirm his assumptions. It is a common pattern of leaders, especially authoritarian ones, that they tend to be left behind as the world moves on, whether we are talking about Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, or Stalin and Hitler (not that I’d want to make any serious analogy between Putin and any of these figures). The short-termism of Volodin’s efforts to bombard the political process with micro-parties — a kind of DDOS attach on the body politic — as well as a seeming belief that a return to economic growth with buy off the electorate suggest that he regards this as a temporary aberration.
However, this is not just the time for ‘business as usual’; there really are major dilemmas to be faced:
1. Politics: managing expectations, controlling power. Although it is easy (as the ever-hawkish STRATFOR analysis shows) to downplay the new part registration rules and above the reintroduction of gubernatorian elections, these are not “illusory concessions.” Regardless of the controls still in place, anything that makes real politics easier and more appealing, and makes local elites have to worry about their electorates, will be deeply corrosive to a political system that was based upon public complacency and elite complicity. Putin and his team have yet to show that they have any kind of answer to the political pressures which will inevitably grow, regardless of the success of public protests in the immediate aftermath of his inauguration.
2. Economics: whither Putinomics (or, wither, Putinomics)? Russia’s economy has done well enough, and it likely on the upswing, but it remains dependent on oil and gas revenues and, Skolkovo hype notwithstanding, there is little evidence of diversification. Already, Putin is having to indicate that he can’t and won’t live up to his spending promises, with the signs being that the money will go to guns, not butter. Issues of potential stagnation, industrial decline, over-stretched infrastructure, inadequate educational base and wide class and regional inequalities will continue to dog ‘Putinomics.’ Kudrin and those like him may have some of the answers, but these came with social and political implications Putin at first may not understand and then may not accept.
3. Law and liberty: securing the elites without shackling the Kremlin. In the most recent Power Vertical podcast, Brian Whitmore and Kirill Kobrin discussed the changing mood of the elite, the rising disagreements amongst them about Russia’s future and, most interestingly, the impact of the wealth they acquired under Putin. A degree of legal anarchy is nice when you’re able to exploit it to make yourself rich, but once you’ve become rich, you want security — which essentially means a working legal system to protect your property, liberty and inheritance rights. (I’d add that this is much the same trajectory as we see among mobsters; draw your own conclusions.) Brian noted that as a result they thus have a tendency to see an advantage in a liberal future; I’d give it a slightly different spin, even if I end up in the same place. A rule-of-law state, a Rechtsstaat, is often liberal and democratic, but need not be. What they want is a Rechtstaat; in theory, this can be provided by an authoritarian regime able to bind itself by laws reflecting elite interests or willing to show such self-control that the elite consider it bound by an informal constitution. In many ways, this was what Medvedev was addressing with his talk of an end to “legal nihilism.” However, I see few signs of a similar willingness on Putin’s part to constrain himself or his Kremlin with laws or etiquette. Thus, the elite may well come to Brian’s conclusion: that only through reform and liberalization can they get that security.