Towards the end of an excellent discussion on RFE/RL’s The Power Vertical podcast (and if you’re interested in Russia, you really ought to listen to it: there is literally no English-language equivalent), host Brian Whitmore asked Sean Guillory and me what trends we expected for the next year. That called for some hurried thought — Brian clearly has an unexpected streak of sadism — and you can hear what we came up with at the tail end of the most recent podcast, One Year After The Protests, which mainly concentrates on the past twelve months and the varied trajectories of government, society and opposition.
That got me thinking about the medium, though. Podcasts are a wonderful way of creating conversations, but I do wonder how long they tend to last. Do many people listen to podcasts from three months back? Six? Anyway, rather than hide behind the potential evanescence of the medium, here are the predictions I threw together, stuck on my blog so all and sundry can laugh at my naiveté or marvel at my perspicacity this time next year:
1. The regime will attempt a rebranding and a rebalancing, built around anti-corruption and perhaps a “kinder, wiser Putin” but this will not go far enough. Unwilling or unable really to tackle corruption at a systemic level, nor to abandon its dependence upon rent-seeking and those who benefit from it, this will prove an essentially cosmetic venture. In the process it could well prove thoroughly counter-productive, alienating elements of the elite, undermining the legitimacy of the regime and devaluing Putin’s own brand.
2. The opposition will begin to fragment, but in the process discover real politics. At the time this will be a painful process and lead to bickering and division, but this is actually a good thing, a part of the maturation of the political scene. The current ramshackle and insular coalition, united by little more than the catchphrase “Russia Without Putin” will be forced to devolve into movements and parties with real ideologies, that can begin to create a real political discussion and reach out, in some cases, beyond a narrow, metropolitan elite.
3. The elites will enter “survivalist” mode and prepare for the worse — and in the process further weaken the Power Vertical. As Putin and the central apparatus seem weaker or even, if the anti-corruption campaign develops, downright threatening, then the same kind of centrifugal processes we saw in the bad old Yeltsin years will emerge. Local, factional, personal and institutional groups and cabals will begin all the more aggressively looking out for their own interests, and seeing Moscow no longer as the final source of power. Such a zero-sum mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The power of the center is, after all, as much as anything else rooted in imagination and belief; if people think Putin weak, then weak he will be…