Considering Russia’s shocking transformation in the course of just half a year, it is easy to forget that last February the country was united in the joy of hosting the Sochi Winter Olympic games. The issues that dominated the political agenda at the start of the year—like growing outrage over rampant corruption or concerns about the violent instability in the North Caucasus—have all but disappeared from the present-day debates. At the same time, the issues that one would expect to be at the top of the agenda currently—like the deteriorating economic situation or the falling ruble—attract some expert opinions but by far less public worry. Indeed, in today’s Russia, the basic trends of de-modernization and degradation are now beyond doubt.
Moscow’s swift annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula generated an explosion of public triumphalism that has flattened and simplified rather than enriched Russia’s political landscape. The regional elections in September were reduced to the pro-forma confirmation of the Kremlin-vetted candidates, and this year’s vote registered particularly low participation. In Moscow, for that matter, a legislature entirely free of opposition figures was duly elected, even though, just one year earlier, the opposition blogger Alexei Navalny gained surprisingly strong support in the capital’s mayoral elections. This growing irrelevance of domestic politics is aggravated by the Russian government’s aggressive and poisonous propaganda, which has become a political force in its own right. Opinion polls show the population’s apparent eagerness to subscribe to the simple solutions on offer: A strong majority of Russians consistently embraces the conflict with Ukraine and vouches that Russia is on the right course.
One figure stands in splendid isolation at the head of this course—President Vladimir Putin, whose approval ratings have reached the level typical for mature authoritarian leaders. After 15 years at the summit of power, and at just 62 years of age, he has established such dominance over other Russian elites that all speculations about a possible successor—so lively just a year ago, when he appeared at loss over how to address the steadily declining popularity of his regime—have now entirely ceased (Moscow Echo, October 7). Even if this absolute concentration of authority addresses some archaic deformities in the Russian political psyche, it nonetheless distorts the workings of the country’s huge bureaucratic machine, since all cadre or cash-flow decisions can only be taken at the supreme level and nothing is delegated. Putin’s mood swings and idiosyncrasies—like his disdain for the Internet—overrule every bureaucratic preference for stability and quiet self-enrichment.
This super-concentration of decision-making is particularly harmful for economic policy because Putin refuses to acknowledge the reality of stagnation turning into recession. Alexei Kudrin, the only person who was able to insist on common economic sense, has been expelled from the Kremlin; German Gref, the designer of the first set of reforms at the dawn of the Putin “era,” has been reduced to an eccentric contrarian; and court aides like Sergei Glazyev have learned to deliver only the advice that the boss likes to hear (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 9). This explains such odd decisions by the Russian government as the enforcement of counter-sanctions (banning food imports from the West) that have inflicted great damage to Russia’s own agriculture, not to mention spur inflation. Such “mundane” matters as the devaluation of the ruble (last week, the ruble reached the landmark level of 40 for one US dollar) attract scant attention from the president. But one figure continues to touch an old raw nerve—the international oil price, which has slipped below the minimum level the Russian state budget needs to support the country’s generous social programs and re-armament goals (Gazeta.ru, October 7).
The erosion of the relative prosperity of the urban low-middle classes may now proceed quickly because the higher-middle classes (consisting primarily of government bureaucrats and security services personnel—siloviki) not only refuse to diminish their earnings by reducing their corrupt practices, but in fact continue to boldly pursue ever more brazen embezzlement schemes. This shameless profiteering is tacitly approved from above, since Putin is primarily concerned with elite loyalty, and largely ignored by the wider public opinion, which is focused on the Kremlin-directed “patriotic” agenda (Levada.ru, September 12). Alexei Navalny keeps his fierce anti-corruption campaign going, despite the pressure of his house arrest. He insists that public indifference is a transitory feature and that outrage will eventually return with a vengeance (Slon.ru, October 9). Over the course of this year, Russia’s liberal opposition was disheartened by the dominance of the triumphalist “Crimean” discourse and dismayed by the loud excoriation of a “fifth column.” Yet, the relative strength of the Peace March, held in Moscow on September 21, showed that the political opposition is, nevertheless, once more readying itself to challenge the entrenched Putinist system.
Months of inflamed nationalistic feelings in Russia have included particularly harsh anti-Westernism. Anti-Americanism has returned to the high level registered in 2008 after the blitz-war with Georgia, but Russians’ simultaneous pronounced anti-Europeanism is new. The national propaganda decries the European Union as a dysfunctional bureaucracy that mismanages its own economic decline, while at the same time, Europe is portrayed as the main driver of the Ukraine crisis—sponsoring its rejection of Russia’s “big-brotherly” embrace. Such propaganda yields for the Kremlin politically useful delusions, but Russia’s ties with Europe—unlike its quasi-friendship with China—go very deep. Therefore, former imprisoned Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky has made the revival of these Russian-European ties one of the key messages in his newly-launched platform for public policy (Open Russia, October 3).
As the intoxication with the Crimea “conquest” turns into hangover from “owning” the hard-won and entirely useless rump-Novorossiya (eastern Ukraine), Putin now faces the imperative to orchestrate a new victory in order to prevent a fast drop in his artificially boosted public support. In the awkward pause of the last few weeks, Russia’s economic hardships have not turned really hard—and they may even be softened for most Russians in the coming months. However, the perception is crystallizing that the country is firmly moving on a downward economic trajectory. This perception has prompted a corruption frenzy among the moneyed bureaucracy, while inciting fervor among the nationalists, whose radical views are shifting into the political mainstream. But for many more Russians, seeing this apparently unstoppable downward trajectory brings up uneasy questions about the future of their country. Consequently, Putin needs to make a new pro-active move somewhere before this question turns into a conclusion that the only aim of his leadership is to hold on to power, with no regard for the future of Russia beyond the end of his reign.