Putin's new Russia: will changes come?

Changes (adjustments, to be more precise) will most probably come. But one would be unwise to await tectonic shifts in Russia’s current policies – both domestic and foreign

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He is set to return to the throne but will he bring changes?
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Igor Sutyagin
On 28 November 2011 15:28

‘We Wait for Changes!’ was a Russian song that was very popular in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s at a time when the gerontocracy was dying. That slogan expressed the deepest and universal wish of the Soviet population: that the public did not want to continue to live as it had for decades and that they were wary of Soviet official lies, the ineffective state and poor economic conditions.

The same sentiment was evident when the ruling ‘United Russia’ party’s congress anointed Vladimir Putin to be the party’s March 2012 presidential election candidate.

It would seem that Russia has managed to accumulate during its 20 years-long transition from Communism towards Capitalism the worst features of both systems.

The lack of social equity and the eventual absence of effective social guarantees are accompanied in today’s Russia by the communist-style absence of political freedoms, sever limitations of freedom of information and expression, very little confidence in state probity (53.4 percent of Russians are sure that the next election's results will be manipulated by the government) and an economy even less effective than that of the Soviet Union.

On the latter point alone, one need only to point to the fact that gas and oil production provides 45.7 percent of the state's income while the share of high-tech products in Russia's total exports is currently less than one-tenth that of the Soviet era.

A likely second wave of the global economic crisis would most probably hit Russia worse than other G20 countries because of its ineffective economy and a lack of state financial reserves that were depleted by the crisis of 2008.

The flouting of the rule of law by police and secret services does not help to improve the situation. Indeed according to “Levada-Centre” survey of February 2010, 67 percent of Russia’s population viewed the police with apprehension – a figure only marginally higher at 70 percent in relation to criminals. Remarkably, 41 percent of population perceived the police as a bigger threat to their security than criminals; that number went as high as 56 percent in Moscow.

In and amongst this data, there is the inescapable fact that Russia needs change.

Russia's ruling elite feels it too. To secure their power they need to deal with the public's disenchantment and reform is the only way for them to ease the situation. The key reason for that is that Russia does not have in place the necessary social machinery to allow it to vent the population's anger away from the current ruling group.

Unlike mature democracies Putin’s regime is starved of the option of temporarily, and legitimately, handing over power to an opposition. Thanks to the policy of the previous decade, all credible political competitors to the current regime have been marginalised or even exterminated.

Russia's current regime therefore stands alone against the increasing public's anger. That is why change will inevitably come – it is being dictated by the pure logic of the Kremlin Hill occupants’ struggle for power.

Meanwhile Russia’s current ruling elite cannot enjoy the comfort of temporary public support which would be available for a new-comer within the democratic model of regular rotation of competing but fundamentally allied parties. Thus it has very narrow reserve of time and public patience in which to carry out reforms which would secure the elite’s power but would inevitably be very painful (because they have been postponed for too long) for the population.

Russia's ruling class therefore needs a sort of ‘shield’ against the pressures of public disenchantment – a leader who would be able to keep the societal situation more or less under control.

The internal logic of Putinism was to neutralise any political figures with potential to challenge the formal head of hierarchy – Vladimir Putin. And the system does not have enough time now to generate another leader instead of Putin. This is the key reason for Putin’s announced come-back to power: to provide the elite the chance to make some urgently necessary adjustments to secure their power.

Indeed, while Putin's public support – 47percent according to one survey – is the lowest now over the last six and a half years (and just one percentage point above the historical minimum of the last decade) it is still much higher than that of any of his compatriots.

Many observers both in Russia and in the West comfort themselves by the supposition based on the above-explained logic that Vladimir Putin will try to position himself as the reformer during his third (leading quite possibly to a fourth) presidential term. He probably will.

But one should not forget about the limits of his preparedness to change Russia. Healing Russia’s sickness will require restoring democracy and reviving society’s creative forces but that revival will be the death sentence for the current ruling elite. Hence Putin-the-Reformer will inevitably carry out self-contradictory and half-hearted reforms.

After all, he is just another slave of the Putinism system – in some ways the biggest slave of all.

Changes (adjustments, to be more precise) will most probably come. But one would be unwise to await tectonic shifts in Russia’s current policies – both domestic and foreign.

That is the feeling of the Russian population too: only 10 percent of respondents believe that there will be changes if Putin is elected next March. Of that 10 percent, less than half believe changes will be major (four percent) with the remainder believing that while changes will come, they will be best described as insignificant. 

Igor Sutyagin is a former Head of Section at the prestigious Moscow-based Institute for US & Canadian Studies, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has written extensively on the USSR/Russia. He now works in the United Kingdom

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