Russia: change from within? Reasons to be sceptical
Can some hope for change be found in Russian internal politics? Here we rehearse a few reasons for pessimism. Neither Russia’s democratic opposition, nor possible pressure “from the streets”, nor the most likely outcomes of elite politics, provide very obvious reasons to expect anything of the sort. But the “expected” is not always what happens”: “black swans” are always a possibility in the Byzantine world of Kremlin politics.
In the first two parts of our occasional and so far rather depressing series of articles on (and around) EU energy policy – which, in the style of the immortal Douglas Adams, is threatening to turn into a “Trilogy in Five Parts” – we discussed Vladimir Putin’s fantastically successful psychological operations in the fields of climate change and energy policy, and the resultant advantages that Russian firms, the Russian political system, and the Russian ruler himself enjoy in their competition with the West.
But we must now turn to an important question. Our analysis so far has not paid much attention to Russia’s domestic political dynamics. Might Mr Putin be somehow constrained or even threatened by these, in the short or even the long term? And might the West gain some benefit – or even some leverage – from this?
We must spoil the suspense a little by revealing in advance that the answer to all of these questions is “broadly, no”. But the point deserves to be argued. And there are enough caveats to this broad conclusion to provide, if not a surprise ending, then at least a minor twist or two in the tail.
Now, there are three domestic avenues through which such constraints or threats could in theory materialise:
- The first is opposition within a more or less democratic process, or at least by politicians oriented to such a process. Let’s use “democratic opposition” as a shorthand for this.
- The second is more elemental: broad popular discontent manifesting itself in ways other than the narrowly democratic ones of elections and parliamentary politics. This might or might not include violence—or be countered by violence—but it would tend to involve at least mass protests or strikes. Let’s call this “pressure from the streets”.
- The third would originate within the ruling elite—those already at the top and doing well out of Mr Putin’s system. Precise origins could be various: personal or institutional rivalries; pre-succession politics; resistance (reactive or preemptive) against a purge or loss of privileges; loss of confidence by the elite in the leader’s ability to deliver; emergence of a genuine (if limited) reformist convinced that the system must be overhauled to “save it from itself”; or a combination of some or all of these factors. Let’s refer to this rather heterogeneous category as “elite politics” or “boyars topple the Tsar”.
Obviously, a mixture of two, or all three, of these is possible. In fact, such a mixture would probably be necessary for change to stand any chance of happening. For instance, no new Gorbachev could make much headway without mobilising support outside the elite. A democratic opposition would, beyond a certain point, be singularly ineffective without the demos. And so on. Moreover, domestic forces might be helped or enabled—or stifled—by external ones.
However, we’re running ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s just use the three categories mentioned above as convenient headings to discuss possibilities.
To be blunt, it’s just not immediately realistic to pin our hopes on the “democratic opposition”. This is not because it doesn’t exist nor because its members lack bravery, determination or resourcefulness. No, it is for at least three other reasons.
First, the “democratic opposition” is fairly small and has no real mass base in the sense either of broad rank-and-file activism or of widespread attachment to democratic practices, norms and methods: more of this later, under the “pressure from the streets” heading.
Second, Mr Putin has both repressive resources and ways of dealing with the opposition that have been perfected over his two decades in power. And they work well.
He has surveillance and a strong police. He has largely compliant media – and the ability to make things unpleasant, inconvenient or downright dangerous for journalists that are not compliant. He has courts that can be relied on to arrange whatever judicial farces he requires, for instance to keep opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in jail and isolated from any media. He can rig elections with little problem, helped by the ability to disqualify inconvenient candidates and ban uncongenial parties or restrict their activities to the point of ineffectiveness.
Last but not least, he has the power to jail opposition figures or to harass them to the extent that the human response is to give up fruitless struggle and pointless suffering, instead taking up the (freely available) option of emigration. As many have done. That’s an important safety valve for Russia’s political kettle.
Third, the West’s support for the democratic opposition might, if sufficiently determined, muscular and targeted, make a difference. But the West has been worse than useless: it has been close to treacherous.
Have Western leaders reacted to election rigging, for instance? Not at all. Try to find a coherent policy stance from one Western government on how fair and free the last parliamentary elections were!
What reaction from Western leaders has there been to the Navalny saga? Precious little. But if the West seems incapable of keeping the fate of Russia’s most prominent opposition figure on the agendas of bilateral and multilateral talks, what chance is there for others, who are less visible? Who can blame them if they conclude that the West’s main use is as somewhere to emigrate to?
Just occasionally, the EU will invite prominent Russian opposition leaders to speak and air their grievances. But don’t be fooled. It reflects nothing more than a guilt complex, a need for ritual proof of belonging to classical Western democracy and allegiance to the values of human rights and freedoms. Once the gesture has been made, nothing practical happens. And the Merkels, Trumps and Macrons can get back to routine betrayals, to business-as-usual while Russians risk their lives.
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To sum up: Russia’s opposition is both fragmented and contained; it has to work in a democracy that’s mostly notional; and internationally it’s left largely – and dangerously – on its own. So it’s ineffective.
Pressure from the streets?
We said above that there’s little broad and deep commitment to democratic values, forms and practices. And why on earth would there be?
There’s very little democratic track record in Russian history: aside from fragile parliamentarism in the late Tsarist period, the short-lived democratic side of 1917, and the stirrings of the late Gorbachev period – none of them close to being a functioning democracy – there’s only been the disastrous pseudo-democracy of the 1990s, not an inspiring example. Otherwise there has been autocracy of various types, punctuated by periods of transient (and narrow) oligarchy. There has really been little opportunity or reason for democracy to develop, take root and become customary or credible.
And the autocrats have presented a widely acceptable alternative. They have emphasised the role of the Strong Man and the importance of national strength in a hostile world. The cult of the Great Patriotic War – 80 years after that conflict’s disastrous start, so bungled by the Strong Man du jour – shows that the message is still current.
National pride is central to the Putin formula, much as it has been for many previous Russian regimes. It’s how the rulers compensate the population for not having reasonable living standards. From the cradle, the average Russian has been taught to look at the map, read (redacted) history books and feel proud. Russians are happy if their military and security services can scare Europe and earn respect through regular exhibitions of Russian might – parades, military exercises, secret ‘wet’ or cyber operations, a forward foreign policy and the occasional military adventure. And of course the media and official information campaigns are important in encouraging this. In fact, they are becoming increasingly central: the more limited resources are, the greater is the need to “virtualise” power.
However, Mr Putin isn’t quite invulnerable to pressure “from the streets”, in two senses:
First, really serious foreign policy or military failure could weaken this source of legitimacy – especially if it were so serious that it could not be convincingly “spun” as success by compliant media. We’ll discuss this possibility further in our next article.
Second, while perceived national strength can make up, psychologically, for chronically low living standards, there are limits. A sharp and sudden drop in living standards could lead to dangerous discontent that could not be contained by the normal mechanisms of apathy, propaganda and repression. But this won’t happen as long as Mr Putin is benefitting from high energy prices. And he will continue to benefit from such prices as long as the West is politically irresolute, as long as Western energy policies restrict domestically produced supplies to the extent of self-harm, and as long as Europe is reckless and naïve in perpetuating its dependence on Russia.
One final point, before we go on to the subject of “elite politics”. It’s not just a mistake to hope that democracy – or, in most circumstances, even elemental rebellion – will emerge from the mass of the people. Hopeful ideas about an entrepreneurial and assertive middle class, a new generation or “the intelligentsia” being the source of change are also misplaced.
For young people, Mr Putin’s model is simple: integrate those who will cooperate into his system of patronage, control and consent – and force those who won’t do so to emigrate. That’s true of Moscow and St Petersburg. But it’s even more true of the rest of the country. The vast majority of young people – any people – outside Moscow and St Petersburg present no challenge to the Kremlin, and will present no challenge except in very specific and unlikely circumstances.
As to the middle class, integration works there too, while it’s not obvious how strong or independent a middle class can be in an economy so dominated by big energy corporations and, secondarily, by arms production and exports.
The “intelligentsia”, finally, is an overrated force in Russian history and the Russian present.
Members of the broad “professional” intelligentsia – higher-educated people like engineers, teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, media workers and even software specialists – are mostly too closely co-opted and bound up with Mr Putin’s system, its repressive apparatuses and its dominant sectors to act independently and make convincing trouble. Even computer nerds, a reservoir of potential anarchy and rebellion elsewhere, are pressed into service as hackers or trolls.
The intelligentsia in the narrower sense of “intellectuals” is, for the most part, similarly compromised. But, even insofar as the concept of “dissident” is still applicable, dissidents are not much of a threat now and – admirable as the likes of Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were – probably never did, in themselves, pose much of a threat. As a matter of fact, Mr Putin has no major issue with intellectuals lamenting the limits of freedom and democracy: they do no harm and present no direct challenge to his power. Mr Navalny was a different matter: he took on Putin personally, offering Russians a power change and a moral and political alternative, and presenting himself as an option at the ballot box. But Mr Putin has found effective ways of dealing with Mr Navalny.
Our third option, now. Might Mr Putin fall foul of a rebellion among the elite he has formed in the last two decades? My answer is: it’s not impossible, but would only happen – at least in the short-to-medium term – in rather specific circumstances, such as war with Ukraine, that might trigger the effect Afghanistan had on the Soviet Union, paralyzing Kremlin’s repressive and propaganda machine. And there are various reasons that suggest it’s unlikely for the moment.
From an economic point of view, there are some grounds for saying that Russia has entered an era of stagnation – entered it, indeed, some years ago. Though the economy’s woes are masked by high oil and gas prices, there hasn’t been much reform or structural change for many years. Indeed, the economy is more hydrocarbon-dominated than it used to be, not less. Even politically, there’s stagnation of a sort. But it’s an activist variety of stagnation, not at all reminiscent of, say, the somnolent, ailing, geriatric last years of long-serving communist leader Leonid Brezhnev. Mr Putin seems fit and alert; he has the energy to run an obnoxiously proactive foreign policy; he carries out regular reshuffles among his entourage and ‘favourites’; he’s not averse to mild (and sometimes televised) mini-purges; and there’s no reason to suppose that he doesn’t have the means to make said purges somewhat less mild (and less mini) if it suited him. In short, Mr Putin has not lost his grip and he’s still the one who is calling the shots.
In the language of the 16th and 17th centuries, Tsar Vladimir must always keep an eye on his ‘boyars’ – the “noblemen” or great ones of his realm. But these are boyars of a particular type: they are his creations. They are not self-made owners and CEOs, but political appointees. And they know perfectly well that – at any time and in no time at all – they could be stripped of their wealth, jobs, status and privileges. They don’t have independent power bases, Russia is not fragmented and the Kremlin appoints and dismisses its “boyars’.
For instance, it would seem that the formidable Igor Sechin, boss of Rosneft, is at last to fulfil his long-standing ambition to have the right of exporting some gas via pipelines, breaching Gazprom’s monopoly. That might be an interesting development to watch – and similar privileges for other companies might be even more interesting. It might be promising too, creating an opening that could be enlarged in a few years into a modicum of economic pluralism. But nobody seriously thinks that the move is primarily anything other than a means of circumventing the constraints on NS-2 capacity use posed by the EU’s Third Energy Package; nor that Mr Putin, as the real boss of Gazprom, is likely to allow Rosneft (or, for that matter, Lukoil) direct access to EU gas traders, much less to EU consumers; nor that, whatever rights the other oil and gas CEOs were granted, they would not remain utterly subservient to the Kremlin’s wishes; nor that, in this case. Gazprom would lose its role as prime player.
Of course, there’s succession to consider, and succession could be tricky. It looks as if Mr Putin’s main goal is to be succeeded by another ruler of his own type, hand-picked by him. Like any strongman worth his salt, Putin will avoid the mistake of long-term grooming of an heir apparent who might get impatient and replace him. Hence those frequent reshuffles and a tendency to foment discord and rivalry among henchmen. Hence also a strong probability that, when he thinks that the time has come, he will pick someone substantially younger and lacking in seniority; will do so relatively soon before he wants the transition to take place; and will manage and enforce that transition himself, as his last act as ruler, defending his candidate against more credible and senior rivals. Succession itself could go awry. And, before succession, the situation might be changed radically by Mr Putin’s incapacity or loss of physical or mental vigour, or perhaps by an old man’s reluctance to let go of power. But that’s probably a few years away. Meanwhile, there’s some presumption that Mr Putin can keep the situation under control by roughly the same methods as he has employed so far, untroubled by over-mighty rivals or succession politics.
Except in rather specific circumstances. Which are the subject of the next in this series of articles.
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