Wednesday, December 14, 2005

"Putin's mission is to fail"

"Putin's mission is to fail with authoritarian modernisation," Russian political analyst Lilia Shevtsova declared during a recent visit to Stockholm, Sweden.

After nearly six years in power, Putin's dominance over Russian politics remains. Putin's road to power is still obscure, but his success as president seems undoubtable. Yeltsin's heritage has been disbanded. The previous system has given way for the policy of authoritarian modernisation - subordination, loyalty, and verticalism. Economic growth has been 25% since the 1998 August crisis and only this year amounts to some 5-6%. Only 19% of Russians are under the poverty line. Support for Putin is some 72-75% (permanently over 60%). Support is one thing - confidence another. Russians do not consider Putin a success. "Normality" is not enough. The lack of alternatives and higher hopes for the future slowly adds to growing discontent with the prevailing order, Shevtsova argued.

Putin's dominance over politics is combined by the dominance of oil over economy. The backside of this is dependence on energy, which threatens to crowd out economic development within other sectors as well as drive inflation. Comparisons with Venezuela, Indonesia and the 1970's "Dutch disease" abound. Russia all the more appears as an "oil state". The difference is that it is an oil state with nuclear weapons, Shevtsova underlined. Putin's political dominance is also increasingly combined by economic dominance. The urge to get control over strategic resources continues after the Yukos scandal. The Kremlin now controls 99% ov gas and 56% of oil resources, according to Shevtsova. "Redistribution" of wealth still characterises Putin's policy.

Parliamentary & Presidential elections 2007-2008
Will Putin run for a third presidential term? No, Shevtsova replied. Putin's interest in his presidency has gradually decreased and he spends all the more time on other activities. Russia's "first person" almost desperately seeks to avoid the daily presidential chores.

"Who will succeed Putin?" Russia's next leader must be compatible with the political élite as well as the people, Shevtsova argued. This is the dilemma when the "power" will elect its presidential candidate. The 2007 parliamentary elections will be an eligibility test for those who nurture ambitions for the presidency - a "dress rehearsal" for the 2008 presidential elections.

"Which are the alternatives?", Shevtsova asked. Putin's successor must be sought on two levels: Obvious candidates and "dark horses". To the first level belong first vice Premier Dmitry Medvedev and defence minister Sergey Ivanov, whose suitability now is tested. If they or other known alternatives fail the test, a "candidate out of the box" may appear - as once Putin did. In the realm of foreign policy, a candidate should balance between "cockyness" towards and acceptance by the West.

What happens now? The period of hesitation is over for the Putin administration, Shevtsova claimed. Despite who becomes the Kremlin 2008 presidential candidate, the power agenda is set by the so called "triad". Thus, the three overarching priorities are continued redistribution of wealth, keeping the status quo, and continued possession of power by peaceful succession. The three goals of the "triad" though entail obvious contradictions that, in the long run, may become incompatible, Shevtsova argued.

Authoritarian modernization - differing views
Putin's policy of authoritarian modernisation seems, at first sight, to be a resounding success. Its inherent problem is, however, that it is obsolete in its modernisation of goals by traditional means. To create historical continuity may seem appealing, but returning to the past is also an existential challenge, Shevtsova claimed. When concepts such as "samoderzhava" (autocracy), "pravoslavie" (Orthodoxy), and "narodnost" (ethnos), are refurbished, the question is whether a system is created - in ideational and material terms - that may confront the challenges of modern society. How are you, for instance, going to deal with political pluralism, she asked. Seeking to control "open society" and the media like Putin, by creating imitating functions is hardly an answer, Shevtsova claimed. To manipulate public opinion is perhaps possible in the short run, but state-directed structures are not suited to channel discontent. Adding to this is also the task to create a robust economy, which development is not based on energy and raw material exports, Shevtsova underlined.

According to Shevtsova, views of Russia and the policy of authoritarian modernisation are, traditionally, divided into two groupings: realists and idealists. The realists, dominating debate, claim that Russia deserves the state system it has and lacks the ability to change. The recipe of authoritarian modernisation - capitalism first and liberal democracy later - is thus well in line with the realist view. Only authoritarian rule may create a capitalist system forming the basis for liberal democratic development. The problem of realists, Shevtsova emphasised, is that reforms have come to a standstill: Authoritarian rule - yes; modernisation - no. Putin's policy is, as a matter of fact, going in the opposite direction, and its goal is rather power than modernisation. In addition to this, the lack of public debate and objective analysis on societal development limits the ability of power to meet political challenges and pursue an enlightened policy of modernisation.

The idealists, to whom Shevtsova belong, claim that Russia is more ready for change than might be expected. They point at the growing gap between society and the political class. If Russians are ready for change and liberalisation, why do the liberals have such weak popular support? This is explained by the inability of liberals to play the political game and fundamentally to understand the realities of politics. "It's the politics, stupid!", was Shevtsova's indignant comment.

Stability and instability for the Putin Administration
Whence the massive support for Putin? The answer is partly sought in the stability he offers, Shevtsova meant. Russians are desillusioned after experiencing the 1990s and consider Putin a better alternative than the system and insecurity that Yeltsin represented. The sort of liberal democracy people have experienced has lost its attraction and does not seem to offer any solutions. This view is strengthened by a weak liberal opposition without visions and agenda. A West in crisis and stagnation also supports Russian stablity, but has no will to influence the country. On the material level, oil incomes create macro-economic and some socio-economic stability. To summarise, factors that might topple the power balance in Russian politics appear to be lacking. In the eyes of the people, there are no alternatives to Putin, Shevtsova meant.

Still, something seems to be "bubbling under the surface". People are ready to fathom new ideas and Russia is ready for change, Shevtsova claimed. Public opinion is only 25% traditionalist, nurturing dreams of great power and military force. Some 30% are reformers with liberal values. What remains - nearly half the population - are very volatile in opinion terms, Shevtsova said. A great part of this volatile opinion, however, leans towards westernisation, even if traditionalism has lately gained more support. When voters recently were asked about authoritarian traditionalism as opposed to liberal development with the individual at the centre, an overwhelming 68% favoured more freedom for the individual. This strong advocacy for individual rights appears stabile, Shevtsova said, and constitutes a worrisome element for Putin's policy. Above all, it demonstrates a growing gap between a traditionalist political élite and a society that, regardless of everything, supports liberal values. The strong support for Putin may thereby quickly turn if confronted by a conflict between politics and society, Shevtsova emphasised. In this context, it is important to differ between support and trust for Putin. Few people, as a matter of fact, regard Putin a successful leader. Support for Putin must be sought partly in the stability he offers, partly in the lack of alternatives. Russians may therefore turn their backs on "Putin" if a realstic alternative enters the political stage, Shevtsova claimed.

That Putin appears to be leaving the stage in 2008, further accentuates the dangers for the further possession of power by the élite. At the same time as the nomenklatura is seeking to consolidate its positions, a number of factors that could topple its positions arise. Reviewing such factors, Shevtsova pointed to individual ambitions and egotistic interests as well as surfacing contradictions and conflicts within the élite. In addition to this, she emphasised issues that either have been put off the political agenda or unexpected developments - the so called "wild cards". To the former, Shevtsova counted Chechnya and Northern Caucasus, corruption, and the military and bureaucratic reforms. Among the "wilds cards" are unpredictable events, which could emanate from structural factors inherent in the unsustainability of post-soviet society, Shevtsova argued.

As Russia's growing middle-class and the so called dotcom generation is confronted by an economically destabilising fall of the oil price or some other serious crisis, the question is when they will unite in the pursuit of their common interests in lack of other structures through which they might channel their discontent and desires. The recurrent failures of the political élite make us assume that Russia once more is closing a moment of truth, Shevtsova emphasised.

We know the laws that rule the tides of change: the law of unintended consequences and the law of failure. Unintended consequences are legio in Russian history and its contents were well characterised by Chernomyrdin: "We wanted something better, but got the same". Russia experienced this in the 1998 financial crisis, the recent débacle in the Ukraine, or the failure of the social reform earlier this year. Results of policy become other than intended, Shevtsova summarised.

The law of failure is, if possible, even worse for Putin and the political élite. Authoritarian modernisation lacks goals and visions and is therefore destined to take Russia into a dead end. The question is when the end will come, Shevtsova wondered. Possibly, when people no longer accept that the country is run without real democracy, agenda or direction - when politics have failed. Failure is what eventually will end the rule of Putin and the political élite and lead to a change in Russia. Putin's historical mission is to fail, Shevtsova concluded.

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