When will Russia break?

April 14, 2016
Policemen detain a woman during a protest against the sentencing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in jail, in central Moscow, July 18, 2013. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

Policemen detain a woman during a protest against the sentencing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in jail, in central Moscow, July 18, 2013. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

When will Russia break? A rock bottom oil price, Western sanctions, inflation, a demographic crisis… when is the Second Russian Revolution? Next year, on the centenary of the first? 1917-2017?

In the first, workers and peasants and soldiers – not in huge numbers, but enough – rose against the wealthy aristos in their gilded St. Petersburg palaces. The post-Soviet ruling class, led by President Vladimir Putin, has shifted to the gilded palaces of Moscow’s Kremlin, and has made up for not having been born to wealth by thrusting great wealth upon each other. A tempting target for a discontented people, you would think.

Yet no sign of a revolution, not even of serious demonstrations. And the man at the center of the Kremlin web still has sky-high popularity ratings, bouncing merrily between 80 and 90 percent in the polls. It has been like that for two years, ever since Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March 2014.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s 1945 story, “A Conversation Piece,” a Russian White Guard émigré colonel, bitter enemy of the Communists who had stolen his country, bursts out in admiration of Joseph Stalin. “The great Russian people has woken up and my country is again a great country…. today, in every word that comes out of Russia, I feel the power, I feel the splendor of old Mother Russia!”

The prominent liberal commentator Andrei Kolesnikov writes that the current Russian leadership is bent on “making unfreedom sacred” – since “the new social contract demands that the Russian people surrender their freedom in return for Crimea and a sense of national pride.” Accompanying this surge of pride goes attitudes that bolster it – increased admiration for Stalin, greatly decreased admiration for the United States and the European Union. The bulk of the Russian people are united with the émigré colonel in admiration for displays of raw power.

This card — the inculcation of pride that “Russia is again a great country” — is the largest, maybe the only, one in the Kremlin deck and will need to be played again and again. In a recent essay, Robert Kaplan observes that Putin’s “foreign policy must become more creative and calculating… the more chaos he can generate abroad, the more valuable the autocratic stability he provides at home will appear.” Whether or not the Russian president really does hate the West, his survival depends on acting as if he does.

But there’s a problem for all Putin’s success. The capture of Crimea compensated for hard economic times, evident before sanctions were imposed. It changed the subject from the Putin-esque social contract, which was to demand obedience to the state and leave it for the leaders to enrich themselves, in return for steadily increasing consumption. As Kolesnikov puts it – “the state ideology offers no overriding concept for the future; its foundation is Russia’s past glory. In this sense, it may have a decidedly limited life span.” Kaplan agrees: “Putin will not be able to shelter his regime from the fallout of economic collapse.”

One of Russia’s most brilliant economists tried, earlier this week, to give some solid underpinning to the expectation that the revival of Russian nationalism/imperialism is brittle, and must change, or be changed. (Kaplan thinks that “a coup like the one which toppled (the Soviet leader) Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 cannot be ruled out.”) Mikhail Dmitriev, now a professor at Florida State University, was an economics minister in Putin’s first presidency, one of a group of bright young liberals who believed that reform was possible in the Putin spring – and left as they saw it drift away into autocracy.

In his talk — the annual Russia Lecture at London’s main foreign policy think tank, Chatham House – Dmitriev was the model of the careful economist. Russia’s economy is not an unmitigated disaster. The Central Bank has managed the decline as well as any could. Unemployment is low, at around 6 percent – much lower than in many West European states. Starved of imports, there has been some success in substituting domestic production for their loss. The dependence on the oil price made obvious by its fall has stimulated new interest in diversification of the economy into other areas.

For all that, the country remains in recession – an estimated decline of –1.5 percent in the economy this year. At best, a return to very low growth is expected thereafter: 0.9 in 2017, 1.2 in 2018. With luck, the country will return to pre-crisis levels of GDP only after a decade. Employment has remained high because, rather than let workers go, employers cut wages. Consumption has suffered, badly.

Not surprisingly, the political class’ popularity has fallen. Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, has seen approval levels drop substantially: as have the governors of most regions.

But not Vladimir Putin. Like many autocrats before him, he is above the political fray even as he commands it. He is the rock on which the regime is built, the indispensable man. If the support – love, even – that the majority of the Russian people now give him falters, all is lost for the present power structure.

Then we – the rest of the world – are in unknown territory, with a Russia no longer united around a leader, no obvious successor and the liberals a small, still distrusted group.

The hope, ironically, is in protest. Dmitriev observed that in Russia, protests typically lag some years behind economic turbulence: the wave of protests in 2011 were three years after the sharp decline – with most of the rest of the world — in 2008. A protest movement could throw up as leaders either a stronger, more aggressive nationalist group – or those who see in the demise of Putinism an opportunity to recalibrate a great country into a new relationship with Europe, itself in need of revival.

A “European destiny” was the subtext of Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to open up the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. It sustained, fitfully, the government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. It was played with, then decisively ditched, in the 2000s by Vladimir Putin.

Were he to fail, it has a chance of revival. Those who wish it would need courage and strength and support. Were they to fail, we’d be deeper in perilous territory than we are now.

23 comments

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No comments so far, but I’m sure your insights will be showered with all the praise they deserve in due time.

We just need to wait for the Internet to break.

Posted by gdbtch | Report as abusive

US and EU constantly remind Russians that Gorbachev then Eltsin and even Putin (at first) were fools to trust anything that US and EU promise. It was a hard lesson to learn, but the 1990s thought all Russians very well.
Don’t expect a revolution in Russia any time soon. The “opposition” are mostly nationalist radicals and would not be approved of if they were politicians in the west…

Posted by nikoliy | Report as abusive

The smart money is not on Russia. Investors are pulling out. Their smartest people continue to leave for better places. Russia is devolving into a contaminated colony of drunks and orphans.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Wonder if the author can ponder beyond Russia bashing to ask himself the same question about US – with its $19T debt and over $100T+ unfunded liabilities – usdebtclock.org, debt/gdp over 100%.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

The Bolsheviks were first sent to take down the czar then were used as a reason to invade Siberia. The only real opposition in any country is the one formed by patriots that never got help from outside. Somehow all the figures in Russian opposition have dirty hands. The author almost convinced me that the one who builds military bases around Russia and support the same corrupt opposition is the best for Russia.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

In this Brzezinski fairy tail the revolution is inevitable but the author failed to name the person that will handout cookies to the new Russian National Guard.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

It is surprising that such horseshit came to the mind of educated man!
John, f.-k your mouth, you are studying Russia by articles and posts such as alarmists and paranoids like you?
Have you any been in Russia?

By the way, does your cops allow crazies to arrange a mess near the White House?
You would still printed the photo of assault of the Winter Palace.

Posted by AirDef | Report as abusive

Your answer Mr LLoyd: NEVER

Posted by lolek | Report as abusive

America is in far more perilous shape than the author knows…

Looking in the mirror is sometimes painful

Posted by RoyTyrell | Report as abusive

Russia is doomed to collapse again due to Ignorance in World Economics. You cannot run a country like a criminal Empire. Russia blames its problems on the West instead of recognizing world Economic Rules and Procedures for Banking and World Trade.
Same old story those at the top and those in the military and those in the Communist partyElite live like kings and the rest of the country lives in Poverty, this is the story of Russia.

Posted by terrencegtrman | Report as abusive

Its highly hypocritical and shameful that the most aggressive imperialists the world has ever known, though lost almost all of its colonies now, at least in part to Soviet Russia inspired revolutions and national movements, is calling Russia imperialist. Its the pot calling the kettle black. Why do you still hold on to Malvinas which is next to Argentina? You were recently thrown out of Hong Kong. Do you await that fate here as well? On the other hand, Crimea democratically decided to rejoin Russia. There is a very realistic chance that much before Russia “breaks up” the already shrunken UK of “Great” Britain will break up with Scots leaving and NI joining ROI. Russia has great scientific and industrial base, and huge resources. It will do okay. It will just have to recover from the disastrous Yeltsin years and rebuild the institutions demolished and undermined by him for vested western interests.

Posted by stating_obvious | Report as abusive

What do you mean by approval? Who approves? The right- wing conservative scum?

Posted by stating_obvious | Report as abusive

We all know what happens to a country when pushed into a corner. Look at Hitlers Germany they decide to take what they need. Russia certainly has a formable military machine quite capable of this. A lot of other disgruntled countries would be only to happy to help them.

Posted by Andrewml | Report as abusive

Pointless article, badly researched with ridiculous academic conclusions. As to the illiterate comments on here insulting the Russian people this smacks of xenophobia. I have met quite a view Russians in the last year and all so far find this tedious and western propaganda.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

@terrencegtrman wrote:

“You cannot run a country like a criminal Empire. Russia blames its problems on the West instead of recognizing world Economic Rules and Procedures for Banking and World Trade.”

thanks, I just choked on a cup of coffee.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

“When will Russia break?”

Russia will cry at your funeral mate.

Posted by SVGuss | Report as abusive

the article is not good overall….being no more than a collection of points….however the points themselves are mostly correct

principally that there is always a delayed reaction to change from the people of Russia who have never been able to shake off the power that their political leaders exerted over them through the use of very clever media manipulation and propaganda

sheep that know better but know that being herded is better than being slaughtered

Posted by HEREINUKRAINE | Report as abusive

Post-Putin Russia is most likely going to become even more autocratic. All the people with influence, power and money, i.e. Putin’s cronies, will not be interested in moving towards some kind of liberal democracy since they have too much to lose. Instead we’ll see some “new Putin” take over. But whoever this person is, he is almost certainly not going to be as skillful a politician as Putin or gain the same level of popularity. Which means his position is always going to be more insecure and the only way to secure his power is to move Russia closer and closer to a full-blown dictatorship.

Posted by Phobic | Report as abusive

British islands will rather drown that Russia break! Do not dream in vain!

Posted by SlavaRussia | Report as abusive

“The post-Soviet ruling class, led by President Vladimir Putin, has shifted to the gilded palaces of Moscow’s Kremlin, and has made up for not having been born to wealth by thrusting great wealth upon each other..”

Ironic propaganda, considering that The CIA GINI Index shows inequality is worse in The U.S. than in Russia.

” A tempting target for a discontented people, you would think”

Yes, you would think. Yet, our TPP loving, whistle blower imprisoning, wedding party droning, banker coddling president is still in power. Go figure.

Posted by DemandSider | Report as abusive

This old, worn out story about Russia not being free, about critics being young and promising andby association right, or that the country is in decline is not convincing. Aircraft and shipbuilding industry expanded 13% in 2015, IT exports were up 16%. Forex was $350 billion in April 2015 but today is $388 billion, agricultural exports are now larger than defense exports.. Demographic decline has been reversed in 2012-2013 period and now there is population growth, suicide rates have declinex dramatically, and society and the 4 main political parties have consolidated in front of Western expansion and hostility. Oh, and under low oil prices the leading 3 companies have posted impressive profits, unlike US shale.

Posted by elroz | Report as abusive

It’s fun to speculate on Russia and their failings and we know what they are. It is more difficult to look at the power/wealth fascism that has overtaken the US since Reagan and his following cohorts including Bush, Bush, Clinton and Clinton. Making the wealthy more wealthy and creating an angry mob is not a capability that is solely an art of the Russians.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The article mixes two subjects: the economy and public (dis)content. In this mixed up thinking the economic problems should automatically lead to an uprising.

As for the economy, even the article admits that – given its bad cards in the form of low oil prices – Russia has done reasonably well.

Given that the government has done reasonably well there is no reason for the level of discontent that would lead to an uprising – although of course the opposition will try to frame thing as such anyway.

Posted by Pastoralist | Report as abusive