Russian President Vladimir Putin used to seem invincible. Today, he and his regime look enervated, confused, and desperate. Increasingly, both Russian and Western commentators suggest that Russia may be on the verge of deep instability, possibly even collapse, argues Rutgers analyst Alexander J. Motyl.
The problem for Putin—and for Russia—is that the political–economic system is resistant to change. Such a dysfunctional economy is sustainable only if it is controlled by a self-serving bureaucratic caste that places its own interests above those of the country, he writes for Foreign Affairs:
In turn, a deeply corrupt authoritarian system needs to have a dictator at its core, one who coordinates and balances elite interests and appetites. Putin’s innovation is to have transformed himself into a cult-like figure whose legitimacy depends on his seemingly boundless youth and vigor. Such leaders, though, eventually become victims of their own personality cult and, like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Mussolini, do not leave office voluntarily. Russia is thus trapped between the Scylla of systemic decay and the Charybdis of systemic stasis. Under such conditions, Putin will draw increasingly on Russian chauvinism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism for legitimacy.
But the Russian people seem impotent to demand and initiate changes, because the vast majority of potential Russian liberal leaders at the state and local level are either complicit in corruption, marginalized and afraid of cruel repression, already imprisoned or severely harassed, or have already left the country, argues analyst Kalev Stoicescu.
All decisions made and actions taken by President Putin and his inner circle in the short term (from 2016 to 2018) in the domestic and international arena will be aimed at the successful survival of the regime, he writes in Russia – Future Prospects for the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin, an analysis for Estonia’s International Centre for Defence and Security:
There will certainly be no perestroika-like process on the agenda in order to save Russia from economic, political and social doom, or to rebuild its relations with key Western neighbours and partners in a nonconfrontational and civilised manner.
Such a process is unthinkable from the top, since President Putin and his cronies would rather resentfully agree to being shot than accept that their ideology and policy, in virtually all aspects, has been harmful to Russia and wrong all the way along. …. In present circumstances, it is equally improbable or even impossible that a new perestroika can be initiated and sustained from the grass roots, since the liberal political opposition has been effectively marginalised, if not eradicated. Contemporary Russian dissidents are even fewer in number and in greater difficulty than those at the end of the Soviet era. In addition, there are no charismatic Russian leaders with sufficient popularity and power base to replace President Putin and change (or at least try to change) Russia for the better, in the Western sense of the word.
At the same time, Leonid Gozman [left], democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, argues that the feeling of being humiliated, not economic woes, might lead people to the streets.
“People won’t put up with humiliation,” he said, pointing to “a moral aspect” of the risks that might trigger unrest and citing the example of the large-scale protests in 2011-12 – protests that were spurred by the fact that people felt offended by alleged fraud during the 2011 parliamentary elections.
Most importantly, the vast majority of Russia’s population has lost confidence or hope (if many of them ever had it) in liberal democratic values and freedoms, and has become more clearly chauvinist and anti-Western-minded, Stoicescu adds:
The prevailing Russian credo seems to be that well-being and worldwide authority is not only possible, but also necessary by antagonising the West and despising its liberal freedoms, and by bullying both Russia’s neighbours and its own dissidents. Hence, there is almost no hope that a spontaneous politically driven process could emerge in Russia to change the political direction so that the Russian people can enjoy real democratic freedoms, state power can effectively fight corruption at all levels instead of continuing to rely on it for the personal benefit of the elite, and, finally, Russia can re-establish friendly relations with all its neighbours (including Ukraine) and the West, rather than continuously threatening other states and making new enemies.
Since there is no potential internal political driver for change and the West can effectively no longer do anything to influence Russia’s internal everyday politics and political processes, the only serious challenges to the Putinist regime remain Russia’s poor economic performance and prospects, coupled with potential foreign-policy failures.
“The Putinist regime may face serious internal trouble only if Russia’s economy collapses, ruining the businesses of its key supporters (oligarchs) and the lives of practically all common Russian citizens,” Stoicescu concludes. “The question is to what extent and how long the Russian people will endure increasing hardship, and what might be the trigger for popular unrest.” RTWT