Feb 11th 2021

Putin Is Losing the Battle for Russia’s Future 

by Andrei Kolesnikov

Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior associate and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

 

MOSCOW – Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war.

Navalny has long been a prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin. But his arrest –immediately upon returning to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent months recovering from a (presumably) Kremlin-ordered poisoning – has turned him (as well as his comrades-in-arms, many of whom have also been arrested) into something of a moral authority as well.

Now that he has been sentenced to nearly three years in prison – which may be extended, if the authorities charge him with more crimes – Navalny’s moral standing is on par with late-Soviet dissidents like Andrei Sakharov. Russians who a few weeks ago never imagined that they would risk arrest over some moral imperative are now taking to the streets. And many of those who are staying home are sympathetically following news of the protests and Navalny’s plight.

Of course, Putin’s regime has faced protests before. In 2011, Russians flooded the streets to protest the results of a legislative election, and demonstrations continued through the first half of 2012. But the Kremlin’s response was very different then. While some protesters did face criminal charges, the demonstrations were not crushed in such a cruel way. In late 2011, there were even rumors that Putin was poised to engage in a genuine dialogue with civil society, raising hopes that he was getting desperate – and even that his regime may be on the brink of collapse.

That collapse did not come. And, this time, the Kremlin is giving no hint that it will negotiate with the demonstrators. Guards encircle the Kremlin quarter and the Federal Security Service quarter, and the police and the Rosgvardiya (national guard) have arrested so many protesters that detention centers are bursting at the seams.

But, for those who would like to see Putin fall, this may be a more promising outcome than what happened a decade ago, because it shows that the president is on the defensive. The Kremlin has become essentially a bunker. Putin, who has historically avoided responding to corruption accusations, has even denied owning the opulent palace on the Black Sea that Navalny featured in a recent viral video.

This shift reflects developments in Russia since the annexation of Crimea seven years ago. Western sanctions imposed in response to that move have gradually eroded Russia’s economy. And because state intervention in the economy is essential to maintain an autocratic regime – an approach that almost inevitably ends with attempts to regulate prices – political erosion soon followed. Welcome to the late Soviet Union.

In today’s Russia, economic policy is becoming increasingly primitive: collect money from taxpayers, and spend it on whatever Putin and his cronies want, such as law enforcement and the bureaucracy (a prime source of patronage). That means powerful security services and black-helmeted riot police who chase young people in the streets and beat them with batons. It means judges who hand down whatever sentences the Kremlin wants. And it means a massive bureaucratic machine, with millions of employees, which mindlessly repeats the Kremlin line (for example, that Navalny’s poisoning was staged by the West).

Less important, apparently, is a functioning economy. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, private and foreign investors have lost interest. With economic growth barely above zero, real incomes have fallen by 10.6% since 2014. The Russian government reports a 3.1% decline in GDP in 2020, but this is in ruble terms, and the ruble is weakening by the day. Measured in US dollars, Russia’s GDP in 2020 was 10% smaller than in 2019

Economists say the ruble is undervalued because of “political factors.” But those factors are of the Kremlin’s own making. It is Putin’s utter rejection not only of democratization and economic liberalization, but of any attempt at modernization, that has brought the economy to its knees.

And it is not just the economy that is suffering. Russia’s judicial system is no longer credible. Universities are losing their intellectual vigor, as faculty members stifle themselves and student activists are expelled. Even the state bureaucracy is deteriorating. If the foreign ministry cannot conduct productive negotiations with the West, what good is it? Is its only purpose to churn out crude, Stalinist-style propaganda?

This institutional rot reflects the extent to which Putin’s regime has become outdated – morally, politically, and technologically. Portraits of Genrikh Yagoda, the director of the feared NKVD (the Soviet Union’s secret police), hang in police precincts (it was visible during one of Navalny’s trials). A statue of Lavrenti Beria – the most terrifying figure in twentieth-century Russian history after Stalin – is planned for the exhibition hall of the Rosatom State Atomiс Energy Corporation.

While the state clings to the past, Russian society modernizes. Herein lies the real conflict in Russia today: the outdated and the modern are competing for the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians. In this war, there will be no concessions. Opposition activity is being treated as a criminal offense. Nonprofit organizations and independent media are being labeled as foreign agents.

The authorities think that, by sending Navalny to prison, they have quelled his influence. But they have achieved the opposite result, bolstering his popularity even among those who didn’t previously like him much. Navalny has become a moral authority for many, attracting enormous interest in himself and in the protests. At the same time, he has exposed the authorities’ brutality. But his disapproval rating has grown nonetheless, because Putin loyalists view him as a real threat to stability. 

However, the same survey shows that Navalny enjoys great support among young people, especially those aged 18 to 24. In other words, Putin is beginning to lose the battle for future generations to Navalny.

The protests have turned Russian politics into a binary affair: you are either with Navalny or with Putin. And that is a contest that Putin is no longer confident he can win.


Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and Chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
www.project-syndicate.org
 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "