Russia's Political Crisis: What Lessons Will Putin Learn from the Protests?
To many outsiders, Russia appears to have changed suddenly during the three weeks since the country’s December 4 parliamentary elections. Especially powerful are the images of large protests in Moscow on December 10 and December 24, at which demonstrators called for new voting and for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s departure from power. Nevertheless, the path to Russia’s present political tension was a long one—and the way forward remains quite uncertain.
Several factors have contributed to Russia’s newly visible instability. The first is the Russian government’s failure over two decades to build strong institutions, including national, regional, and local government, a meaningful parliament, and independent courts. Russia’s executive branch has indeed been able to dominate its legislative and judicial branches since Boris Yeltsin introduced the country’s current constitution in 1993—after shelling and dissolving the previous parliament, the Supreme Soviet—and as a result, many beyond Russia’s borders have considered the country a strong authoritarian system.
Nevertheless, beneath the surface the government’s weakness, both politically and mechanically, has long been apparent. One of the most telling recent examples was Putin’s personal intervention to end labor protests in Pikalevo in summer 2009. While much was made of Putin’s humiliating treatment of oligarch Oleg Deripaska, whose factory was shedding jobs and failing to pay workers in the town, a politically confident leader would not have raced to the scene by helicopter. Moreover, he would not have needed to if local or regional officials—or federal economic or labor officials—had been capable of resolving the crisis.
The second factor is Russia’s economic weakness, masked by high energy revenues during most of Putin’s presidency, from 2000 to 2008 but revealed when the global financial crisis sent oil prices down to $40 per barrel in early 2009. Most important, as prices rose, the Russian government substantially increased its federal budget spending—meaning that today’s newly-high prices provide barely enough revenue to the state to cover expenditures.
This spending growth drove Russia’s economic growth for many years but has reached its limits; Moscow has now begun to cut costs. And wage growth has dropped to barely above inflation; comparing November 2011 to November 2010, real wages increased just 0.2% after years of substantial increases. Private sector workers have been hit especially hard.
Russia’s third problem is corruption, which both weakens its government institutions and undermines the prospects for major economic reform and sustainable growth. Politically, corruption has slowly sapped the Russian government’s legitimacy among its citizens. Like Russia’s economic weakness, its dwindling legitimacy was concealed by the energy bonanza that temporarily satisfied most citizens—massive corruption was tolerable when everyone appeared to benefit. Once the economic pie is no longer expanding, however, many Russians are paying more attention to the shares that others receive and don’t like what they see.
The final factor is information. In some respects, Russia’s political crisis seems like a case study in the war between traditional media and new media: Putin supervised traditional media tightly, believing that Russia’s major national television stations were the strategic high ground from which the government could shape national attitudes, but interfered little in Internet-based media. Over time, however, the contrast between the two appears to have promoted precisely the “dual consciousness” that existed in the Soviet Union—public adherence to the rules, combined with private disgust for them.
At the same time, Putin and other government leaders are unlikely to make effective decisions without reliable information that they appear to lack. Putin acknowledged the need for a closer connection between Russia’s government and society in a November meeting with foreign experts and even said that he wanted to provide citizens with greater opportunities for “feedback.” Yet, tellingly, he appeared to want feedback so that citizens would feel more involved and supportive—not as a means to improve policy. Ironically, Russia’s real problem may be that its leaders are detached from its people and do not understand them, not vice versa.
Moving forward, there are many unanswered questions that will shape Russia’s evolution in the coming weeks, months, and years. One is to what extent Putin will learn and adapt. Thus far, Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have reassigned a number of senior officials and made a variety of declarations. These may prove to be important steps but, in the absence of further action, appear insufficient to satisfy critics.
Another key question is how much support the protesters really have; Putin’s press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, insists that they are a minority. This has yet to be tested and could be decisive in the March 4 presidential election. The final question is who among Putin’s backers will remain behind him if the going gets tough. It could be a mistake to assume that Russia’s police and security services are more efficient than the rest of the government or more satisfied than the rest of society. With this in mind, the next six months could be more dangerous for Vladimir Putin than any previous period.