Putin’s fourth term may be his most difficult yet

Putin’s re-election is a certainty, but it does not guarantee political stability in Russia

Vladimir Putin: The system of “managed democracy” that Putin instituted to perpetuate his rule requires the formal rituals of democracy

Vladimir Putin: The system of “managed democracy” that Putin instituted to perpetuate his rule requires the formal rituals of democracy

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Few things are certain in politics, but the election of Vladimir Putin for a fourth term as president of Russia is a fairly safe bet. Sunday’s election is being held on the fourth anniversary of Crimea’s return to the Russian motherland, an event known to most beyond Russia as an illegal annexation.

After 18 years in power, Russians will vote for six more years of Putin. Though the result is a foregone conclusion, the scenography of the election matters. Putin is running as an independent candidate against seven others, one of whom is Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of his former law professor and political mentor Anatoly Sobchak.

The system of “managed democracy” that Putin instituted to perpetuate his rule requires the formal rituals of democracy. Candidates must qualify for the ballot (a handy way also to exclude threatening opposition figures like Alexei Navalny). People should show up to vote. And local authorities should count these votes in an orderly manner (while ensuring that the vote is pleasing to higher authorities).

As with any performance, a number of things can go wrong. The desired outcome is 70/70: 70 per cent of the vote from a 70 per cent turnout. This may be optimistic. While Putin is genuinely popular, fatigue with his system is real as domestic and international problems mount.

Putin was first elected president of the Russian Federation on March 26th, 2000. His rise to such a position was unexpected. A deputy mayor under Sobchak in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s, Putin was brought to Moscow by Yeltsin to serve in his presidential administration.

As Yeltsin deteriorated, a few oligarchs around him looked for what they believed would be a safe controllable figure to assume formal power while they pulled the strings behind the scenes. They chose Putin, who as a former spy and director of the Federal Security Service, could placate the siloviki, security service veterans, while oligarchs ran the show.

It did not work out as planned.

Frustration

The siloviki around Putin hated how much Russia had fallen in the 1990s. A strategy document from December 1999 gave expression to this frustration.

Russia, it declared, was “in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in its history”. It faced “the real threat of slipping down to the second and possibly even third rank of world states”.

Once in power Putin consolidated power in the hands of the siloviki. State strength came first, with power emanating from the Kremlin. Most of the oligarchs who plotted to elevate Putin fled.

Putin’s rule coincided with a significant rise in gross domestic product and real incomes in Russia. In 1999 Russia’s GDP was $195.9 billion. It rose steadily until 2008, and after a brief fall in 2009 and 2010, resumed its rise to an impressive $2.297 trillion in 2013.

The rise in gross national income per capita was spectacular. Only $1,710 in 2000, it rose to $15,200 in 2013; these are aggregate figures, of course, and disguise massive internal income inequalities, another feature of Putin’s Russia.

There might be some alignment but there is no formal alliance between Russia and China to challenge what is now manifestly dysfunctional US leadership.

It helped greatly that world market prices for oil and gas, accounting for around 70 per cent of Russia’s export incomes, were buoyant during most of Putin’s first decade of rule.

The 2008 financial crisis hit Russia, but it recovered well. Then came 2014, the seizure of Crimea, the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, the downing of the Malaysian civilian airliner MH17 and escalating rounds of US and European sanctions against Russian individuals and business sectors.

Equally significant was the sharp drop in the price of oil and gas as of June 2014. Russia suffered a significant rouble devaluation in late 2014. Today one US dollar will buy you 57 Russian roubles; in January 2014 it would only have bought 33 roubles.

The latest World Bank figures on Russia make for grim reading: a gross domestic product that has fallen to $1.283 trillion and a gross national income per capita of $9,720. That rouble devaluation may overstate this fall in real purchasing power terms but it is nevertheless clear that Putin’s Russia has taken a significant economic hit since 2014. His fourth term may be his most difficult yet.

Top rank power

Many of these difficulties are down to his own choices. The recovery of Russia’s status as a top rank world power has always been important to Putin. In his early years in power he sought an alliance with the United States against a common foe: radical Islamic terrorism.

The foreign policy of George W. Bush, however, alienated Putin, even as he cultivated Bush’s friendship. The US’s withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, its illegal invasion of Iraq, and the expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders fuelled Russian resentments.

The US acquiescence to Kosovo’s independence and Nato’s declaration that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the alliance one day publicly crossed a red line Putin had made clear to Bush in private.

In August 2008, Russia crushed a Georgian attempt to take back a breakaway territory. Soon thereafter Russia recognised two breakaway regions of Georgia as separate independent countries (few others did). Russia was now actively striking back against perceived US encroachment into its so-called “Near Abroad”, its historic sphere of interests.

Six years later, in the face of what it darkly saw as another US-sponsored “coloured revolution”, Putin went further by seizing Crimea and sponsoring an insurgency that took hold in the Donbas.

Russia gets a lot of attention these days but its status is not that of a respected first rank world power. Instead it is a feared spoiler. It has, of course, always been an existential threat because of its nuclear arsenal. What has changed is its capacity and willingness to sow chaos beyond its borders.

The contradictions of this strategy are now apparent. To improve its economic health, Russia needs access to international markets, foreign investment, capital and technology. Economic diversification at home requires greater integration into the global economy.

Putin’s strategies in the “Near Abroad” and beyond, however, have provoked counter-strategies of isolation and containment. In his most recent “state of the nation” speech on March 1st, Putin spoke eloquently of the need for domestic modernisation.

New ideas

“We must expand freedom in all spheres, strengthen democratic institutions, local governments, civil society institutions and courts, and also open the country to the world and to new ideas and initiatives.”

Yet in the very same speech he also warned foreign states of Russia’s fearsome new missiles.

Russia, Putin declared, “ranks among the world’s leading nations with a powerful foreign economic and defence potential. But we have not yet reached the required level in the context of accomplishing our highly important task and guaranteeing people’s quality of life and prosperity.”

A rally marking the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea. Photograph: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov
A rally marking the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea. Photograph: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

The problem, however, is that Putin’s way of defending Russia through invasion of neighbouring states has precluded options for expanding prosperity.

We should not assume that Putin’s re-election will guarantee political stability in Russia. Factional struggles and disputes between different oligarchic clans, power ministries, regional governors and societal interest groups require constant management.

In the past Putin was very much a hands-on leader. In recent years, however, he has become more removed from the everyday grind of governing. In this election he has presented himself as a transcendent figure, a father protector of the state.

Some observers argue that Putin’s relative distance from governance has facilitated the emergence of policy entrepreneurship by ambitious cronies who perceive themselves as working towards Putin along lines he wishes.

Whether this accounts for the provocative and rogue nature of some Russian activities abroad recently is a matter of debate.

Restive regions

But Putin’s power vertical may not be as efficient and centralised as many imagine. Historically restive regions like the North Caucasus are only superficially stable. Fighters returning from Syria’s civil war are a concern. Intra-elite and intra-regional disputes are likely to become intense as economic resources shrink and reforms becomes unavoidable.

Putin still has some things going for him as he embarks on the fourth term. Many world leaders see him as a model: Xi Jinping in China, Erdogan in Turkey, al Sisi in Egypt and, of course, Trump in the US.

Authoritarian nationalism is a governance style that is back in fashion. With the breakdown of relations between Russia and the West, Putin has sought to pivot more firmly to Asia, most especially to China.

Xi Jinping and Putin have a strong working relationship. It helped that in 2004 both countries resolved a long-standing border dispute. Some observers argue that both powers are converging around a neo-revisionist challenge to the “liberal international order” historically defended by the United States.

China’s interests, however, diverge from Russia’s because it is much more integrated into this order and reaps considerable rewards from it. Its island-building in the South China Sea has not provoked the same reaction as Russia’s revanchism in the “Near Abroad”.

It is noticeable that the term “new Cold War” is now used in the US to refer to China as well as to Russia. While there may be a certain alignment, there is no formal alliance between Russia and China to challenge what is now manifestly dysfunctional US leadership.

Putin has also cultivated Shinzo Abe in Japan, and hinted at a resolution of the Kurile islands dispute, but there has been little formal progress.

World stage

Last year Putin became the longest serving Russian leader since Stalin. He is now a deeply experienced figure on the world stage. He helped restore Russian prosperity after the disastrous Yeltsin years, and brought a renewed sense of national pride to the country even before his Crimea gambit.

This last explicitly revanchist boost to Russian pride has come with long-term costs. Earlier this week Putin made a campaign appearance at the construction site of the unfinished Crimean Bridge. The bridge across the Kerch Strait is designed to connect mainland Russia to Crimea, now a relatively isolated backwater because of international sanctions.

The project is a metaphor for Putin’s Russia today, a country that has invested too much in building a bridge to the past at the expense of a more open and prosperous future for its people.

Dr Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech’s campus in Washington DC. His latest book is Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus (Oxford, 2017). @Toal_CritGeo

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