Is Vladimir Putin planning to reform or revise Russia’s sovereign democracy or more likely to consolidate his power vertical?
A leading strategy group this week cautioned that authoritarian consolidation in Russia is one of the ten leading threats to global prosperity, but observers questioned the Kremlin’s commitment and capacity to implement the modernizing reform needed to stave off a crisis.
In his final annual address to the Duma as prime minister, Russia’s president-elect called on all political forces to collaborate following the disputes surrounding recent parliamentary and presidential elections.
“We have one Russia, and its modern, advanced development must be the goal that unites all the country’s political forces that want to work constructively,” he said.
Putin claimed that Russia had survived a period of political polarization, overcome its demographic deficit and resumed healthy economic growth. “The country has gone through a tense period of parliamentary and presidential elections and, of course, today we can still hear the echoes of heightened emotions and political battles,” he said. “But the logic of mature democracy is that elections finish and then a new, much more important period of joint work begins.”
Some opposition figures detect signs of a marginally more liberal approach, suggesting that the ersatz ‘sovereign democracy’ fabricated by Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin‘s chief ideologue, may have passed its sell-by date.
“Putin is ready to work in conditions of greater freedom of speech. He is sufficiently flexible and professional as a politician not to fear questions that were not submitted in advance,” said Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies. “Indeed, it seems that Surkov’ s ‘treatment’ of the political system is coming to an end. But the trouble is that it was administered in a prison hospital and the patient, who was kept in the same position for five years, is weak and cannot do much on his own.”
But some analysts believe that the ruling siloviki – the “men of force” that comprise Putin’s power base – are unlikely to accept any reforms that compromise their hold on power by injecting measures of transparency and accountability inherently incompatible with the system’s endemic – and highly lucrative – corruption.
An authoritarian retrenchment will jeopardize prospects for foreign investment and Russia’s strategic stability with potentially destabilizing implications for the global economy, according to Oxford Analytica, a leading international consultancy.
Russian citizens also appear skeptical that the regime is willing to invest in the sunrise industries and new technologies needed to make the shift to a post-industrial economy.
Many believe the country is losing its place at the head of the space race, according to a new poll by the Levada Center, published today on the occasion of Cosmonauts’ Day. Forty-six percent of respondents believe Russia needs to invest more in space exploration programs, compared to 36 percent who think current levels of support are sufficient and seven percent who want a cut in spending.
Russia’s economy is in moderate recovery after the 2008-09 global economic crisis, Reuters reports, and Russia won praise for building up a big “rainy-day fund” that helped prevent economic meltdown. But concerns are mounting that Putin’s pre-election spending pledges will make the public finances of the world’s largest energy producer more vulnerable than ever to an oil-price crash.
“Where can we go (if Russia needs the money)? Greece can go to Brussels. Where can we go?” Putin said.
The status quo must adapt to avoid a potentially catastrophic crisis, some analysts suggest. But the democratic opposition also has a responsibility to present alternative policies if it is to establish its political credibility.
“Putin’s ‘vertical of power’…….already brittle thanks to the weakness of Russia’s governing institutions, could begin to show real signs of stress as an increasingly restive public watches election results with new interest,” says Alexander Kliment, an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Eurasia practice:
If so, the country’s nascent opposition will have to begin to build a much broader infrastructure to help its leaders speak to a national audience about local problems. Change won’t come quickly. Putin’s approval rating stands at 68 percent, and Russia’s economy is performing reasonably well. Moreover, few key regions face legislative or possible gubernatorial elections in coming months. But at the regional level, increased activism and attention from civil society and opposition groups, coupled with a threatening crisis of legitimacy for United Russia, could introduce a new element of unpredictability into local politics and, by extension, into center-regional relations.
“Russia’s opposition has a lot of building to do, but at least it now knows that a growing number of Russians are paying attention,” Kliment writes in Foreign Policy.
But even Putin’s critics concede that the opposition, plagued by ideological divisions and factionalism, has yet to begin the transition from a politics of protest to a long-term strategy of preparing for power.
“The opposition does not have real ideas on running the country,” said Igrunov, a founder of the liberal Yabloko party. “It is ready for a confrontation with the government and is consumed by an endless desire to find out which opposition members are real opponents of the authorities and which are not.”
The Levada Center is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.