Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to play hardball both domestically and in foreign policy, say analysts.
His decision to shun the upcoming G8 summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama is a “particularly blunt” indication of a more assertive foreign policy, while the excessive force used against demonstrators this week (above) “threatens to radicalize the confrontation between civil society and the state.”
“There will probably be raised eyebrows in Washington,” Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight, said today. “His refusal may be taken as a sign that Russia under Putin will indeed be more inward looking and favor a tougher foreign policy.”
Putin’s decision to snub the US-hosted summit confirms that ‘foreign policy … will play the role of a servant to Putin’s domestic agenda,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an expert on Putin. “And his main goal domestically is to preserve the status quo and survive.”
The move represents a further deterioration in relations already strained by the Kremlin’s harassment of Michael McFaul, the U.S. envoy to Moscow and architect of the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations.
Most analysts are dismissive of Putin’s references to reform and enhancing Russian democracy, suggesting that even incremental change would threaten the vested interests of his fellow siloviki.
Former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky believes this week’s violence will taint Putin’s inauguration and term of office.
“Putin can’t escape … the pointlessness of the crackdown, the sporadic savagery combined with absurdity,” he said.
“A further escalation of civil conflict is unavoidable, simply because society has outgrown being a semi-colonial, authoritarian, natural resource appendage to the developed world,” opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova said on her blog.
That shift in public sentiment is evident in a recent survey by the Levada Center, an independent polling group which found that only 1 in 5 Russians believe Putin is supported by ordinary Russians. Some 64% believe they may become victims of arbitrary abuse by police or prosecutors, while 55% say they can’t depend on the courts for protection.
Almost 50% of respondents believe government uses law enforcement agencies against political opponents and two-thirds believe official corruption will stay the same or grow in Putin’s new term.
But Putin is unlikely to respond to such shifts in public opinion by adopting a more reformist or modernizing approach to governance.
“Right now, Putin does not perceive anything except for stability,” says Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of Moscow’s Centre for Post-Industrial Studies.
The survey by Levada, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, confirms that “serious societal shifts are underway,” writes Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Putin’s government has effectively offered two tacit pacts,” she contends:
For the conservative majority, the deal is: We deliver and you stay loyal. The government can’t provide services such as just courts or a trusted police force, but at least the high price of oil has supported steady growth in state-funded salaries and pensions.
The deal for the independent-minded minority centers on non-intrusion: You stay away from politics, and we do not interfere with your pursuits.
While the first pact still holds, the second has mostly fallen apart.
Putin was able to ride out the winter’s “Snow Revolution” of anti-government protests by cultivating a new social base, says Stephen Sestanovich* of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ironically, while relatively affluent urban middle-class voters turned against him, Putin “managed to solidify his support among people who have done the least well” by employing virulent anti-Western rhetoric to mobilized rural and working class voters.
Putin also has the benefit of a weak and divided opposition.
“The anti-Putin forces remain weak; they are a loose constituency without a political agenda or broadly recognized leaders,” Lipman notes. “This enables Putin, for now, to dismiss them and proceed with his governance of manipulative politics, centralized power and egregious abuse of executive authority.”
The opposition may also be approaching a strategic choice: decline or radicalization, observers suggest.
“Putin may be back, but he has not restored the status quo ante. He survives, but the system does not,” says Andrew Wilson of University College London:
The control techniques of ‘virtual politics’ that were built in the 1990s and 2000s will no longer function in the same systematic way: some techniques will survive, some will not. The decay of the system, however, is far from complete. Russia now has a self-styled ‘liberated minority’ operating in one reality, and a residual and relatively passive ‘Putin plurality’ operating in another. And never the twain shall meet. In that sense at least, the 2011-12 election cycle is an important turning point.
“Russia was a ‘managed democracy’ or ‘virtual democracy’ (pick your term) before December 2011,” he suggests. “It is now turning into something else.”
Wilson is the co-author of a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations which makes the case that Russia’s changing political terrain demands a shift in foreign policy approaches:
Central authority is weaker, the economy is faltering and the restless middle classes are confident enough to protest against the government.
‘The end of the Putin consensus’ by Ben Judah and Andrew Wilson argues that:
- The financial crisis has exposed Russia’s chronic governance crisis and dashed its dreams of being a true rising economic power. Russia suffered the G20’s deepest recession in 2009. See ECFR’s report ‘Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia’.
- Recent protests show that Russia is restless but not yet revolutionary. The protest movement is a minority, but is drawn from Russia’s most dynamic demographic groups – the Moscow based, the middle class, the young and the cultural elite.
- Electoral fraud is often unsophisticated and discrepancies are easy to expose thanks to the booming blogosphere. For instance exit polls in Moscow gave United Russia 32% of the vote in recent parliamentary elections, but the final count gave it 46.5%.
- Despite his promises of reform, Putin will be more dependent on oligarch allies and prone to economic populism.
With a re-elected President Putin under increasing pressure at home the European Union should expect Russia to be more withdrawn and less co-operative in foreign policy, in areas from the Middle East to frozen conflicts. Moscow’s obstructive Syria policy has been presented domestically as ‘standing up to the West’.
The authors argue the EU should:
- Loudly defend human rights, but refrain from loud support for the opposition movement (unlike some Americans who have embraced it), to avoid charges of the protesters being Western stooges.
- Pass a pan-European ‘Magnitsky List’ – a blacklist that imposes visa bans and asset freezes on those connected to the death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. This would indicate the EU’s red lines on egregious human rights violations.
- Launch a new anti-corruption dialogue with Russia that includes opposition leaders and government officials. The Russian elite currently uses the EU as a safe haven for its money, and the opposition is calling for the EU to change laws to make it harder for dirty money to find a safe berth in Europe.
*Sestanovitch is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.