Will all those parties of the far right who have expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s brand of authoritarian cronyism with a traditionalist veneer need to find a new idol to worship? That’s one way of phrasing the most important question to be asking right now, as Russia lurches toward a possible repeat of the 1998 crisis that led to the Putin era.
Russia is suffering from the coincidence of multiple blows. First and foremost, the steady slide in the price of oil, coupled with evidence that this slide may not be short-lived, has been devastating to an economy overwhelmingly dependent on extractive industries – and oil in particular – for foreign exchange, and overwhelmingly dependent on foreign imports for both high-value industrial and consumer goods. Next, in the wake of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Western sanctions have damaged Russian trade and seriously hampered the operation of Russian banks. Finally, corrupt shenanigans by the central bank to prop up a favored business led to a collapse in confidence internally, and a flight of capital out of the country. The central bank is belatedly hiking interest rates ever higher in an effort to stem that outflow, but the risk is that even if it works it will strangle the domestic economy.
It’s still possible, of course, that the country turns a sharp economic corner, but most people aren’t betting that way. And if it doesn’t, then ordinary Russians are going to suffer through a brutal 2015, the worst year by far that they’ll have experienced in the Putin era. What will that mean for the fate of the regime?
There’s no easy way to answer that, but a brief glance at Russia’s last two regime crises can provide some insight. The first of these, the collapse of the Soviet Union, bears little comparison with the current situation upon inspection. Like Putin, Gorbachev faced an economic crisis because of low oil prices, and a political crisis because of a failed war in Afghanistan. But Gorbachev was a reformer across multiple fronts, and the abortive coup against him was launched by a faction in the armed forces concerned about the threat of those reforms. The audacious adventurism of Boris Yeltsin in dissolving the Soviet Union added a unique dimension to the crisis, creating a very stark choice for the organs of the state as well as for Russian society as a whole. No matter how fundamentally weak the Putin regime is, it is not especially comparable. There is no one in a position comparable to Yeltsin’s, nor anyone with his stature, nor is there any appetite for revolutionary change in a liberal and democratic direction.
The second crisis, the 1998 default, seems a better fit to current conditions. The Yeltsin regime survived that crisis, but Yeltsin himself very quickly had to hand over power to his groomed successor – Putin. Putin’s prior job (before being appointed head of the FSB) was basically a glorified bag man. He ran the Presidential Property Management Department, which handled state-owned property. He was the person who knew the regime’s – and the “family’s” – financial secrets. Handing power over to Putin provided a kind of continuity of insurance to Yeltsin and his closest cronies. Meanwhile, Putin’s persona identified him with ideas about security and national strength that the country badly wanted to see restored in the wake of Russia’s humiliation – as it was seen – at the hands of the West.
Could the same thing happen again? Possibly. If an economic meltdown leads to widespread popular discontent, the regime will have to respond in some way. The most appealing way – because the least risky for the regime – would be to stage-manage a change in leadership that promises change while changing very little.
But who is Putin’s Putin? Once upon a time, the obvious answer would have been Dmitri Medvedev. But in the wake of his administration, and his agreement to hand the Presidency back to Putin after one term, I’d argue Medvedev is too closely-identified with Putin to be a plausible replacement for the regime in the event of any real discontent. Moreover, the context for any forthcoming discontent is different from 1998. Back then, ordinary Russians overwhelmingly blamed the catastrophe on Yeltsin’s weak leadership. They wanted a stronger state. Putin’s regime brought that stronger state – but also rampant cronyism. It seems likely that cronyism will bear a significant part of the blame for the coming economic collapse. What will the people demand to satisfy them that a new set of malefactors have been brought to heel? How can the regime satisfy them without eating its own?
If the regime cannot stage a satisfactory bit of theater, then the remaining options are uglier. Putin could deliberately try to provoke the West in the hopes of blaming Russia’s economic troubles on foreigners. Or he could turn force inward against internal “enemies” of Russia. Or the regime could hand Putin’s head to the mob without a clear plan for succession, leading to a period without clear leadership at the top until someone emerges from the internal struggle for power. Least likely of all would be a genuinely revolutionary situation such as obtained in 1991. None of Russia’s organs of power are willing to take that kind of risk again.
What should already be buried, though, is the idea that there is a thing called “Putinism” that represents some kind of alternative to the Western way of organizing society. Nationalism is very much on the rise worldwide, but Putin only gets cited as a leader of this “movement” because he wants to be – it’s very much in his personal interest and the interests of his regime to be seen that way. But in fact he represents nothing more than the self-interest of the regime he heads. And to the extent that he represents more than that, it’s something very specifically Russian: a reaction to the chaos and vulnerability of the Yeltsin years.
Even while Putin was riding high, nobody of consequence in China or India, or Japan or Germany, was saying: I hope we can make our country more like Putin’s Russia. They certainly won’t be saying it now.