Will There Be a Russian Spring? Not if Russian President Vladimir Putin can help it!
But can he help it? Authoritarian rulers elsewhere have tried to prevent democratic revolution against them. Some have done this successfully—often for a long period of time—but have eventually succumbed. Other authoritarian regimes, by contrast, have managed to face down any and all opposition, and remain firmly in charge.
Since he first came to power at the end of 1999, Putin has done a remarkable job of asserting his authority over Russia. Recently, however, there has been an equally remarkable degree of opposition against him. What, then, is the prognosis for Putin?
I will address this question through examining Putin’s strengths and weaknesses, and then discussing some of the key challenges he faces to his continued rule, as well as his options for dealing with them.
As a result of the poorly thought out reform policies of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91), the Soviet economy, communism, and the Soviet Union itself all collapsed. Under its hapless first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin (1991-99), Russia’s attempted transition both to a market economy and democracy foundered badly. Under Yeltsin, Moscow fared so poorly in fighting against Chechen separatists in the North Caucasus that Russian forces actually withdrew from that region in 1996.
By the time, then, that Vladimir Putin came to power at the end of 1999, the Russian public was thoroughly disillusioned with the chaos and mass poverty which they associated with capitalism and democracy, and thus was ready for an authoritarian ruler who could restore order, stability, and prosperity.
And during his first two terms as president (2000-2008), Putin did just this. Under his leadership, Russian forces re-intervened in Chechnya and this time succeeded in pacifying it (albeit at enormous cost to the people of this region). Putin and Russia also benefited from the rise in oil prices during these years which underwrote a remarkable economic recovery. In addition, Putin benefited from the fact that Russia’s fledgling democratic movement that emerged toward the end of the Gorbachev era was weak, divided, and thus easily marginalized. Finally, Russian public opinion valued Putin for restoring Russia’s image as a great power—something which had been deeply undermined during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras.
Putin did, of course, scale back the free press and cracked down on his opponents. But Russian public opinion did not seem to hold this against him. Indeed, public opinion polls revealed Putin to be something quite rare: a genuinely popular authoritarian ruler.
Although Putin could have easily had the Duma alter the Russian constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive term, he “modestly” declined to do so. The Russian public, though, quite genuinely supported Putin’s choice of his close associate, Dmitri Medvedev, to succeed him. It also seemed pleased when Putin resumed the post of prime minister (which he had briefly served in previously during Yeltsin’s last few months as president) and was clearly still in charge. While unpopular in the West, the Russian public was highly pleased by Russia’s victorious little war against Georgia in August 2008—which Putin, and not Medvedev, was seen as the driving force behind.
Putin, though, also has weaknesses—which have become increasingly evident in recent years. One set of these relates to petroleum—the export of which his government has been heavily dependent upon for its revenue. Shortly after Putin and Medvedev first traded places in 2008, the price of oil (which had steadily risen for several years) collapsed dramatically. It has, of course, risen and fallen since then, but has not gone back to its 2008 high. In addition, the European economic crisis has led to a dramatic decline in that region’s purchases of gas from Russia. Further, the “shale revolution” in North America and (to a lesser extent) Europe as well as the increasing availability of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, Algeria, and other sources have all served to lessen Western dependence on Russia. The reluctance of Russian oil and gas firms to invest at home combined with Russian government hostility to foreign investment in the Russian petroleum sector have also led to doubts about how long Moscow can maintain oil and gas production at current levels (much less increase them). Finally, global warming has also taken its toll on the Russian petroleum sector: petroleum rigs have been unable to function when the permafrost they were set up on has all too often turned into “tempafrost.” All these factors combined have resulted in declining petroleum revenues for the Russian government even as it has become increasingly dependent on this source of income to fund its growing expenditures.
And increasing expenditures—especially in the form of corruption—are another problem for Putin. Among Putin’s core supporters are the security services and other government bureaucracies, the huge state-controlled corporations (including those in in the petroleum, armament, and nuclear power industries), and the nationalist youth movement. An important means by which Putin retains the loyalty of these core supporters is through allowing them to benefit from corruption and to act outside the law. The problem that has arisen for Putin is that the greediness of these groups has only expanded even as state revenues have contracted. Further, the actions of these groups have become increasingly unpopular with Russian society. But despite frequently announcing campaigns to crack down on corruption and lawless activity, the Putin administration has done precious little to actually rein them in. Indeed, Putin may well fear that if he attempts to seriously crack down on their objectionable behavior, his supporters will turn against him. But his failure to crack down on them has resulted in his popularity declining—and hence his dependence on his corrupt supporters increasing.
Further, while Chechnya itself has been “pacified” through Putin’s having outsourced the region to the Kadyrov clan (former rebel warlords whom Moscow gave the freedom to do whatever they like in Chechnya so long as they don’t declare independence), the entire Muslim North Caucasus has become increasingly unstable. Further, the brutality of Kadyrov rule in Chechnya may be setting the stage for further conflict there later. But if Putin tried to replace the Kadyrovs, they might well become rebels once again.
Finally, there was a surprising outburst of public opposition to Putin beginning in late 2011 after the announcement that he and Medvedev would trade places once again with Putin resuming the presidency in 2012 for a six-year term (under Medvedev, the Duma voted to increase the term of office for the Russian president from four to six years beginning in 2012). What aroused the protest was not only the prospect of Putin remaining in charge until 2018 or even 2024 (if he decides to run for a second consecutive term), but that the Russian voters had no real say in the matter since it was clear that the regime would not tolerate the emergence of a serious challenger to Putin. Putin, quite unsurprisingly, won the March 2012 presidential elections without serious challenge. Nevertheless, the strength of the protest movement against him, as well as his party’s poor performance in the December 2011 parliamentary elections after the Putin/Medvedev trade had been announced, appears to have seriously rattled the Russian leader. Indeed, Putin seemed to be in earnest when he ridiculously claimed that the opposition against him was somehow instigated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Public protest against his regime has declined considerably in recent months, and Putin once again appears to be firmly in charge in Russia. He is, however, no longer the genuinely popular authoritarian ruler that he used to be.
Challenges and Choices
The very fact that Putin remains in power is clearly an indicator that his strengths outweigh his weaknesses. But his weaknesses are serious—especially since he seems to be unable or unwilling to prevent them from getting worse over time. While Putin greatly benefited from the steady rise in oil prices from between when he first came to power and mid-2008, the increased petroleum supplies coming onto the market as a result of the shale revolution makes it doubtful that there will be another prolonged oil price increase any time soon.
Putin, of course, is powerless to prevent this increase in oil supply to the world market. He could, though, act to halt the decline in (or even increase) Russia’s own petroleum reserves by creating a more welcoming investment climate to encourage foreign as well as Russian firms to invest in his country’s petroleum sector. This, however, would require him to act to counter to Russian xenophobic attitudes toward foreign investment which Putin himself has exploited up to now.
Even more importantly, Putin would have to reign in the corrupt practices that have limited both foreign and domestic investment but which his principal supporters in the security services, the state-controlled corporations, and the bureaucracy have all benefited from. But doing this risks undermining their support for him—something that Putin may (understandably) not be willing to risk. This is an example of how doing what is good for Russia as a whole would not be good—and may well harm—the Putin regime.
In addition, while Moscow’s apparent defeat of the Chechen insurgency in the early 2000’s served to bolster Putin’s image as a powerful leader, the increasing Muslim unrest throughout the North Caucasus more recently is serving to undermine this. While Russian public opinion is hardly sympathetic toward Muslims in this region, a military campaign to suppress them which incurs high casualties among Russian soldiers (which is, of course, the type of campaign that the Russian military leadership usually undertakes) could increase opposition to the Putin regime among Russians. The impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 could well serve to exacerbate the Muslim challenge to Moscow if this results in Islamist forces in that country supporting their brethren who are working to undermine the Moscow-backed ex-Soviet governments in Central Asia.
So long as he controls the Russian security services, of course, Putin may well be able to withstand any and all challenges—including the return of large-scale domestic protests in Moscow and other major cities. There is no guarantee, of course, that he will be able to do this. The security services in Russia, as elsewhere, are not immune to the forces affecting the rest of society. There have been many countries where the security services, having reliably supported the regime for years or decades, have suddenly and surprisingly either refused to suppress or have actually become supporters of large-scale opposition movements. Indeed, what makes unarmed but large-scale opposition movements so dangerous to authoritarian rulers like Putin is not so much what these movements themselves can do, but the opportunity they provide for the security services (or significant elements within them) to choose among supporting the ruler, supporting the opposition, or doing nothing (which is effectively a decision to support the opposition).
Putin’s use of the violent nationalist youth “movement,” Nashi, to intimidate or silence his opponents and critics may be designed to avoid putting the security services in a position where they can (or even must) make this kind of choice. Such violence-prone groups, however, are themselves difficult to control and risk creating even more oppositionists than they suppress. And if the security services ever decide to turn on Nashi, it is not likely to stand and fight. Such groups much prefer unarmed to armed opponents.
All of this indicates that even though Putin’s strengths outweigh his weaknesses at present, his weaknesses are both significant and growing. Further, they are only likely to become more difficult for him to deal with over time. This does not mean that his regime is destined to be overthrown and replaced by democratic opposition forces. But if indeed the difficulties Putin faces increase, so will the prospects for a Russian Spring to finally occur.
Speech given to the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth on Friday, March 8, 2013.