Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy. It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.
In last year’s parliamentary (Duma) elections, current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party had to stuff ballot boxes just to avoid falling too far below the 50 percent mark. Now, as Putin presents himself to voters this Sunday as the once-and-future president, there’s clearly a bottom-up backlash brewing among the urban young and middle-class. Will it prevent a Putin win? Hardly. The only uncertainty here is how far Putin’s United Russia party will have to go to ensure a respectable victory margin. Whether anyone - at home or abroad - will actually respect the process is another thing.
So, stipulating that Putin 2.0 is a given, here’s Wikistrat's weekly crowd-sourced examination of what all this may mean for Russia and the world at large.
Putin 2.0 won’t differ all that much from either the Put-Med “tandemocracy” or Putin 1.0
Putin’s first run as president (2000-08) saw him re-establish the power of the siloviki (state security types) inside the Kremlin and they didn’t exactly disappear under Dmitri Medvedev’s 2008-12 turn at the wheel - even as the modernizing impulse did revive somewhat. Now, with energy prices fairly solid, Putin’s second presidential administration will naturally stick to what he does best: Buying off the public with oil and gas wealth, “managing” the nation’s “democracy” like any good tsar (dead journalist here, imprisoned political rival there), sticking it to favorite villain America whenever possible, wooing Europe, and keeping energy-ravenous China happy without losing all of Central Asia and possibly Siberia too!
If that sounds like a geo-strategic equivalent of a Sopranos episode, then you now know why so many Western political experts dub Putinism a “thugocracy”. And just like our old anti-hero Tony Soprano, Putin is likely to stay in power until somebody retires him - forcibly. Yes, it’d be nice to pretend otherwise, but remember that we’re talking centuries-old Russia, which can count its years of genuine democracy on its two clenched fists.
Civiliki out, Siloviki in
A more optimistic view says Dmitri Medvedev’s time as puppet-president had its genuine moments of civility, meaning it provided an actual breather from Putin 1.0’s re-nationalization of the economy, which naturally scared off Western investors. Under Medvedev, the so-called civiliki (officials with backgrounds in civil law versus the security apparatus) made serious inroads throughout the government and thus did their bits to improve the overall investment climate and rule of law.
Given enough time, Medvedev’s Kremlin could have turned a few more corners on Russia’s authoritarian past. Indeed, the current protests shaking up Moscow and other major cities reflects just how real those changes were to the country’s growing middle class professionals. They know what’s coming . . . back, as the pendulum swings back to Putin.
The key question for Putin 2.0 will be, How long does the siloviki stick with their man? This crew has made a lot of money between 1.0 and 2.0, and that changes people - even Russian oligarchs. Back then, they were into getting rich and Putinism was good for that. Now they’re into staying rich, and, judging by Arab Spring - still slowly spreading its democratization wave in the general direction of Moscow - Putinism may be bad for that business.
More big talk, but less walking the walk
Putin imagines himself a modern-day Peter the Great, or a post-Soviet tsar who took nothing (Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic rule) and turned it into something (the certainty of rising per capita income). Well, that and rising oil prices got him Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” award in 2007. Then came the global financial crisis and depressed energy prices and suddenly, the great man seemed a bit more ordinary.
Like most siloviki, Putin is a genius at getting power. He just doesn’t have any idea what to do with it. He constantly talks about making Russia great again, but, in truth, Russia is just about as irrelevant in global affairs as it was under Yeltsin’s more Western-friendly reign. Honestly, if it didn’t retain its veto on the United Nations Security Council, Washington wouldn’t pay it any attention beyond the disposal of its many elderly nuclear weapons.
So no, the old joke about post-Soviet Russia being an “Upper Volta with nukes” no longer holds. Now it’s more like an Iran with nukes: blessed in oil and gas and belligerent to the West, but hardly a mover and shaker outside its rim lands. Indeed, like Iran, Russia’s most crucial export is actually an absolute loss - its best brains that no longer see a future there. That had improved under Medvedev.
So Putin must change, right? Not according to his piggybank.
Yes, the growing opposition movement is significant, and it’s likely to pull more of Putin’s attention inward, hollowing out his fanciful quest for a Eurasian Union to rival OPEC in its control over vast energy reserves. But unlike so many bankrupt governments in the West, Putin is sitting pretty when it comes to Moscow’s finances. According to the CIA Factbook, Russia in 2011 had only 2.5% of its GDP in public debt, a total external debt at $470 billion, and $513 billion in foreign reserves.
Remember when Congress would ask U.S. Secretaries of Defense if, at the end of the day, they’d rather have the Soviet Red Army versus the U.S. military and the answer was always “Absolutely not”? Well, today just about any Western government officials would love to swap out their own fiscal situation for Russia’s. And given the “haircuts” still to come, Russia Inc. could easily pick up some heavily discounted assets in the next few years to bolster its bottom line in Europe and elsewhere. That reality alone gives Putin some serious cushion for any “rainy” political days to come.
But this is definitely Putin’s last term
In what should be a warning to China, Russia’s public is simply tired of being treated like a child by an elite that clearly looks out for its own wealth-creating needs first. As Russia’s first truly post-Soviet voting bloc matures into genuine ascendancy, Putin’s siloviki are doomed, because, in the end, they care more for their money than for their power.
That means, as this democratization impulse grows ever stronger over the years, the rats will start fleeing the sinking ship of state, ultimately preferring golden parachutes to bloody shoot-outs. This is unlikely to be a fell-swoop affair with tanks on the street. Instead, the siloviki ranks will progressively thin until Putin realizes he’s mostly on his own. No, it won’t happen any time soon, but Putin won’t make it through his six-year term. Instead, look for him to appoint a successor somewhere near the end in exchange for his own immunity - Nixon-style.
What if, in the meantime, Putin declares a Cold War and nobody shows up?
Putin’s sad regurgitation of “enemy America” shows just how ideologically bankrupt his leadership has become. Frankly, given China’s continuing rise and Iran’s reach for nukes, nobody in Washington gives a hoot.
Putin himself may fantasize about being the truest bulwark against “American aggression,” but let’s be even more frank here: with the siloviki, it’s always about the money. Putin’s military build-up is more about energizing arms exports than standing up to Washington, and his showy militarization of Russia’s Arctic north is a pure energy play.
And that pretty much sums it up. Putinism is money-grubbing, wrapped in nationalism, inside state capitalism. The rest, including this election, is just smoke and mirrors.
That’s Wikistrat's wisdom of the (rather cynical) crowd for the week.
Now tell us which path you find most plausible, or what other scenarios you can envision in the comments section below. And be sure to check out more at Wikistrat.com, a cutting-edge global consultancy.