The financial crisis that almost swamped Russia’s economic system in the fall of 2008 also led to renewed speculation about the stability and long-term endurance of the country’s political system. While it had previously appeared that the windfall revenues earned by the government from Russia’s energy wealth would allow its leaders to spend their way out of any potential difficulties, this prospect was put to a very real test as the government was forced to spend a large part of its financial reserves just to prop up the ruble and to bail out indebted state-allied corporations. Although by early 2009 the economic situation had somewhat stabilized, analysts began to consider how the Russian political system would function in the absence of the financial resources its leaders had come to take for granted.
In this issue of Russian Politics and Law, a number of Russian authors examine the alternatives for the future development of Russia’s political system. Some of them (Melville, Timofeev, Busygina) do this through an alternative scenarios methodology, while others (Petrov, Peregudov) simply extrapolate based on trends they see in the current political environment. The combination of the two approaches provides a wide range of possibilities for what Russian politics will be like five to ten years from now.
In their much discussed report on MGIMO’s scenario-building exercise (“Russia 2020: Alternative Scenarios and Public Preferences”), Andrei Melville and Ivan Timofeev develop four possible scenarios for Russia’s future development and then describe the responses of five Moscow focus groups (arranged by political leanings) to these scenarios. The scenarios range from an an ideal world of peace, economic growth, greater internal democracy, and Russia’s integration into the international community as a well-respected partner (New Dream) through an extension of current trends ten years into the future (Kremlin Gambit) to one where Russia is surrounded by hostile or unstable states and has to mobilize all of its resources to maintain its sovereignty (Fortress Russia). A fourth scenario (Russian Mosaic) appears to go back to the 1990s by focusing on the potential for a weak, decentralized Russia that is forced to play according to Western rules that it has had no part in formulating.
No one will be surprised that focus-group respondents, regardless of political affiliation, found Russian Mosaic to be the least desirable scenario. They all lived through the 1990s and fear living in a weak and unstable state much more than in a strong authoritarian one. Similarly, no one should be surprised that New Dream is considered the most desirable scenario among all groups. Of slightly more interest is the finding that focus-group members, again regardless of political persuasion, find Russia’s actual development least likely to follow the New Dream scenario, while Russian Mosaic is considered quite likely, second only to Kremlin Gambit. It is not surprising that Kremlin Gambit is considered the most likely course of Russia’s development, given that it is largely an extrapolation of existing trends. But it seems that Russians continue to worry about the danger of weakness and disintegration, seeing this trajectory not only as more dangerous than authoritarianism and conflict with the West but also as one that is more likely to occur. To the extent that many Russians accept portrayals of the West as being to blame for Russia’s weakness under Yeltsin, this fear may explain the anti-Western attitudes of large segments of the country’s population.
In “Breadth and Prospects: Regionally Specific Factors in the Realization of Development Scenarios,” Irina Busygina further develops the discussion of Russian reactions to these four scenarios. She reports on comments about the effects of these scenarios by experts from five Russian regions: Primor’e, Saratov, Sverdlovsk, Kaliningrad, and Voronezh. She argues that frontier regions such as Primor’e and Kaliningrad would be disproportionately hurt by the Fortress Russia scenario, as their economic well-being depends on continued interaction with neighboring states. Experts from interior regions such as Saratov and Sverdlovsk find that their regions could benefit from the emphasis on autarkic economic development implied by this scenario. At the same time, experts from frontier regions are no less worried than those from interior regions about the consequences of the Russian Mosaic scenario. This contradicts the expectations of the scenario designers in Moscow, who thought that some regions would be pleased to use the decentralization expected by this scenario to chart their own course of political and economic development.
Overall, the exercise in scenario building described by these two articles shows that Russians continue to worry more about state weakness than authoritarianism. They would be quite happy with a relatively stable outcome such as the continuation of current trends implied by the Kremlin Gambit scenario. In this context, the two articles in the second half of the issue examine the extent to which Russia’s leadership is likely to be able to maintain the current political system.
In “Warm Spell or Spring Thaw? Imagined and Real Changes in the Russian Political System,” Nikolai Petrov argues that the appearance of greater liberalism on the part of the Russian political system in recent months is no more than an effort to create a positive image for President Medvedev, rather than any actual move toward change. Medvedev, he argues, is in effect just conducting public relations for what is essentially still the same regime as under the Putin presidency. All the levers of power are still in the hands of Putin and his team.
At the same time, Petrov cautions against excessive pessimism. He notes that despite the best efforts of Putin and his associates, the political system is changing—not from above but from below, as it tries to adapt to the changed circumstances in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. He notes the increase in political competition (so far primarily within the ruling party), and the increasingly independent statements by local administrators. All this seems to be leading to an increase in the number of actual power centers, which could in time lead to the evolution of the political system toward greater openness. The main question that remains, for Petrov, is whether this evolutionary movement is fast enough to rescue the Russian political system from itself.
Sergei Peregudov’s article (“The Russian Political System After the Elections of 2007–2008: Stabilizing and Destabilizing Factors”) discusses some of these changes in much greater detail. In the first half of his article, Peregudov focuses on the role played by United Russia in the political system, exploring the significance of the recent creation of three political clubs with varying ideological tendencies within the party. He argues that by establishing these clubs, the party is hoping to continue its effort to monopolize the political sphere in Russia. This is part of the party’s effort to establish a party-state modeled on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Peregudov argues that this effort will fail because of systemic limitations, such as the existence of the presidency and of business groups who do not want to be subject to party discipline.
In the second half of his article, Peregudov focuses on the relationship between business and the country’s leadership. The vertical of power between the state and business that Putin built during the second term of his presidency is now evolving into a more multifaceted set of relationships, with large private corporations having greater weight in national affairs than they did in the past. At the same time, state corporations are coming to resemble a parallel state. Peregudov describes them as superministries that control entire sectors of the economy while possessing all the powers of both the state and of private business.
Peregudov argues that as a result of the changes he describes, Russia’s political system is gradually heading toward a convergence with Western democratic systems, though there remains a danger of a shift to a fully authoritarian regime. I find the cautious optimism shared by Petrov and Peregudov to be based on pretty thin reeds of hope. Given the current regime’s successes at stage-managing the presidential succession and then weathering the worst part of the economic crisis, followed in recent months by increasing signs of a further tightening of control on freedom of expression, it seems that the Fortress Russia scenario is now far more likely than any kind of New Dream for the medium term, with the relatively static extrapolation of Kremlin Gambit the likeliest outcome for the short term.