Checkmate for Russia

Text of report by Latvian newspaper Diena

[Commentary by Andrejs Pantelejevs: "Checkmate for Russia"]

Sometimes I am all but taken over by melancholy about the fact that too many things in this world of ours happen in the same way as they were forecast and without any unnecessary fantasies. This applies to the presidential election which just took place in our neighboring country of Russia. As could be expected, Vladimir Putin won on the first round. Also as could be expected, there were lots of violations of election procedure and lots of fraud during the vote. Igor Yurgen is an advisor to the current president of Russia, and he was rather resigned on the day before the vote in saying that "Putin will win, but there will certainly be many primitive violations of election rules – not because Putin will sanction them directly, but because the vertical system of power is so corrupt that there will be sufficient numbers of petty little bureaucrats and rulers of local importance who will want to bow before the expected winner." (In Chechnya, which is run by Kadirov, more than 90% of voters plumped for Putin!) The system in Russia is one in which it is shooting itself in the foot. That is exactly why many people feel that no matter how predictable the results of the election were, the fact is that the situation which has existed in Russia until now will not continue. So what will happen?

Anticipated Protests

There will be protests about dishonesty in the election, but the scenario of an Orange Revolution is most unlikely. First of all, the opposition at this time does not have a transnational and authoritative leader of the type that Ukraine had in Viktor Yushchenko and Georgia had in Mikhail Saakashvili. Second, the only thing that joins together the opposition in the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities is the desire to flip the middle finger at Putin. Beyond that, however, there may be problems, because under the umbrella of the "opposition" there are representatives of many organizations which are contradictory and even have mutually exclusive ideologies. These can be placed into three groups to a certain extent. First, there are liberals, who are by no means the largest and most popular segment of the protesters. Second, there are nationalists. Finally, there are leftists and communists. The result is that the proposals that are being made by the opposition in term! s of a Russia without Putin remind one of the cart in the Krilov fable which a swan, a crab and a perch-pike tried to push forward. Oh, yeah – there is also Mikhail Prokhorov, but time will have to pass, I suspect, before we can really understand whose project and what kind of project he really is.

Role of Putin

The truth is that the main problem for Putin is Putin himself. First of all, the promises which he made to the Russian people during the campaign season (including the season in advance of last December’s parliamentary election) will cost trillions of rubles. The same is true of the expensive and massive program of modernizing the country’s defense sector – a process which has already begun. Math is merciless, and it cares absolutely nothing about ideologies. As the aforementioned Igor Yurgen joked with much sadness: "If Uncle Sam does not once again help us by starting to bomb Iran and, thus, ensuring higher oil prices, then the attempt to fulfill these problems under the existing and inefficient economic system and the total dependency of Russia on oil and gas exports will very quickly lead the country to fiscal catastrophe." That, in turn, may mean that the current political protests, which mostly involve Russia’s scanty middle class, may quickly turn into extensive social unrest which could be difficult to control and without any foreseeable result. It seems, by the way, that at least at this point, Uncle Sam has no intention of helping Russia via Iran.

Of course, there are dreamers who believe that Vladimir Putin is perfectly well aware of all of this, and so he may choose a prime minister (perhaps Alexei Kudrin) and government that will forget all about campaign rhetoric and will seriously deal with economic issues, functional reforms, and auditing of the institutions of national governance. The question, however, is whether Putin can reform Putin. Are we to think that he will grab himself by the hair to pull himself out of a swamp as Munchhausen did? His most serious burden is the fact that he has been in power from 12 years, and that means that his surname relates to the accustomed behavior and style of the Civil Service and the business world, particularly during the last several years. These are habits which involve cowardice in the Civil Service, corruption, irresponsibility (all orders must be received from above), obsequiousness, stagnation without any new initiatives, and a business environment which has adapted itself to this bureaucratic culture. All of that, of course, has very little to do with effective management and readiness for reforms. This is not a phenomenon which is only found in Russia, of course. I doubt whether there is any instance in history in which a leader who has been in power for a long time has, during the latter stage of his rule, turned to serious reforms. Any regime eventually arrives at the point of burnout and weariness. Of course, there are those who will object and say that quite the opposite will happen – Putin will announce that he will not seek another term in office, and that will liberate him to engage in more radical reforms. I do not know, but I do not think that Russia is the country in which anyone much listens to those who are "departing." Instead, such people usually face sabotage.

The result is something like checkmate. There is Putin who can no longer do the job, and there are alternatives which cannot yet do the job. Russia is a very complicated country with different territories, nationalities, religions, cultures, highly contradictory groups with social and economic interests, and the weighty burden that is the heritage of the age of Communism. Governance of Russia does not involve trivial models or ready-made recipes. I would not have sufficient haughtiness to tell Russia what would be the best approach for it. At the end of the day, that is something which the Russians themselves will have to think about.

The point, however, is that they will have to come up with something, because the checkmate situation which Russian society and the country’s economy are facing at this time is dangerous. For us, as Russia’s neighbors, that cannot help but be worrisome.

Source: Diena, Riga, in Latvian 09 Mar 12

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