Putin, Putin, Once Again Putin

Text of report by Latvian internet portal politika.lv

[Commentary by Andris Kudors: "Putin, Putin, Once Again Putin!"]

It is May 7, the date when the Russian president is being inaugurated. Some leading TV channels offered reports on the official election of Vladimir Putin to the post of president, doing so early in the morning. This is his third term in office. Unlike in the past, the inauguration ceremony is being presented live on six Russian television channels. On the morning of May 7, Channel 1 interviewed the actor Mikhail Boyarski who, in supporting Putin, said that "one old friend is better than two new friends." In other words, relative stability is better than possible changes. What can Russia and the world expect now during the next six years of the Putin presidency?

Economic Issues

On April 26, the presidium of the Russian government considered possible scenarios for economic development between 2013 and 2015 and then until the year 2030. The discussion focused on the idea that even if the price of oil drops to $82-25 per barrel, Russia’s economy will nevertheless grow at a rate of 2-4% per year. The government believes that this growth will be possible even if there is a lower demand for Russian natural gas as a result of the extraction of shale gas and a change in imports in Europe. True, such growth is questionable, because even now, when the oil price is around $120 per barrel, the Russian economy is growing at a rate of only 4% or so per year, and Russia also has a budget deficit. Its reserve funds have declined, economic efficiency has not improved, and corruption which delays development has not been diminished.

Because important reforms will not be implemented to "entertain" society, the power elite will have to deal with major projects related to mobilization — ones such as conquering Siberia. According to La Republica in Italy, the transfer of people to peripheral regions so as to develop the economy and infrastructure there will be achieved not with Stalin’s methods, but instead with social and economic stimuli. With projects such as BAM II [the Baikal-Amur highway], Russia could kill two birds with one stone — increasing public hopes about a sunny economic future and also reducing concerns about the spread of colonies of Chinese people who lease land on the Russian bank of the Amur River.

Domestic Issues

Immediately after his inauguration, Putin will announce that he will nominate the outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, to become prime minister. The nomination must be approved by the Duma, but there will be no surprises there. Medvedev, who found time to make all kinds of promises about modernization, the battle against corruption and the need for democratization, appeared on five Russian television channels on April 26 to continue his accustomed hypocrisy. Asked about censorship in Russia, he had this to say: "I would remind you that censorship here in our country is banned by the Constitution, and if it appears anywhere, then that is a reason for the state to intervene." In discussing the future government’s plans, Medvedev talked not about modernization, but about centrist conservatism which, he said, is the ideology of the United Russia party. As we know, Medvedev is going to have to take over leadership of that party.

On the one hand, the Putin-Medvedev tandem is likely to implement various steps aimed at political liberalization (making it easier to register political parties, election of governors, and so on). On the other hand, they will also try to control these processes. I must point out that there are lots of unimportant, less than serious and tiny political parties which allow United Russia to look good. Candidates for gubernatorial posts, meanwhile, are still sought out among those who are loyal to the regime, and they must be supported in all kinds of ways during elections. That means that we will not see more than "Potemkin reforms" in the near future.

Foreign Policy Issues

The political scientist George Friedman has written that Putin, who once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe, has reinstated several of the principles of the USSR: 1) The system of security structures is the foundation of the state; 2) Moscow is the heart of Russia; 3) Russia is the heart of the former USSR. The first principle means the involvement of the so-called siloviki in government not just with the help of lawful security institutions, but also with the direct involvement of the siloviki in managing strategic economic resources. The second principle depicts the centralization of power and the de facto ignoring of the structure of the federative state. The third refers to ensuring that the CIS and "proximate regions" (here you must understand that this refers to the Baltic States) are kept in or dragged back into the gravitational force of Moscow.

Russia needs time to implement the third principle, and it also needs the United States and the European Union to be apathetic about what happens in Russia’s neighboring countries. In order to make sure that the EU is not too active in relation to its eastern neighbors, Russia will continue to look for allies among those countries which buy most of its energy resources. Germany is at the top of the list. Even though lots of crazy things have been said during the Russian campaign period about the United States, the fact is that in 2013 Russia will look for points of contact with Barack Obama or the person who replaces him as US President. The positivism of the old "reset" policy, however, will be gone. In order to ensure that US attention is still focused on the Middle East and not Eastern Europe, Russia will support the current regimes in Syria and Iran. That, of course, is not the only motivation for what Russia does in this regard. Medvedev demonstrated a certain amount! of support for Western sanctions against Iran, but Russia nevertheless is continuing to support Iran’s nuclear program. Sergey Kiriyenko, head of the Rosatom company, personally informed Putin in the autumn of 2011 about the construction of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, and he received Putin’s blessing in terms of Russia’s participation in other nuclear projects in Iran, as well.

Military Issues

It may seem surprising, but the conservative Russian military may prove to be a stimulus for economic modernization in Russia. Putin has announced major investments in the defense sector up until 2020, but that may not be enough to transform the aging military and industrial complex. Soviet engineers are aging, and younger engineers either are not appearing, or they are moving to countries in which the grass is greener and the sky is more blue. Soviet-era technologies are out of date. Even if many technologies are bought from the West, they will not be the very newest military technologies of all.

If Russia proves unable to develop its scientific potential in the establishment of new armaments, then it will always be a step behind the military superpowers of the world. Any military conflict that is more extensive than the war against Georgia may demonstrate the weaknesses of Russia’s armed forces, and this would be so embarrassing that it would place pressure on the power elite that allowed such backwardness. Nothing at this time indicates, however, that a major military conflict involving Russia is possible. That means that reforms in this area will probably once again be very slow, and true modernization will not occur. Corruption will mean overspending of resources, and the army will not receive the best armaments that are available.

Efforts at Modernization

Russia began to chase the West back during the reign of Peter the Great. The topic was actualized against in 2008, but Medvedev did not achieve anything significant in this regard. All that he did was confuse the liberal people of Russia who were sufficiently naive to believe that he was serious in what he was saying. What is more, much of the business elite does not want any political or even economic modernization. Economic modernization in Russia is not possible without the rule of law, and that automatically requires political reforms. These, in turn, would endanger the privileged status of the current elite.

If Russian businessmen can earn billions by selling energy resources, transfer much of their profits to the West each year, and send their kids to study at Harvard or Oxford, then why change anything? All that is needed is to get the Russian public to accept Byzantine, Soviet and Orthodox ideas so that people oppose the "wicked" West which has conspired against Russia. Oil dollars will continue to flow out of Russia, and ordinary people back home will be left in an unenviable situation. As one of the posters at the May Day demonstration in Moscow put it, however, "working people are for Medvedev and Putin!" This means that we will have to continue to wait for serious changes in our neighboring country.

Source: politika.lv website, Riga, in Latvian 07 May 12


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