Commentary: When will Russia break?

When will Russia break? A rock bottom oil price, Western sanctions, inflation, a demographic crisis… when is the Second Russian Revolution? Next year, on the centenary of the first? 1917-2017?

Policemen detain a woman on a police truck during a protest against the verdict of a court in Kirov, which sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in jail, in central Moscow, July 18, 2013. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

In the first, workers and peasants and soldiers – not in huge numbers, but enough – rose against the wealthy aristos in their gilded St. Petersburg palaces. The post-Soviet ruling class, led by President Vladimir Putin, has shifted to the gilded palaces of Moscow’s Kremlin, and has made up for not having been born to wealth by thrusting great wealth upon each other. A tempting target for a discontented people, you would think.

Yet no sign of a revolution, not even of serious demonstrations. And the man at the center of the Kremlin web still has sky-high popularity ratings, bouncing merrily between 80 and 90 percent in the polls. It has been like that for two years, ever since Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March 2014.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s 1945 story, “A Conversation Piece,” a Russian White Guard émigré colonel, bitter enemy of the Communists who had stolen his country, bursts out in admiration of Joseph Stalin. “The great Russian people has woken up and my country is again a great country…. today, in every word that comes out of Russia, I feel the power, I feel the splendor of old Mother Russia!”

The prominent liberal commentator Andrei Kolesnikov writes that the current Russian leadership is bent on “making unfreedom sacred” – since “the new social contract demands that the Russian people surrender their freedom in return for Crimea and a sense of national pride.” Accompanying this surge of pride goes attitudes that bolster it – increased admiration for Stalin, greatly decreased admiration for the United States and the European Union. The bulk of the Russian people are united with the émigré colonel in admiration for displays of raw power.

This card — the inculcation of pride that “Russia is again a great country” — is the largest, maybe the only, one in the Kremlin deck and will need to be played again and again. In a recent essay, Robert Kaplan observes that Putin’s “foreign policy must become more creative and calculating… the more chaos he can generate abroad, the more valuable the autocratic stability he provides at home will appear.” Whether or not the Russian president really does hate the West, his survival depends on acting as if he does.

But there’s a problem for all Putin’s success. The capture of Crimea compensated for hard economic times, evident before sanctions were imposed. It changed the subject from the Putin-esque social contract, which was to demand obedience to the state and leave it for the leaders to enrich themselves, in return for steadily increasing consumption. As Kolesnikov puts it – “the state ideology offers no overriding concept for the future; its foundation is Russia’s past glory. In this sense, it may have a decidedly limited life span.” Kaplan agrees: “Putin will not be able to shelter his regime from the fallout of economic collapse.”

One of Russia’s most brilliant economists tried, earlier this week, to give some solid underpinning to the expectation that the revival of Russian nationalism/imperialism is brittle, and must change, or be changed. (Kaplan thinks that “a coup like the one which toppled (the Soviet leader) Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 cannot be ruled out.”) Mikhail Dmitriev, now a professor at Florida State University, was an economics minister in Putin’s first presidency, one of a group of bright young liberals who believed that reform was possible in the Putin spring – and left as they saw it drift away into autocracy.

In his talk — the annual Russia Lecture at London’s main foreign policy think tank, Chatham House – Dmitriev was the model of the careful economist. Russia’s economy is not an unmitigated disaster. The Central Bank has managed the decline as well as any could. Unemployment is low, at around 6 percent – much lower than in many West European states. Starved of imports, there has been some success in substituting domestic production for their loss. The dependence on the oil price made obvious by its fall has stimulated new interest in diversification of the economy into other areas.

For all that, the country remains in recession – an estimated decline of –1.5 percent in the economy this year. At best, a return to very low growth is expected thereafter: 0.9 in 2017, 1.2 in 2018. With luck, the country will return to pre-crisis levels of GDP only after a decade. Employment has remained high because, rather than let workers go, employers cut wages. Consumption has suffered, badly.

Not surprisingly, the political class’ popularity has fallen. Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, has seen approval levels drop substantially: as have the governors of most regions.

But not Vladimir Putin. Like many autocrats before him, he is above the political fray even as he commands it. He is the rock on which the regime is built, the indispensable man. If the support – love, even – that the majority of the Russian people now give him falters, all is lost for the present power structure.

Then we – the rest of the world – are in unknown territory, with a Russia no longer united around a leader, no obvious successor and the liberals a small, still distrusted group.

The hope, ironically, is in protest. Dmitriev observed that in Russia, protests typically lag some years behind economic turbulence: the wave of protests in 2011 were three years after the sharp decline – with most of the rest of the world — in 2008. A protest movement could throw up as leaders either a stronger, more aggressive nationalist group – or those who see in the demise of Putinism an opportunity to recalibrate a great country into a new relationship with Europe, itself in need of revival.

A “European destiny” was the subtext of Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to open up the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. It sustained, fitfully, the government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. It was played with, then decisively ditched, in the 2000s by Vladimir Putin.

Were he to fail, it has a chance of revival. Those who wish it would need courage and strength and support. Were they to fail, we’d be deeper in perilous territory than we are now.

--John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.