By Paul Goble
Beyond any doubt, 2020 was a difficult year for most Russians. They were restricted by the pandemic. And they saw their incomes decline and their opportunities narrow as well. But for the Kremlin, 2020 for all its difficulties has ended with victories in four key areas, Vladislav Inozemtsev says.
As a result of what has happened in the economy, politics, media and foreign affairs, the Kremlin, which is to say Vladimir Putin, is in a position to continue much in the same way it has and with greater confidence than a year ago that doing so is not only possible but won’t lead to problems, the Russian economists and commentator says.
With regard to the economy, Russians saw their incomes drop by six to seven percent and it would have been even more had the Kremlin not provided massive assistance, Inozemtsev says. But such massive assistance is unlikely to continue because the economic crisis did not lead to mass protests (mk.ru/social/2021/01/02/rossiyskoe-obshhestvo-vpalo-v-spyachku.html).
Putin is among those who compares the current crisis with Soviet times, but that is incorrect, the economist continues. In Soviet times, the shelves in stores were empty, an indication of systemic problems. Now, it is the pockets of individuals which are empty, something most people view as their own responsibility to deal with.
As a result, while empty shelves unite an impoverished people against the powers that be, empty pockets have the opposite effect, increasing competition among the population rather than uniting it against the powers that be, Inozemtsev argues.
As a result, he continues, “the Kremlin is able to be sufficiently secure and not spend valuable resources on supporting ‘national well-being.’” Because Russians did not protest over the last year, “the powers that be in the future will not have to be afraid of stagnation in the economy; and therefore [stagnation] is likely to continue.”
With regard to politics, the economist says, 2020 was the year that “real politics in the country ended.” Because of the constitutional changes in mid-year and the repressive laws at its end, “dissatisfaction with the authorities will be manifested as it was in Soviet time only as dissidence and not as opposition.”
In the coming year, the Kremlin will strengthen its position via the Duma elections, which are “exceptionally important” not only for that reason but because the powers that be are so confident of themselves that they have elected not to postpone a vote, something they would have done had things looked as bleak for them as many now think.
“As a result,” Inozemtsev says, “the Kremlin ended 2020 not as a loser but as a victor: its authority has broadened, the tools for struggle against dissatisfaction have become mor varied, and competition for the right to be close to the center of power has significantly intensified” but with the center able to parry any challenge.
Closeness to the center of power is not a defense from the actions of those above in the power hierarchy as is the case in “authoritarian by form but internally free” states. And thus the possibility of changing the system from within is much reduced: “We have reached the stage of a completely personalist regime,” and it isn’t under threat.
With regard to propaganda, the third sector where the Kremlin won out, suggestions that the regime’s propaganda mechanisms had become “impotent” have turned out to be very much exaggerated, Inozemtsev says.
During 2020, the authorities demonstrated that they could completely deny the facts and not suffer from doing so. In that regard, “’covid dissidence’ and certainty in the professionalism of Russian special services which ‘if they want to kill do so,’ are very similar phenomena.” Both suggest that Russian society is immune to information other than that which has immediate impact on themselves.
“This fact is not discussed too widely today,” Inozemtsev says. “But to me it seems very important. Until recently, it was considered that the powers relied almost exclusively on ‘the television’” and that it was thus at risk of losing its clout because of the rise of the Internet and social media.
But “judging from everything, the results of 2020 suggest the reverse. Freedom of information is a reality which has two sides: freedom to receive it and freedom to accept it.” The Kremlin may have lost the first battle but it has won the second. Russians have access to the facts but they choose not to pay attention to or act on them.
And with regard to the fourth sector, foreign relations, the trends are working in the Kremlin’s favor too, Inozemtsev argues. The turbulence of the last year is being replaced by the relatively stable new cold war, a period with fewer conflicts and one in which the Kremlin can use the threat of the West to frighten Russians into continuing to support it.
Summing up, the commentator says, the year ahead appears to be one of “deepening stability,” one in which the population will not demand change but rather “go into hibernation,” using what strengths it has to take care of its own immediate needs rather than doing anything to challenge the powers that be.
And as a result, the powers that be in the Kremlin will be under little pressure to change direction, confident that their victories in the four sectors in 2020 give them the chance to continue as they have been, something that is likely to lead to serious problems eventually but not in 2021.