By Igor Torbakov
Dmitry Medvedev’s and Vladimir Putin’s apparently amicable decision to swap jobs is being touted by the Kremlin as a way to ensure Russia’s stability. Yet if Russia’s historical tradition is any guide, changing places is a move fraught with uncertainty.
When Putin, the incumbent prime minister, announced his intention in late September to reclaim the presidency in 2012, it confirmed a Russian leadership pattern: whether a divine-right monarch, a Communist Party boss or an “elected” president, Russia’s rulers have tended to be authoritarian-minded in outlook and inclined never to relinquish power willingly.
For many in Russia’s sprawling bureaucracy, a Putin administration redux will come as a relief because it eliminates the possibility of a dvoevlastie (dual power) scenario from developing. The last time Russia grappled with dual power, back in 1993, scores of people in Moscow ended up being killed in street fighting and the parliament building went up in flames. Most Russian bureaucrats desire the relative stability that comes from edinonachalie, or “one-person management.” And Putin is seen as the embodiment of edinonachalie.
It’s important to keep in mind that Putin’s strong-hand governing style, which now is marketed to the masses as “managed democracy,” has a flip side. And that other side of the coin isn’t so pretty to look at.
The obverse of political stability, in the Russian concept, is what’s known as Smuta – a term for a time of troubles. The two parts of the Russian political tradition are intimately interrelated. Throughout Russia’s history, a combination of factors – including rulers who cling to power, oligarchs who act arbitrarily and without regard for the social ramifications of their actions, and the general weakness of political institutions — have repeatedly revealed the country’s power structure to be brittle and prone to sudden collapse.
In a situation where Russian “commoners” are unable to protect their individual rights via legal means, while Russian “boyars” come to believe that they are above the law, the state remains at constant risk of upheaval, even revolution.
Putin and his supporters appear to take pride in how expertly they managed to pull off the trick of “tandemocracy,” in which, to nominally conform with the Russian constitution, the president took a four-year sabbatical, albeit as prime minister, and let Medvedev keep the Kremlin seat warm. The “dual power” potential created by Putin’s anointment of Medvedev in 2008 was indeed real. But Medvedev wisely chose not to challenge Putin – the “true tsar” – and thus escaped being labeled a False Dmitry or samozvanets (false tsar, impostor). Rather, Medvedev was content to play a role akin to that of Simeon Bekbulatovich, a khan of the minor Khanate of Qasim, whom Ivan the Terrible appointed in 1575 as the Grand Prince of All Rus’, while he himself supposedly stepped aside as Russia’s autocrat. A year later, however, Ivan returned to the throne and made Simeon, for his good services, the Grand Prince of Tver’, at the time an important Muscovite principality.
Russia managed to avoid Smuta the first time Putin and Medvedev changed places in 2008. But that was then. Economic conditions are more volatile these days, and Putin may well discover that enforcing stability during his second go-round in the presidency is far more difficult than it was during the first eight years of the millennium.
The truth is that Russia’s present-day socio-political system is extremely vulnerable to external economic pressure. Given Russia’s deplorable investment climate due to rampant corruption and shaky property rights, the only source of growth is the perpetuation of high oil prices. According to various estimates, Russia’s budget can be balanced only if the price for crude hovers around $125 per barrel. However, this cannot be guaranteed.
Given that elections in Russia are a sham, the Putin administration, although admittedly popular, lacks legitimacy. Thus, it can count on popular support only so long as it can sustain at least modest growth in living standards. This, or course, cannot be guaranteed either.
As it tries to maintain an iron grip on power, the Putin administration appears intent on leaning on radical Russian nationalism. Such a strategy is a recipe for disaster in a multiethnic country that is becoming ever more culturally diverse due to the massive migration flows of immigration – mostly from the formerly Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia.
Keeping nationalist sentiment in check is notoriously tricky. Thus, Putin may end up finding that flirting with nationalism paves the way for the emergence of truly nationalist political forces, the kind that places Russia on a path toward a fascist-type dictatorship.
Already, the ultra-right is starting to assert itself. “Struggling for survival, Russia’s authorities will be forced to accept the program of Russian nationalists. They have only one alternative – to lose power,” asserts one Russian nationalist ideologue in an essay posted on the APN.ru website. “The time for the Russian national state has come.”
It would appear, then, that the possibility of Russia experiencing another bout of Smuta can’t be taken lightly. It may be that the individual who eventually replaces Putin will be the one who has to deal with the fallout from current policies. But it also could be Putin 2.0 himself who will be faced with the unpleasant consequences of his administration’s desire to avoid any meaningful reform, along with its intent to preserve the status-quo of unchecked rent-seeking.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden.