Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Scenarios for change in Russia

This month I have had the opportunity to listen to two democratic Russian voices speaking in Warsaw, one of which gave me hope that in the long term at least Russia has the potential to become a civilised, well-governed country with independent institutions and a civil society.

Last week, I attended a meeting at Warsaw University at which former Russian premier (2000-2004), Mikhail Kasyanov outlined scenarios for the fall of Putin. The previous week, I was at a business meeting focused on the Russian sanctions and counter-sanctions where the main speaker was the PR director of a Moscow-based consultancy.

Clearly neither man was a Kremlin stooge sent abroad to muddy the waters. This very fact offers ground for hope - people whose minds are beyond Putin's reach are still allowed to exist and travel freely. Russians' freedoms have been curtailed dramatically, independent institutions and media have been subsumed into the Kremlin machine, but things are not yet as bad as they were in the days of the USSR. But they are heading that way.

Mr Kasyanov (above) began his narrative in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union had fallen apart, the state could not pay pensions or salaries, there was no clear distinction in citizens' minds between public and private. Then along came Putin - for the first few years there was hope, a genuinely reformist government, a desire to integrate with the West. Yet after the 2003 Beslan school massacre, Putin started reining in freedoms, gathering powers for himself and his cronies. Since then - and culminating with the invasion of Crimea - this has intensified.

Putin's system relies on the concentration of power and wealth through all-pervasive propaganda and total corruption of the State, said Mr Kaslyanov, speaking in Russian. The system, however, is only efficient when oil and gas prices are high; should they fall, the entire economy stagnates. Mr Kasyanov believes that had it not been for the instant and massive popularity boost that Putin acquired by invading Crimea, his regime might have held together for two, three years, before the inevitable downward path of an economy buoyed solely by commodity prices starts to hit living standards.

The current sanctions will only serve to accelerate this process. However, Putin's propaganda spin is so strong that the bulk of the Russian population who cheered him on in Crimea may prove more resilient to life without Italian cheese, French wine and Polish apples, knowing that this is the work of the Fascist West rather than home-grown economic mismanagement.

Putin thus finds himself in the same boat at the Argentinian Junta did in 1983 when they invaded the Falkland Islands, said Mr Kaslyanov. Once the British retook the islands, the Junta crumbled from within. But Putin holds far greater sway over his people; he can spin his way out of setbacks. There is no real opposition party. He is the master liar. He can talk about peace, negotiate cease-fires, while his people continue to fight - a fact that he denies as he laughs at his accusers.

Putin is dangerous because this nuclear-armed leader is whipping up Russian chauvinism, 'the virus of post-imperial syndrome - the world should fear us because we exist'. Putin's hold over Russian media is almost total - the internet is closing down, independent media are being closed down, TV - the main source of information for most Russians, is almost totally run by Putin's people - and, said Mr Kaslyanov, mentioning also the corrosive self-censorship among journalists, "who have mouths to feed". The result of this 'group-think' is more dangerous than in the USSR. Soviet citizens were always aware that they were being lied to. Unconstrained by the intellectual straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism, Putin's propaganda is far more agile; perniciously sophisticated, it appeals to base instincts and higher principles at the same time ('Ukrainians are sub-humans' and 'Ukrainians are our brother Slavs'). Russia's corrupt? So's the West. And what about Slavery, Red Indians, Iraq and Egypt?

Change from a Putin-led Russia to a post-Putin Russia can come sooner or later - Mr Kaslyanov claims it will come sooner. Yet Mr Kaslyanov's own political party cannot act. Its candidate for Mayor of Moscow, Alexander Navalny, continues to languish under house arrest. The only parties other than Putin's One Russia are ones that are allowed by Putin to co-exist with his party - rather like in communist Poland where the compliant SD and ZSL parties alongside the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) to present a false picture of democratic choice. Mr Kaslyanov admits that there's no credible alternative leader to Putin - they've all been emasculated or exiled.

Will the challenge to Putin come from abroad? Mikhail Chodorkovsky is now talking about entering Russian politics - something he promised not to do when Putin let him out of the Gulag ahead of the Sochi Olympics. But hey - lying to a liar is OK, is it not? Especially when peace is at stake. In London, exiled oligarchs meet one another asking "When will Putin die? When will someone kill him?". Being abroad means you can plot in relative safety (relative safety - don't forget Alexander Litvinenko).

At home, oligarchs must be worried by the house arrest of Vladimir Yevtushenkov - a Putin loyalist who evidently stepped on the wrong toes and is now in the process of having his billions expropriated from him.

Putin's personal paranoia is approaching Stalin's levels - no one knows where he sleeps or when and where he will appear in public. He must be living in increasing fear that people who surround him, who've lost billions of dollars of personal wealth since the start of this year, can see him as a problem. Yet Putin is a secret-service man, schooled in deception and self-preservation inside enemy territory. He is far less likely to make a false move than other despots who met a sticky end (Gaddafi's death, pulled out of a sewer pipe in which he was hiding, then beaten to death by ordinary Libyan people, must weigh heavily on his mind).

All in all, Mr Kaslyanov tried to paint a hopeful picture for Russia, but questioned by the audience (mainly academics with an interest in the country), he admitted that as a politician it was his duty to uphold an optimistic view of the future, one in which change would come soon.

In contrast, the Russian PR man who visited Warsaw the week before last stayed firmly off politics. But his economic analysis was accurate and incisive. His English was excellent. His generation, tainted only marginally by memories of early childhood in the USSR, well-travelled, can see with its own eyes the difference between the West (and here I firmly include Poland) and Russia.

Young Russians are aware that all the luxury goods, the trappings of success at home, are manufactured in the West - the same West that is pilloried in daily TV new rants. The next generation of ambitious Russians are likely to emigrate to the West and return only when it their fatherland becomes a safe place to make and save money. Currently, one-fifth of Russian graduates express a desire to leave Russia. But like the Polish diaspora returning to post-communist Poland to nation-build, I'm sure that patriotic stirrings will have the same effect. Who knows - Russia in 2045 an EU member state? Not impossible.

One scenario is that there will not be much change in Russia for the foreseeable future. Putin will continue along of course of authoritarianism at home, baiting the West in Ukraine and in the Baltics, as his country becomes increasingly marginalised in the global economy. China will extract ever-greater concessions from Putin for not ganging up on him alongside the West. Those concessions - based on cheap natural resources - will also help drag Russia down economically. Without new Western investment, growth in Russia will slow, and the new middle class will grumble. Will they take to the streets? Will the buckwheat-beetroot-and-vodka class turn against these pampered, spoilt, traitors? How will demographics pan out - as those recalling the USSR with nostalgia die off? Average male life expectancy in Russia is currently 65.1 years - Putin will be 62 next month. But the guy's rich enough to live into his 90s.

I'm pessimistic on the possibility of change happening any time soon in Russia. For the West, this means a long decade of heightened vigilance (at a time of other global threats), greater defence spending, and above all showing far more resolve in the face of a nasty, belligerent man for whom foreign aggression is the key to retaining power at home. It is time the West - in particular NATO members - upped their guard and prepared to face down a particularly aggressive Kremlin. Once again.

This time last year:
A new bus for Jeziorki - the 809 to Bobrowiec

This time three years ago:
Bunker in Powiśle

This time four years ago:
Sunshine brings out the best in everything

This time six years ago:
There must be a better way (3)


Marcin said...

Do think, that "Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West" by Edward Lucas should be an obligatory lecture at the Western primary/secondary schools not only at the academia curricula. Lucas very persuasively describes as for how much naive, infant and wishful thinking Western societies believed that the Russian satrapy is gonna change toward the Western-standards civilized democracy... As to what extent this is gonna be enough to set up of some of the Western-like institutions and "culture", like a middle class, free-market, NGOs and some more and the Russian "problem" is to be rapidly solved and disappear. Not mention about many of the Western wheedling and ogling Russian, and corrupting by many of the Western-like events (Olympic competitions, F1 rally and so on and so on), privileges and treating that as a civilized state.... Yeap, I just forgot.... Pecunia non olet and business as usual. No matter how many Chechens have to be killed, how many journalists have to be assassinated, how many concentration camps is planned to construct... Russia and its b***ts are to be invited and welcomed to this and that, such and such "Russian president set to attend the G20 leaders’ summit in Australia despite anger about MH17 and conflict in Ukraine" ( To what extent, this has to be a hypocrisy, double-dealing and cynicism...?

Marcin said...

P.S. Lenin once told, that "Capitalists are to sell us a bit of string on which we will hang them." From that time, the West has learned itself nothing. Imagine, that: many (if not the most) of the Western relics are to be demolished; castles, cathedrals and alike are to be change into commodity warehouses; private farms, chateaus, real estates, lands are to be change into the state sovkhozes or into municipal kolkhozes; private factories, plants and alike are grabbed and change into the state or municipal ones; health protection and educational systems gradually become worsen; crime and poverty rapidly increase; most of the private property is confiscated, grabbed or embezzled; market as a whole is destroyed; public infrastructure (roads, rails, telecommunication...) intensively worsens; and so on and so on. All of that is gonna be supported by a society and its "elites" and "establishment" with whom the West collaborates. A society, "elites" and "establishment" who mentally are rude, crafty, grasping, wild and selfish.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Marcin:

The threat of Putin draws Poland together. Let's draw over our differences about silly stuff like rainbows and the like and rally around the defense of the nation. Ed Lucas, Anne Applebaum, Tim Snyder - these people have Putin's measure. We must ensure these voices, these narratives are appreciated fully in the West. The voices of Putin's fellow travellers need to be drowned out with large doses of truth - GULAG, Holodomor, Katyn, the Rape of East Prussia, Budapest '56, Prague '68... Let no Western social-democrat mistake the threat of Putin's nationalist Russia for what it really is.

AndrzejK said...

Reminds me of the old joke about the competition between the Soviet and US super computer about which system was the best.

The Soviet computer was losing on all counts and ended the discussion by stating "in the US you beat up black people".