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20 January 2016

A Winter of Discontent

Moscow can only keep moving toward totalitarian controls over Russia

Many Russia observers maintain that sanctions have not negatively impacted Putin’s popularity, which remains stratospheric, and that even visible signs of economic crisis will not undermine popular support or stability of the regime. These arguments can be found in many outlets and articles dealing with Russia.  But it would appear that there is one group who is not persuaded that these assertions are true. Instead, this group believes popular support is indeed at risk, and that the regime’s policies reflect its growing sense of unease about its domestic prospects.  Unfortunately for Western and foreign observers, this group is the Russian government.  A close look at Moscow’s policies over the course of 2015, particularly most recently, demonstrates its awareness that there is a mounting “winter of discontent” among key sectors of the population, and that every avenue by which that discontent might be expressed must be shut down.

Consider the following trends.  There are no signs that Russia’s economy will soon rebound, and it is clear that Putin et al. do not have the slightest idea how to reform and improve it. Even though it is plainly not the case, the message from the Kremlin is that the worst is over.  Although accurate figures are hard to come by, it is clear that poverty, inflation (notably the depreciation of the ruble), and unemployment are climbing, while the population’s purchasing power is declining.  These trends presage the ongoing stagnation of the domestic market and strong tendencies towards a vicious recessionary cycle that will continue well into 2016, if not beyond.  Energy prices are expected to stay low and, as of this writing, have even fallen below $30 a barrel for oil.  There is already a crisis price for Russia - as its elites well know - and things are not going to get better in global energy markets soon, especially if Iran, and the United States (now empowered by new legislation) start exporting abroad in 2016.

The government’s intellectual bankruptcy is evident because its domestic policy consists essentially of rounding up the ‘usual suspects’.  For example, the issuing of an international arrest warrant for Mikhail Khodorkovsky  indicates Moscow’s anxiety that it will have to face international judgments obliging it to make huge restitutions to Khodorkovsky and the stockholders of Yukos.  Thus Russia’s ever compliant Duma rushed through legislation superseding the European Court of Human Rights as well as those courts that may find for Yukos against Russia.  This legislation also represents an attempt to choke off the thousands of appeals from Russians to the ECHR concerning violations of human rights, and to further isolate Russia from Europe.  In this same context, new laws further strengthen the FSB’s jurisdiction, allowing it to fire into crowds, including at women, children and the disabled, to prevent alleged terrorist attacks, and to further criminalize dissent of any kind. Similarly, the regime is purging any sign of dissent all over Russia.

Putin and his entourage certainly have cause for alarm.  Russian long-haul truck drivers continue their protest against a new tax on them clearly designed to enrich the family of Putin’s crony, Arkady Rotenberg. The truck drivers are not the only segment of Russian society expressing discontent.  Alexei Navalny’s latest video detailing the connections between the Procurator General, Yuri Chaika, his family, and organized crime, has stirred substantial interests on the Russian internet.  Likewise, 47% of people polled believe that things were worse in 2015 than in 2014.  Finally, at the 2015 Moscow Economic Forum in November, three prominent businessmen: entrepreneur, Dmitry Potapenko, farm boss, Pavel Grudinin, and Crimean zoo director, Oleg Zubkov, publicly lashed out at the government’s anti-business economic policies.

It is not surprising, then, that the government is continuing its policy of pretending the economy has hit its low point, and will improve, while attempting to squeeze out more assets for Putin’s special friends from the shrinking pie. At the same time, the Kremlin is repressing dissenters, stepping up xenophobic and chauvinistic propaganda, engaging in ever wider foreign policy adventures to prove that Russia is a great power who can act independently, and attacking terrorists and challengers like Khodorkovsky, while using such challenges to head toward totalitarianism.  The farcical cult of Putin, whose image now graces a perfume, is just another example of these trends. It seems clear the regime sees signs of unrest, is alarmed by them, and is taking the only measures it knows how to take, namely more repression, and imperial and other circuses, even as the supply of bread slowly diminishes.  This may be a novel variation of the old Roman mantra of bread and circuses, but it is hardly unheard of in Russian history as any student of the late imperial and Stalinist periods well knows.

Indeed, the absence of any domestic reform agenda indicates the regime is intent on preserving its unfettered power and control at all costs.  Moscow can only keep moving toward totalitarian controls over Russia. We can expect a futile attempt at economic autarky, greater repression, ever growing isolation from the West, chauvinism, and more efforts to assert a militarized great power complex in foreign policy. Surrogates for progress appear in the form of the cults of Putin, Orthodoxy and Russian Nationalism. This policy formation, known as official nationality was first tried by Nicholas I in 1848-53 and then by the Tsars Alexander II and Nicholas II, as well as by Stalin and Brezhnev in Communist fashion.  In all cases it broke down under a combination of external and internal pressures, leading either to major reform or to revolution.  Moreover, starting with the Crimean War  of 1853-1856, all the way to the Soviet-Afghan War, this domestic policy formation always entailed a protracted war that Russia lost with predictable consequences.

None of this means an upheaval or revolution is imminent. But pressure is building. As Putin and his team endeavor to preserve their power and privileges, they compress the spring of Russian society, and as Putin himself said, when the spring is compressed too far, it snaps back. We cannot predict when or how this will happen, but signs that the pressure is becoming too great for the government to cope with appear to be increasing.  And as this pressure increases over time, whether slowly or rapidly, it will not only engulf Russia and its neighbors, but will also confound those observers who think the system can survive unscathed.