Thursday, February 21, 2013

Is Putin’s Regime About to Crumble?

Posted by Professor William Reisinger

The signs are now plain for all to see, however, that the Russian system is beginning to decay. It cannot sustain the crumbling status quo, nor can it be certain of finding a new incarnation for itself. The only real questions are what stage of decay the system is in, whether the agony of its demise has already started, and, if so, how long it will last. To be sure, the system still has some resources, if not to revive itself, then to draw out its death, and that survival instinct could take a nasty, even bloody, form.

Those are the words of a respected Russian political analyst, Lilia Shevtsova, of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center.  They appear in a recently published English-language report entitled Russia XXI: The Logic of Suicide and Rebirth.  Shevtsova’s report is not primarily a scholarly study.  It is a passionate call for her fellow Russians, especially the intellectuals, to pay heed to the need for and possibility of change.  

How likely is it, actually, that Russia’s current political regime will lose its grip on power in the near future?  What should U.S. policymakers be doing or not doing?  International Relations majors and anyone interested in American foreign policy will want to stay tuned to whether instability is in the offing in Russia and to the debates already underway about the proper U.S. stance.  

The stakes are high.  Think about all the areas in which Russia borders on vital American interests. These include: the Arctic circle, as a shipping lane and for its under-water wealth; Norway, a NATO ally; Poland and the Baltic Sea; NATO ally Turkey as well as Iran (only 100 miles away from Russia as the crow flies); Afghanistan; China; North Korea; Japan; and--as a former governor famously pointed out--Alaska and the Bering Strait.  So, Russia is “in our face” geographically and is important in multiple other ways, including as a nuclear power.

The U.S. undoubtedly would prefer Putin’s regime to remain in place rather than see certain conceivable changes (e.g., civil war).  This makes it tricky to decide on the best policy.  Debate about this will certainly be prominent in 2013, with President Obama considering a visit to Russia later in the year.  

Stability or Instability?

After the large-scale protests in December 2011 and early 2012, Russia’s opposition movement has suffered numerous setbacks:  Putin was re-elected easily in March 2012--not without fraud but without major protests.  Opposition leaders were arrested and harassed throughout 2012 in a variety of ways.  New laws require nongovernmental organizations to register as “foreign agents” if they receive funds from abroad.  Stronger penalties for libel and slander, along with a new law that defines treason broadly, have made criticizing politicians much more dangerous.  In elections of governors in five regions in October 2012, the Kremlin’s candidates all won even where the governor’s popularity was quite low.  By the end of 2012, then, most observers saw Putin as back in the driver’s seat.
But what if, as Shevtsova argues, Putin’s control over Russian politics is so hard it is brittle?  Russia desperately needs to reform itself in order to adapt to changes underway in its society and in the world.  The Russian economy has substantial cash because it is a major exporter of oil, natural gas and other raw materials, and the price for those commodities remains high.  Its economy is not, however, efficient, technologically advanced, attractive to foreign investors, or dynamic in generating new businesses and industries.  The material and intellectual infrastructure to become more modern in those senses is poorly developed.  Profiteering by Russian officials siphons immense funds out of the state coffers and into private accounts, mostly offshore.  Petty corruption makes life hard on virtually every Russian.  Inefficiency and ineffectiveness are contributing factors in the frequency of terrorist acts and avoidable disasters.  Increased oppression during 2012 gave Putin’s regime more control over Russian society but made needed changes less likely.  

These trends sap the regime’s legitimacy across all social strata.  Legitimacy means the sense that those holding power have the right to be in charge.  Without widespread legitimacy among its citizens, a country’s rulers have to devote a lot more effort to enforce compliance with their rules. In Russia today, though, those with the most potential to improve the country are the ones most dissatisfied with the current political leadership.  In a 2006 study, political scientist Bruce Gilley (2006) calculated scores for the legitimacy of 72 countries in the eyes of their own people.  These scores rest on such things as how much confidence citizens have in their country’s bureaucrats and how much they think their government respects human rights.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Canada lead the list.  But Azerbaijan comes in 9th and China 13th, so this rating system does not benefit only developed European democracies.  Russia comes in—wait for it—dead last.  Yes, 72nd out of 72.  Second to last is Pakistan.  

Vladimir Putin, of course, remains personally popular among Russians.  But, the Putin brand has been weakened over the last year and a half.  Brookings Institution scholars Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, writing in Foreign Policy, put it this way: “Russia’s president may like to look tough, but he’s weaker than you think.”

With no one on the horizon to replace him, how long can Putin be the glue that holds everything together?  Political scientists Axel Hadenius and Jan Teorell (2007) examined every political regime worldwide from the early 1970s through the early 2000s.  They found that the average life span for political regimes similar to Russia’s has been a shade under 10 years.  In comparative terms, then, Putin’s regime is already long in the tooth.  

Here are some things to watch in 2013 and beyond:
§  Will world prices for oil and other commodities drop substantially?
§  Will the opposition that emerged in December 2011 find a way to mobilize larger numbers of dissatisfied Russians, particularly from outside Moscow?  Can opposition leaders then find ways to keep up the pressure without giving the Kremlin an excuse for a crackdown?
§  Will Putin be able to hold together the country’s factious elite coalitions or will some Kremlin politicians begin to cast their lots with the opposition? 
§  Can Putin come up with a vision of Russia’s future that will provide legitimacy to his continued rule and to his eventual successor? 

U.S. Options

So, what should the United States be doing?  One plausible strategy, particularly if Putin’s regime is going to last a long time, would be try to end the current hostile tone of Russian-American relations and pursue mutually beneficial cooperation.  To “reset the reset,” as it has been termed.  For its advocates, this strategy reflects realism, because a partnership with Russia will help America combat numerous key challenges facing both countries, including the fight against terrorism.  

An opposing strategy is to treat Russia as a geopolitical rival or opponent, if not an outright enemy.  This posture would include taking a harder line against the Putin regime’s violations of human rights and democracy.  Shevtsova herself (see pp. 33-37) advocates that the U.S., and the West more broadly, speak out loudly.  Western governments have been complicit in the Putin regime’s increasing oppressiveness, she asserts.  By insufficiently advocating for human rights and democracy, the West is losing its image in Russia as a desirable alternative.  

Many intermediate positions between the softline and the hardline postures are no doubt available as well.  I will close with some quotations on the issue for you to think about. They come from a series of letters to the editor in the February 17, 2013 issue of the New York Times:
Gary Hart, former U.S. senator: “Persistent and patient diplomacy with Russia will yield many more rewards than disappointments, including in venues such as Syria, where its help can be decisive.”
David Kramer, president of Freedom House: “Under the reset policy of the first term, the Obama administration looked the other way during the worst deterioration in Russia’s democracy and human rights situation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A new approach toward Russia is desperately needed, one that places much more emphasis on contending with the problems that Mr. Putin poses to his own people and to others.”
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary: “As with any relationship, both sides need to accept that there are areas where closer cooperation is mutually beneficial, and others where we have different approaches. Having a constructive, long-term relationship means that we will acknowledge our disagreements honestly and stand committed to work toward solutions together.”
Dimitri Simes, expert on Russian politics and president of The Center for the National Interest: “We need to ask ourselves whether the United States has important interests where Russian cooperation could make a difference, such as no nuclear weapons for Iran and terrorism. If so, we should not single out Moscow for harsher treatment than we give to others from whom we want and expect less. Such actions ultimately come at the expense of American national security.”

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