Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Secret of Putin's Political Longevity? Old Soviet Wine in New Russian Bottles

by Nomad

Vladimir Putin

A St. Petersburg professor asks the question a lot of people have been wondering: How long will President Putin be able to hold onto power?

The Real Reason why Putin is Still Around

Professor of the Department of Economics at the European University in St. Petersburg, Dmitry Travinpoints out in an article for The Moscow Times, that, even though the corruption of the ruling authorities is "too obvious for thinking people to hold out any hope of progress" the Russian authorities have been effective at suppressing (or at least, discouraging) mass protests.
It would appear, Travin postulates, that Putin's expiry date will come when he himself sets the date.

But why? What could account for Putin's political longevity, which in modern Russia is the only measurement of success? 
The answer is something that many Americans long accustomed to a certain degree of political tranquility, (at least until recently) tend to overlook: stability.

In countries that have endured a series of social and political upheavals, the desire for stable- if not freedom-loving or even competent- government is given a much higher importance than most Americans realize.
Most people understand that political stability is a vital component to progress. Stability means a predictable political environment, which in turn attracts investment, both internally and from outside. But the two do not necessarily go hand in hand. How stability is achieved is what sets autocratic regimes from liberal democracies.
Travin highlights this fact by comparing the late Soviet system constructed by former leader Leonid Brezhnev with that of the reign of Vladimir Putin. Of course, there are admittedly some obvious differences but both share this key component to a long-lived political system.

Soviet Union

Three Lessons the Soviet Union Taught Putin

There were, in fact, three main reasons for that stability. 

First, few would argue that the economy in the Soviet Union might have been a wreck in comparison to most industrialized Western nations. Yet the Soviet people had already endured appalling conditions in their past. For that reason, their expectations for development were much lower. It might have been made but they had previously seen much worse.

Until the middle of the 20th century, Russia was rocked by a series of political disasters, from the civil war that toppled the monarchy, the Russian revolution and the years of confusion, the Stalinist purges, and the existential battle with fascism.
The Soviet Union offered survival if not freedom. 
People managed to get by with their meager lot and were unwilling to risk their freedom by engaging in a conflict with the KGB for the sake of mythical hopes of somehow improving their situation.
Secondly, says Travin, the authorities under the Soviet regime had mastered the art of suppressing dissent. In the late 1960s, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov implemented an effective means of dealing with "troublemakers." The state security apparatus was used to intimidate anybody who opposed the status quo. Dissents were given three choices, exile, the forced labor in Gulag camp or the 

Another choice was one of one of Andropov's more sinister tactics: rehabilitation in a state mental hospitals.(in Russian, Psikhushka)
In a page from Orwell, protests and other acts of dissent against the regime were often classified as a form of "psychopathological" illness in need of treatment. Those who openly expressed beliefs that contradicted the official dogma were confined and given treatments - in actuality forms of torture- in state-run mental institutions.
Notable political prisoners of psikhushkas include poet Joseph Brodsky, dissidents Leonid Plyushch, Vladimir Bukovsky, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Alexander Esenin-Volpin, Pyotr Grigorenko, Zhores Medvedev, Viktor Nekipelov, and many others.

As a result of this campaign of public intimidation, political opposition in the USSR might have existed but was, for all intents and purposes, invisible and, thus,with rare exceptions, of little consequence.

Thirdly, the appearance of a monolithic state- despite behind the scene in-fighting- became a symbol, not of immobility, but of safety and stability. If the state had become, as Travin calls it, a tragicomic gerontocracy (a rule by the elderly) then the public seemed willing to put up with this frail parade of one old man after another.

All that changed when a new generation of politicians, such as 
Mikhail Gorbachev, Yegor Ligachev, Alexander Yakovlev, and others- came along and shook the system to its foundations. They dared to question the Soviet platitudes and that was enough to bring about radical political changes.

Putin Vladimir

The End of Putin's Rule?

All very well, but what can we learn from this analysis about the nature of Soviet stability and how does this apply to Vladimir Putin?

Putin, points out Travin, has fully reproduced all three conditions that brought about both stability but also stagnation. The economy hobbles along, in a steady decline but capable of providing a minimal level living standard for the Russian people. If oil prices were to fall below  $5-$10 per barrel, that would be a different situation.   

Just as people were willing to tighten their belts and wait under Brezhnev, Russians are even more willing to wait today, given the fact that they now live in a market economy and store shelves are stocked with a range of consumer goods. The Russian people today are willing to settle for "not that bad" just as their Soviet counterparts settled for much worse.

The Andropov-era system of dealing with dissent has effectively kept any dissent under control. There's very little in the way of a free press, which might curb corruption or question policy.
Furthermore, as Travin notes:
Ordinary Russians have no one to tell them how miserable their lives are becoming. No new Gorbachev-like figure has appeared within the ruling elite.
It is not a coincidence that opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot four times, from behind, while walking with his girlfriend in Moscow within sight of the Kremlin. He died hours after appealing to the public to support a march against Russia's war in Ukraine. 

You might think such the gangland-style killing of a political opposition figure would be the catalyst for a public revolt. Regardless of who was actually responsible, it is a testament to Putin's management skills that Nemtsov's murder did not lead to his downfall. However, to Putin's critics, the killing was not the only sign of Russia’s political degradation, it was merely the most dramatic.
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So what's that mean for the future of the Russian state under Putin? Despite systematic weaknesses of his regime, the Russian president is likely to remain in power, barring illness or accidental death, or assassination. Economic problems, the usual cause of unrest, will probably have to get a lot worse before instability develops. 

Meanwhile, according to the Human Rights Watch World Report for 2016, the government has further intensified harassment and persecution of independent critics. For the fourth year in a row, parliament adopted laws and authorities engaged in repressive practices that increasingly isolated the country.

His system is likely to endure for many more years, or at least, until the Russian people decide they deserve a bit more than left-overs from the Soviet era.