The modern Russian paradox

Ironies behind the elite’s confused thinking

Russia is no longer a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill would say. Even its most incomprehensible zigzags have a certain logic. One needs not only patience, but a sense of irony to understand what lies behind Russia's paradoxes.

Using elections to undermine democracy

These parliamentary elections aren't an election at all, but a referendum on confidence in the outgoing president. The authorities openly admit that manifestos and policies have no meaning at all and Russians have only to say "Yes" or "No" to Putin ( better "Yes"), as he heads the party list of the Kremlin's United Russia. At the same time, Putin has refused to join United Russia and declared that his party lacks ideology and attracts "all kinds of crooks". It would be hard to find a more effective way to discredit the parliament and multiparty system.

President Putin against the presidency

Putin and his loyalists are trying desperately to find a formula that would allow him to leave and stay. By getting support for a party that he does not intend to join, he hopes to get extra leverage over the presidential elections to be held in March 2008. Thereby he would influence the new presidency, which he is not allowed to stand for. The idea is to raise him above society as the highest moral authority, a mix of Deng Xiaoping and Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For this to happen, the next president would have to be a weakling ready to implement Putin's agenda. There is, however, no tradition of splitting power.

The uncertainty of certainty

In its search for certainty, the elite has cracked down on pluralism and competition. The result is that the certainties are even less fixed. Neither Putin nor Russia itself can know what will happen after March 2008. The horizon stops after the presidential elections. Nobody knows what will happen to all the reforms suspended or reversed during Putin's time. If he manufactures a way of staying in the Kremlin, he will only increase the uncertainty because he will become a hostage of his subordinates. At the same time, "Putin Forever" would mean a return to the Soviet tradition that ended in the USSR's ignominious collapse. He understands the threat, but he apparently fears even more what may happen if he vacates the driver's seat.

This unstable stability

The ruling team has closed Boris Yeltsin's chapter of chaos and convulsions. On the surface, Putin's Russia is stable. But the drivers of this stability are the oil price, Putin's approval ratings and a lack of alternatives. This leaves the stability fragile. A plunge in oil prices in 1986 triggered the collapse of the USSR. When it happened again in 1998, it shattered the economy. Putin's high personal ratings are linked specifically to the energy boom; they are not transferable to a new leader. The more the elite seeks to strengthen stability by centralising power, the more it undermines it. Removing opportunities for expressing views and dissent within official institutions forces the opposition on to the streets. Finally, the infighting among the ruling class for property and influence, and the bitter rivalry among the security services, could any moment bring down this house of cards.

Russia confronts the west

Russia was not expected to be back. It was believed to be a country in terminal decline and/or a junior partner of the west. Revisionist Russia demanding to play on its terms became quite an unpleasant surprise for the world. Does that mean that Russia is ready for confrontation with the west? Not at all.

The elite would like to have it both ways: on the one hand, to be part of the west and personally integrated into it, with its homes, schools and bank accounts; on the other, to isolate society back home from western influence. The icon for the elite - even if it does not admit it - is Roman Abramovich, governor of Chukotka and owner of Chelsea, commuting as he does between Moscow and London. The goal of the ruling class is to enjoy western standards of life. At the same time it uses anti-western rhetoric to create a siege mentality in Russia and close it off from outside influences, because this elite does not know how to rule an open society.

Cold War rhetoric is one thing, but the elite fears a return of the Cold War itself. There is one problem, however, with this attempt to ski in opposite directions (to choose an increasingly popular pastime). The elite could lose control over developments, and once the genie of nationalism is let out of the bottle it is difficult to put back.

The success of failure

There are two laws that govern the post-communist reality. One is the law of unintended consequences. Here is one final example of how this law works: the Kremlin's bullish attempts to make Gazprom the only gas supplier to Europe only forced the EU finally to start working on a common energy strategy.

Another law is the law of failure. When a liberal opposition is weak and not ready to take power, society may have to head in a wrong direction before recognising that it leads to a dead end. Only after hitting the wall does it start looking for another way out of its predicament. A leader has to fail spectacularly to demonstrate that the trajectory taken was wrong. Mikhail Gorbachev's failure to reform the USSR in the 1980s proved that it cannot be reformed. Yeltsin's attempt to create capitalism with the help of oligarchs in the 1990s proved that this way was wrong, too.

Putin's destiny may be to confirm that Russia cannot be modernised from above. Russia will need his failure to start looking for a democratic government and build a state that will accept constraints. This remains a long way off, and in the meantime Russians will pay a price for getting rid of the paradoxes that bedevil their country.

Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow

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