A unit claiming to be Cossack and other citizen pro-Russian volunteers arrive to take up position outside a Ukrainian miltary base in the Crimea. Photo: Getty
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Why Vladimir Putin needs a poor, aggressive Russia

If you can’t improve people’s living standards, you can try to give them a sense of belonging to a great power.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

During his entire time as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has been trying to solve an unsolvable problem: how to consolidate his personal power, having eliminated all institutions that limit it, while at the same time achieving economic growth?

During the first stage of his presidency – between 2000 and 2007 – he was aided by skyrocketing natural resource prices. Putin concentrated control of all the largest companies in the hands of his clan, increased the state’s role in the economy, slashed political and economic freedoms and strengthened his personal power. The huge incoming flow of oil and gas money helped to raise people’s incomes in spite of everything he did. And, in the minds of many, it formed a false association between authoritarianism and rising living standards.

In 2008, with the onset of the global economic crisis, economic growth stopped. It became clear that in order to jump-start it, the country needed to liberalise. Many believe that Medvedev’s “modernisation” was an attempt to find an alternative to Putin’s vision of Russia’s development. They are mistaken. Medvedev’s modernisation was a false modernisation, like a false grill on a car. It was Putin’s attempt to substitute liberal rhetoric for real liberalisation, while not giving up an ounce of real power to anyone: not to the parliament, not to the courts, not to local governments, and not even to Medvedev himself.

It took Putin three years to understand that a dummy engine can’t make a car go. At the same time it became clear that the goal of doubling the GDP by 2010, which he had set at the beginning of his term, had not been fulfilled, despite an almost tenfold increase in the price of oil. Living standards began to fall, and if earlier Russia’s citizens had been prepared to trade their freedoms for improvements to their quality of life, in 2011, when it became clear that further improvement was a long ways off, some citizens demanded their freedoms back. That’s how the protests of 2011-2012 began, culminating in large clashes with police in the center of Moscow a day before Putin’s inauguration in May 2012.

It was precisely at this moment that Putin sharply altered his strategy of ruling the country and began to rapidly diverge from the model of a Russian Pinochet – an authoritarian leader in a country with a relatively free economy – towards a classical dictatorship, in which people receive orders about what to think, whom to sleep with, and whom to consider an enemy. Unfortunately, personal power in any country requires several elements in order to maintain itself: external and internal enemies, large celebrations demonstrating the unity of the nation, and short, victory-bringing wars.

If you can’t improve people’s living standards, you can try to give them a sense of belonging to a great power. Particularly in Russia, where many people pine for the Soviet era, when poverty and a lack of the most basic freedoms, such as the ability to leave the country, were compensated by the pride of belonging to a superpower that can build atomic submarines, launch spaceships, and win at sports.

There’s nothing better than the model of holding large events for a regime defined by personal power. First of all, the preparation of such events can be done personally, under emergency conditions: so much the better for securing one’s authority. Second, your closest friends can reap big profits from the bloated budgets of such events. For example, Putin’s childhood friend and judo sparring partner Arkady Rotenberg won about $7.5bn worth of contracts just from the preparations for the Olympic Games in Sochi – an amount comparable to the total cost of the Vancouver Games.

After the Olympics, the next “event” is the Crimea, as cynical as that may sound. For foreign observers this was a surprise, but not for Russians. In the pro-government media (and in Russia, outlets expressing alternative points of view have been almost entirely eliminated) the rhetoric of living in a besieged fortress has reigned for a long time now. Moreover, the arch enemies the state points to are not countries with which Russia has actual territorial disputes, such as China or Japan, but the European Union countries and the United States. That is, countries that are culturally close to Russia, but with a much higher quality of life. Countries which made Russians realise – once they had seen them with their own eyes – that life in their own country could be very different: that a law-abiding citizen could live without fear of the police, or that the authorities could be accountable to their fellow citizens.

Over the past two months, with the intensification of the opposition movement in Ukraine, the search for internal enemies also became a feature of the Russian media – a sad and frightening throwback to the Stalin era. People who disagreed with the authorities became a “fifth column,” and one began to hear justifications of the repressions of Stalin, who of course “killed a lot of people” but among whose victims were “real enemies of the Soviet government and accomplices of fascism.” The fact that, having signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, Stalin had himself become an “accomplice of fascism” is delicately omitted in these films and TV shows.

The deployment of troops to the Crimea was not only an opportunity to raise Putin’s own popularity by pandering to national and imperialist sentiment but also an excellent way to crack down on internal enemies. In the midst of these events, Alexei Navalny, who had won second place in the Moscow mayoral elections just this fall, was placed under house arrest. He received about 30 per cent of the vote and almost forced a run-off election. Navalny had become popular by publicising his anti-corruption investigations in his blog. About a million people read him on some form of social media. Not surprisingly, one of the conditions of his house arrest is a ban on internet use.

The west has already begun to threaten Russia with political and economic isolation, but this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of Putin’s power. For example, Western analysts say that “Russia will not invade Crimea because Russia’s economy is in bad shape and this would only weaken it further.” They are mistaken. Putin no longer needs economic growth. He has grasped the contradiction between economic growth and the consolidation of his own power, and he has made his choice. He understands very well that in 2011-2012 it was the most economically active and wealthy segments of the population that protested against him. He understands that millions of entrepreneurs and workers of the knowledge economy had already emigrated to the US and European Union during his reign. And he understands that a solution that simultaneously halts economic growth and strengthens the patriotism of the poorest segments of the population is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

“Russia will not invade Crimea because there are insufficient medical units within the army groups which conduct exercises on the border with Ukraine,” write western analysts. Once again, this is western logic, through which it is very difficult to understand that, in order to secure personal power, gain territory and confirm superpower status, the lives of simple soldiers who will die from insufficient medical care can easily be sacrificed.

The same goes for isolation. Isolation is beneficial to Putin. He would gladly introduce exit visas, like the USSR had, in order to prevent the most active citizens from travelling to Europe and the US to see what life is like there. The EU and the US banning Russians from having foreign bank accounts and owning real estate spares him having to adopt unpopular laws to “de-offshore-ise” the elite. What could be better for uniting the offended and the humbled around the leader? Economic sanctions? An excellent way to demonstrate to Russia’s population that the US and EU are enemies who sincerely wish them ill.

Why am I, personally, against the war? Almost every day I see how regular citizens of my country suffer from a lack of rights and from fear of the government and its representatives. Despite a lengthy period of economic growth, Russia’s citizens are still, on the whole, very poor. A decade of boisterous growth has led to fantastic inequality and stratification because for Putin it is easier to manage 200 billionaires who control the entire economy. Which, in turn, creates a lack of opportunities. I understood a long time ago that democracy, freedom of speech, local government, and improving the citizens’ quality of life are in direct conflict with Putin’s desire to endlessly consolidate his own power.

PS None of this changes the fact that in the Crimea and in Ukraine’s south-east, there are real problems concerning the Russian language and people’s self-determination. And the citizens of these regions also have the right to self-determination through a referendum. But it must be held not under the watch of Russian soldiers, or Ukrainian soldiers sent from the new government in Kiev, but in the presence of a large number of international observers and journalists – first and foremost, from Russia. Moreover, the issues of administrative affiliation and language should be solved separately. It is possible, for example, that the citizens of the Donetsk oblast want to remain part of Ukraine while speaking, being educated, and doing business in Russian. And any Ukrainian government should give them this opportunity.

KermlinRussia is a satirical twitter duo that also writes influential columns on politics and the economy in outlets like Russian Forbes. You can read more about them here. Follow them @KermlinRussia

Translated by Ilya Lozovsky

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

 

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.