Russia’s Political Economy: The Next Decade

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Scholars should be modest about their ability to predict. A recent 20 year evaluation of forecasts by specialists in a variety of areas found that the experts’ predictions barely beat random guesses.[1] The one prediction that can be made with confidence is that in the next ten years there will be surprises. Nevertheless, thinking systematically about possible future developments forces one to consider carefully what is known about the present and to identify trends in the recent past. http://premier-stroi.com/ как открыть интернет магазин стройматериалов.

In this spirit, one might start by summarizing features of Russia’s political economy in the 1990s and 2000s.

  1. The popularity of incumbent presidents has varied dramatically over time, and in a way that closely matched trends in the country’s economic performance as perceived by the public.
  1. The political effectiveness of incumbent presidents has varied with their approval ratings. When a president’s rating sank, elites and special interests—in parliament, regional governments, the federal bureaucracy, the media, business, and elsewhere—pressed mutually contradictory demands and blocked implementation of any coherent policy. By contrast, when the president’s popularity was high, obstacles to reforms largely disappeared.
  1. At moments of high presidential popularity, the country’s policy course and the style of government depended strongly on the president’s views and objectives.
  1. Changes in the economic context—and associated public opinion—were much more important than changes in formal institutions for explaining change in the process and outcomes of politics.
  1. Most of the time, presidents sought to increase their popularity by (i) preventing decline in the population’s real incomes, even at cost to longer term goals, and (ii) choosing policies that the public favored on a variety of issues.
  1. The formal system of politics, as codified in the constitution and other laws, is democratic. Political practice has become increasingly undemocratic since 1999. The formal mechanism for filling top political offices is the election. Over time, various tricks, pressures, and devices have been used more and more blatantly to predetermine the results of elections at all levels. However, because the national incumbents have been genuinely popular, the manipulations have not resulted in outcomes in national elections that were very different from those implied by credible opinion polls on the eve of the elections. Were the country’s leaders to try to use the same techniques at a time when they were very unpopular, it is not clear the techniques would still work.

The political history of the next 10 years will combine the continuation of current trends with some unexpected developments. Of course, we can say little about the surprises (other than that they are likely to occur). So it makes sense to start by focusing on the trends.

If the features already noted continue to characterize Russia’s political economy, political dynamics will be strongly influenced by the economy’s performance. (Of course, other events—terrorism, wars—may intervene in ways that offset economic factors.) One might, then, articulate several alternative scenarios.

  1. High growth. Should growth rates remain similar to those in 2000-08, the current leaders would retain control over the political and economic systems. The Kremlin team would remain popular with the majority of Russians, although there might be considerable covert discontent within the elite. Russia’s course of development would then depend greatly on how Putin and Medvedev conceived their goals at this point.
  1. Moderate growth. Should growth rates remain positive but lower than in 2000-08—say, around 3-4 percent a year—the leadership would remain generally popular. However, criticism from various discontented groups would likely become louder. Inequalities in the pattern of development (both geographic and social) might mean that, despite general prosperity, living standards for some groups would stagnate. The Kremlin might find it hard to redistribute resources sufficiently to alleviate pockets of discontent.
  1. Low growth. Should growth rates fall to close to zero—or even turn negative—for an extended period, opposition would likely reemerge from many corners: regional governments, the media, business, special interest groups, parts of the state bureaucracy. United Russia might divide into factions, both within and outside parliament. Without growth, it would be difficult for the government to “buy of” discontent. Simultaneously, a fall in the approval ratings of the top leaders would make it harder for them to enforce repressive policies (disgruntled groups within the federal bureaucracy and regional governments would, at least covertly, resist).

Although this might take some time, at a certain point the inability of the central leaders to do much about the wave of protests by different uncoordinated groups would make this leadership look weak. This would probably prompt splits within the Putin/Medvedev support coalition, as different factions came to favor different survival strategies. One might expect to see the emergence of a hardline faction, favoring repression, and a soft-line faction, favoring greater efforts to coopt more moderate opposition groups. By the time these factions emerged, however, neither of these strategies would be likely to work.

This situation could continue for some time without any clear outcome. However, if a scheduled national election came at a time after protest had mobilized and the Kremlin had come to be perceived as weak, this would pose a dilemma and a potential moment of vulnerability. The Kremlin would face a choice between cancelling the election—and possibly provoking major clashes in the streets as well as strong criticism from abroad—or holding the election, trying to manipulate it, very possibly failing (the bureaucracy and regional governments might not remain sufficiently loyal), and perhaps sparking a colored revolution.

Although by definition one cannot anticipate the surprises, one can identify some important sources of uncertainty. The following factors will affect the political dynamics, yet are unknown at this time:

  1. The rate of growth that Russia will be able to achieve in the next decade—as well as its distribution among geographical and social groups.
  2. The strength of the influence of deteriorating economic conditions on Putin’s and Medvedev’s popularity.
  3. How the timing of economic deterioration—if it occurs—will correspond with the electoral cycle (presidential elections in 2012 and 2018; Duma elections in 2011 and 2016).
  4. Wars, terrorism, other traumatic events.
  5. What strategies the leadership will choose.
  6. The occurrence of serious mistakes by the Kremlin. For instance, the use of significant force but at the wrong moment. A Novocherkassk-like killing of demonstrators that catalyzed, rather than intimidating, the opposition. Or a political liberalization at a time of growing economics-based discontent, leading to competitive mobilization of opposition by political entrepreneurs, rapidly undermining the regime à la Gorbachev.
  7. Possible instability, even in a high growth scenario, associated with turnover at the top of the regime. Intense factional rivalries within the Kremlin entourage.

[1] Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It: How Can We Know? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

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