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 which 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 liberalize. Many believe that Medvedev’s “modernization” was an attempt to find an alternative to Putin’s vision of Russia’s development. They are mistaken. Medvedev’s modernization was a false modernization, like a false grill on a car. It was Putin’s attempt to substitute liberal rhetoric for real liberalization, 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 $7.5 billion 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 archenemies the state points to are not countries with which Russia has actual territorial disputes, such as China or Japan, but the European Union 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 realize—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 last 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 had gotten about 30% of the vote and almost forced a runoff election. Navalny had become popular by publicizing his anticorruption 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 U.S. and European Union during his reign. And he understands that a solution which 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 U.S.S.R. had, in order to prevent the most active citizens from traveling to Europe and the United States to see what life is like there. The E.U. and the U.S. banning Russians from having foreign bank accounts and owning real estate spares him having to adopt unpopular laws to “de-offshore-ize” 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 U.S. and E.U. 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 two hundred 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.
P.S. None of this changes the fact that in the Crimea and in Ukraine’s southeast, 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 Kyiv, 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.
Translated by Ilya Lozovsky.