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Experts: Russia's Long Term Stability in Question

(Washington, D.C.--October 7, 2004) The Russian government is relatively stable today, but could fail to survive an economic or political shock in the mid to long-term, according to experts who spoke last week to an RFE/RL audience. Donald Jensen, RFE/RL Director of Communications and Daniel Kimmage, RFE/RL Central Asian Analyst both agreed that a major shock to the system could quickly develop into a crisis of legitimacy for the current government.

Jensen said, "You have a systemic crisis approaching, both of legitimacy and effectiveness," as Russia under President Vladimir Putin continues its trend to "authoritarianism." Noting that Russia was not a democracy during the 1990's under President Boris Yeltsin, Jensen said of the three possible directions for Russia's government to develop in the future, i.e., democratic, a "Mussolini variant," or more of the same "neo-Brezhnevian" bureaucratic authoritarianism, the most likely is the latter.

Kimmage discussed the lack of transparency in the Russian government's bureaucratic mechanism for managed democracy. While "formally power is increasingly concentrated in Putin's hands," Kimmage said, "real power is in the hands of informal, clannish elite groups that need the illusion of an all-powerful tsar." He cited the current Yukos affair as an example of another "asset grab, like many of the hostile takeovers we saw in the 1990s." What remains unclear, Kimmage said, is "which group that claims to be acting in the state's interest will eventually seize the asset."

Both Jensen and Kimmage agreed that the fall of Khodorkovsky and his clan (based around Yukos) "shows that the state's repressive mechanisms can be mobilized against any one group." Yet, Putin's power, as the official ultimately in charge of these mechanisms, is limited by "corruption, inefficiency and incompetence" within the system. "There are many actors, and the overall picture is chaotic," said Kimmage, noting that the system is "ill-equipped to handle" severe shocks such as an economic catastrophe.

Jensen also drew attention to the fact that "Russia's domestic developments affect its foreign policy behavior." Jensen said that this circumstance will create problems for the United States since, the experience of the U.S. in the 1990s shows that "it is very hard for policymakers in this country or in Europe to get levers" to influence Russia.

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