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Four Scenarios For Putin 2.0

  • Brian Whitmore

Vladimir Putin watching naval exercises during his last term as president in 2005

Vladimir Putin watching naval exercises during his last term as president in 2005

So we know the who. But we still don't know the what.

Vladimir Putin will return to the Kremlin for at least one, and most likely two, six-year terms starting in 2012. Dmitry Medvedev, it appears, is destined to become an interesting historical footnote -- a curiosity who occupied the Kremlin in the short interlude between Putin and Putin: The Sequel.

But what kind of policies will the next incarnation of Putin pursue?

Will he attempt a reform agenda that harkens back to the early years of his presidency when he simplified the tax code and initiated land reforms? Or will he revive "high Putinism," the assertive and authoritarian centralization policies that marked much of his second term from 2004 to 2008?

And how will Russian society respond to whatever form Putin 2.0 takes?

Russia today is not the Russia of a decade ago or even five years ago, when people were prepared to sacrifice civil liberties and democratic niceties in exchange for rising living standards.

Lower oil prices, an economy in need of modernization and diversification, and creaking infrastructure in need of renovation have stalled the economic boom that marked the past decade. Fueled by a social media revolution, civil society is becoming increasingly active and assertive.

So what can we expect? Below are four possible scenarios for how Putin's second stint in the Kremlin might play out (in no particular order of likelihood).

Top-Down Reform: The Stolypin Scenario

Pyotr Stolypin, Russian Prime Minister from 1906 to 1911
When Putin returns to the Kremlin as president on May 7, 2012, Russia will be a dramatically different country from when he relinquished formal power to Dmitry Medvedev four years earlier.

Gone will be the swagger of the "energy superpower" touting its superiority over the West. Much of the Russian elite understands all too well that some kind of reform is necessary -- especially regarding the economy.

The country has lost $50 billion in capital flight this year alone; the ruble is languishing at a two-year low; the stock market is tanking; and oil prices are below the $116 a barrel necessary to keep the budget balanced -- and are expected to fall further still amid a looming global recession.

Moreover, in the four-year interlude since Putin last occupied the Kremlin, Russian civil society has awakened to a degree not seen in years and -- assisted by the Internet and social media -- is becoming increasingly assertive and creative in making its voices heard.

"The rigid system is teetering, and its key components are breaking down," Julia Ioffe wrote in "Foreign Policy" on September 27.

Even Putin appears to recognize that something needs to be done.

"Responsible authorities should always not only listen to the heartbeat but if they see and understand it, then they should prescribe drugs if there is any sort of problem," he told party members on the eve of the United Russia congress.

"The authorities should explain to people in a clear and understandable way -- not with truncheons and teargas, of course -- but with discussion and dialogue."

But despite this, nobody is holding their breath waiting for the second coming of Perestroika.

Having experienced the late 1980s as a KGB agent in East Germany, Putin is haunted by the specter of reforms intended to preserve the system spinning out of control and bringing down the whole house of cards.

Any reforms he launches are going to be tightly controlled and designed to assure the current ruling elite's continued hold on power.

So, if Mikhail Gorbachev isn't the model, then who is?

Back in July, Putin gave a hint when he evoked the Tsarist-era prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, who served from 1906 until his death in 1911.

Chairing a commission tasked with erecting a monument to Stolypin to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2012, Putin called him a "true patriot and a wise politician" who "served his a very difficult and truly dramatic period in Russia’s history." He also praised his "iron will" and "personal courage."

Stolypin is actually the perfect model for a top-down reform wave a la Putin. Serving as premier in the tumultuous period following the Russo-Japanese War, He initiated historic land reforms, expanded the trans-Siberian railroad, and facilitated the development of Siberia.

But his zeal for reform only went so far. Stolypin was appointed by Tsar Nicholas II in the politically charged atmosphere following the revolution of 1905 and was obsessed with preventing further political upheaval. He was so ruthless in dealing with real and potential revolutionaries that the hangman's noose became known as a "Stolypin necktie."

Could Putin pull off a top-down economic reform while keeping a tight rein on the political system? This would likely depend on whether the reforms resulted in real improvements in people's material wellbeing, which could dampen political dissent.

The problem is that, at least in the early phase, any reforms are going to result not in better living standards, but in increased economic hardship. Most notably, these will include painful overhauls of the country's pension system and creaking social services infrastructure.

But given how invested Putin and his inner circle are in the commanding heights of the Russian economy, any reform effort can only go so far.

"In a way Putin is a prisoner of the system he created... which means that he can't really change it " says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, International Editor of the British weekly "The Economist" and author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West."

"If he tried to do something about corruption it would immediately raise questions about where the oil money goes, where the gas money goes. These are uncomfortable questions which would be particularly uncomfortable for him if they were answered."

And as for Stolypin, that didn't exactly end well either the first time around. He was assassinated in the Kyiv Opera House in September 1911, just six years before Russia descended into revolution and civil war.

Authoritarian Modernization: The Andropov Scenario

Former KGB chief Yury Andropov led the Soviet Union for 15 months in the early 1980s.
Stolypin is not the only role model Putin has plugged from Russian history.

Back in June 1999, Putin laid a bouquet of flowers on Yury Andropov's grave to mark the 85th anniversary of the late Soviet leader and longtime KGB chief's birth.

Shortly after he became president in 2000, Putin saw to it that a plaque honoring Andropov was placed on the Moscow building where he once lived. To mark the 90th anniversary of Andropov's birth in June 2004, Putin arranged for a 10-foot statue of him to be erected in the suburb of Petrozavodsk, north of St. Petersburg.

And on June 15, 2009, the 95th anniversary of Andropov's birth, Russia's Channel One aired a nostalgic laudatory film titled "Yury Andropov: 15 Months Of Hope."
Members of Vladimir Putin's inner circle have long viewed Andropov's brief 15-month rule as the path not taken, the great "what if," the missed opportunity.

Putin has made no secret of his admiration for Andropov, who served as KGB head when he and many of his siloviki allies were fresh-faced rookie spies in the 1970s. Andropov's model of governance somewhat resembles Stolypin's top-down economic reform model, but envisions keeping more of the economy under the control of the state.

When he became Soviet leader after the death of Leonid Brezhnev, Andropov sought to introduce limited market mechanisms to make the stagnant Soviet economy more competitive with the West. But his plans for an authoritarian modernization left little room for any inkling of democracy or pluralism. Instead, the political system would remain tightly controlled and the economy tightly wedded to the state -- with the KGB taking a leading role.

Members of Vladimir Putin's inner circle have long viewed Andropov's brief 15-month rule as the path not taken, the great "what if," the missed opportunity.

If Andropov had lived, the argument goes, Moscow would have pursued a program of authoritarian modernization, introducing market reforms similar to those in China while preserving one-party rule. He would have reformed the economy, kept the Soviet Union together, and avoided the chaos and deprivation of the Perestroika period and the 1990s.

"Andropov thought that the Communist Party had to keep power in its hands and to conduct an economic liberalization. This was the path China followed," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for Elite Studies, told me in a 2007 interview. "For people in the security services, China is the ideal model. They see this as the correct course. They think that [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin went along the wrong path, as did Gorbachev."

Kryshtanovskaya added that Putin and his protégés thought Andropov "was simply a genius, that he was a very strong person who, if he had lived, would have made the correct reforms."

With the preeminence of the ruling United Russia party, the dominance of the security services, and the tight links between business and the state, many analysts believed Putin's first stint in the Kremlin from 2000-08 was an attempt to revive Andropovism.

But the global financial crisis exposed the weaknesses in Russia's top-heavy and energy-dependent economy. During Medvedev's presidency, the focus shifted to opening up the economy and -- to a degree -- reforming the political system.

So with Putin returning to the Kremlin, will Andropovism also make a comeback?

The elite appears divided between the siloviki faction led by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, whciht favors the authoritarian state capitalist model, and a more technocratic group, including former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, who favor seeing the economy liberalized and the political system opened up.

Kudrin's recent resignation and the collapse of Right Cause, a Kremlin-sponsored project to get a regime-friendly party into the next State Duma suggests the liberalizing faction is losing, at least for now.

But with oil prices expected to fall, a global recession potentially looming, and Russia facing a budget crunch due to falling revenues, most observers agree that Moscow now needs to focus on diversifying its economy and selling off state assets.

Moreover, Russian civil society has become increasingly assertive since Putin left the Kremlin. Citizen groups and bloggers, powered by social media in a country where Internet penetration has reached 40 percent, are becoming more willing to challenge the authorities.

2012, it turns out, is not 1983 -- or even 2007.

Survival and Stagnation: The Brezhnev Scenario

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (centre) at the opening of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980
One problem that Putin's decision to return to the presidency unequivocally solves is Russia's perennial succession dilemma and the uncertainty and instability that comes with it. The ruling elite now knows, with virtual certainty, who will be in charge until 2024 -- Vladimir Putin (provided, of course, that he wins two six-year terms).

There should, then, be no repeats of the succession crises that marred Russian politics in 1999 or 2008.

But that stability comes with a price, the risk of stagnation and the ossification of an elite secure in its power and privilege.

If Putin remains president until 2024, he will have served as president for a total of 20 years and as Russia's de facto ruler for 24 -- just shy of the three decades Josef Stalin occupied the Kremlin and longer than Leonid Brezhnev's 18-year reign.

And for this reason, the comparisons with Brezhnev were rife when the news broke on September 24 that Putin would return to the presidency.

"I think the Brezhnev analogy is quite a serious one," Lucas told me.

"Obviously he [Putin] is not Brezhnev in that he is physically fitter and that [Russia] is not a police state or planned economy. But that feeling of corruption and incompetence will be very strong."

The early Brezhnev's political product mix included stability, sensible governance, and growth in the people's well-being...
But what many forget is that Brezhnev wasn't always the bumbling, stumbling, and clownish figure who became the subject of so many jokes told over kitchen tables in the late Soviet period. In the early part of his rule, which ran from 1964 to 1982, he actually cut quite a young and energetic figure.

"What was the real Brezhnev like, not the Brezhnev of the jokes? He was a person not without charm, he liked to joke, to shoot, to race cars, to chat with the people," political analyst Sergey Shelin wrote in a commentary in late last year.

"The early Brezhnev's political product mix included stability, sensible governance, a growth in the people's well-being, and other nice things. It would be stupid to deny today that people liked this, and if the science of opinion polling in those days had known how to measure ratings, they would have been excellent."

Sound familiar? The same could have been written to describe Putin's first stint in the Kremlin.

Putin has been in power in one form or another for roughly 12 years now (if you include Medvedev's four-year interlude as a placeholder). On the Brezhnev timeline, that places us roughly in 1976 -- just before things started to go south. It was also in that year when Brezhnev, who was then 70 years old, reportedly considered resigning.

Instead he stuck around, collected his third Hero of the Soviet Union medal, took the military rank of marshal, and passed a new constitution. Meanwhile, as living standards sank and the general social malaise increased, he gave a lot of long and meandering speeches.

Is Putin aware of these similarities? I suspect he is. According to the Moscow rumor mill, Putin didn't really want to return to the presidency, instead preferring to lord over the system as Russia's national leader free from the daily dirty grind of politics.

So why did he come back. According to some Kremlin-watchers, he didn't have a choice.

"Putin designed a system of managed conflict," Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center told me recently.

"He created different clans and groups who are fighting against each other. This is the way he keeps control over the system. He is a judge and arbiter who is keeping the balance among them. It is impossible for him to leave. It is impossible to imagine this system without him because all of the agreements are guaranteed by him. Without him, all of these clans would fight each other, like after Stalin's death."

Crisis and Revolt: The Colored Revolution Scenario

Protesters demonstrating on Kyiv's Independence Square during the Orange Revolution of November 2004
Ever since the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine the Russian authorities have been haunted by the specter of being overthrown by a popular rebellion. Those fears only increased after this year's Arab Spring uprisings.

The elite has tried various methods of preempting such an ignoble end to their rule. They have demonized the colored revolutions as foreign-backed plots on state television, restricted the activities of NGOs, attempted to exert control over the Internet, and cracked down brutally on public demonstrations.

And now they have an added concern. With the frightening storm clouds now gathering over the global economy, some believe Russia could soon be ripe for revolt.

Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, for one, thinks it is a very real possibility.

Putin's return would lead to "very serious social and economic shocks" as well as "massive capital flight, a new wave of emigration, and further degradation of the state," the opposition politician told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"Putin is turning into [Belarus Preident Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, and he could transform into [deposed Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak or [deposed Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi."

For the time being, though, there doesn't appear to be any risk of a mass public uprising. The Russian economy has problems and badly needs to be diversified away from its dependence on energy, but does not look to be on the brink of collapse.

And while people have become more assertive in voicing their grievances, Putin remains very popular.

But that, of course, can change very quickly. After the elections, it is widely understood that the government will need to initiate very painful -- and very unpopular -- reforms to the pension and social services systems. Oil revenues are already below the level needed to balance the budget and are expected to fall further.

"Next year, the government will need to enact some very unpopular laws," the Carnegie Center's Petrov recently told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"The role of the first prime minister under President Vladimir Putin in 2012 will in some ways resemble that of a kamikaze pilot."

And if things do go south, if Russia's economy tanks, causing real economic pain and discrediting Putin, Putinism and the entire ruling elite, then they will face a difficult choice.

"If you got unrest or a deterioration of the external environment, which way would they go?" "The Economist's" Lukas asked. "Would they be forced into a kind of new era of Glasnost, Perestroika, and reform as in the Soviet Union in the 1980s? Or would they go down an Andropov line toward more repression."

That question, of course, is impossible to answer at this point. But it easy to see how things could quickly spin out of the authorities' control as they did in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

But if they do, there is a chance that it won't be the pro-Western liberals who will come out on top.
Russia's nationalists have become increasingly organized and assertive in recent years and a deep economic crisis could end up igniting society's most xenophobic elements.

If there is a colored revolution in Russia, it may not be orange, rose, or tulip -- but one dominated by brownshirts.

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