What would happen if Russia's current political turmoil were compounded by an economic crisis?
Last week, a think tank associated with former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin raised that question, and the answers were -- to say the least -- not pretty for the Kremlin. And today, the ruble fell to a three-year low
on falling oil prices, which dropped by 4.5 percent over the past week.
The government insists there is no cause for alarm. Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich told RIA-Novosti
that the authorities are "prepared for any scenario" and "have the reserves necessary for dealing with a crisis, if there is one."
Nevertheless, whether Russia's $513 billion in foreign reserves will be enough to weather an economic downturn sparked by contagion from the eurozone and falling oil prices must be causing a lot of sleepless nights in the Kremlin.
A report released on May 24 by the highly respected Center for Strategic Research
commissioned by Kudrin's newly formed Committee of Civic Initiatives warned that Russia could descend into violence and chaos if the authorities continued to crack down on opposition protesters or if the economy slides:
Our research shows that the crisis has become irreversible. regardless of the scenarios of its further development. Maintaining political stability, let alone a return to the pre-crisis status quo, is no longer possible ... At this stage we view the probability of such a scenario as high because the escalation of violence has already started. As it spreads, the return of the protests to a peaceful course is becoming less and less likely.
The report noted that "the middle class in the largest cities is de facto lost for the authorities." An economic downturn would undoubtedly cause them to lose the working class as well, leading to rural and industrial unrest.
At a press conference presenting the report
, Kudrin -- who won accolades for steering Russia through the 2008 financial crisis -- said a recession in Russia is "possible and even likely," adding that there was a 50 percent chance that this would be "a destabilizing factor for political problems."
An economic downturn would, indeed, land the second half of a one-two punch against President Vladimir Putin and his ruling circle.
As I have blogged in the past
, rising living standards in Russia over the past decade led to the creation of an embryonic middle class that once made up the bedrock of the regime's support. But once that class became secure in its wealth -- as was the case in South Korea, Indonesia, and elsewhere
-- it began to seek political freedoms
, causing it to lose patience with Putin's authoritarian rule.
Having lost the middle class, which has taken to the streets against him, Putin turned to the working class, which is now the backbone of the Kremlin's social base. A deep recession risks turning them against him as well.
"In connection with the problems in the countries of the eurozone, notably in Greece, the world economy can expect a new strong shock. In the meantime, in Moscow, they are busy with everything under the sun except preparations for a new wave of crisis," a May 25 editorial in Gazeta.ru
"Of course, fears do not always come true, but if they do come true, it certainly does not have to be in full. But the atmosphere is heating up before our eyes. The flight of capital from Russia is speeding up. Oil has become cheaper," the editorial continued.
"The Russian budget, half of whose income is provided by selling energy, will encounter real difficulties yet this year if the oil price simply stays fixed at today's level. And if it so happens that it stays below $100 for quite a long time, it will simply become impossible to describe what is happening other than with the words 'economic crisis.'"
If the worst-case scenario does come to pass, the results could be nasty. The opposition to Putin is comprised as much of nationalists and radical leftists as it is of pro-Western liberals.
(Note to readers: Tune into "The Power Vertical Podcast" on June 1, where I will discuss this issue at length with my regular co-host Kirill Kobrin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service.)
-- Brian Whitmore