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The State Of Play

With public discontent rising and struggles in the Kremlin intensifying, it's as good a time as any to take the pulse of the Russian body politic and make some educated guesses about where things might be going.

Andrew Wood, the former UK ambassador to Russia and current fellow at Chatham House, has done just that in a new report that is well worth a read.

In a short, succinct, and very insightful paper, Wood argues that the Russian political elite is ill equipped to deal with the country's mounting problems, noting that "some of the factors which made it seem in the early eighties that the Soviet Union could not last are discernable now." (In a recent commentary, Gregory Satarov, president of the Moscow-based INDEM foundation, makes a similar argument.)

Central to Wood's thesis is an observation that should be familiar to Power Vertical readers -- the inherent conflict between Russia's need to modernize its economy on one hand and the elite's desire to maintain tight political control on the other:

The authorities would like, as wanted their Soviet predecessors, economic dynamism without political renovation. This is impossible. The power structures and the economy are too interwoven.

As I have blogged here, and on numerous other occasions, in order to modernizing Russia's economy, it must be decentralized, diversified, and made less dependent on commodities exports. Doing so, however, would result in decentralizing and diversifying political power as well -- eroding the dominance of the current ruling clique.

And given the choice between true political change and stagnation, the elite will likely opt for the latter:

The political elite, understandably enough from their point of view, will rate political stability above economic renewal, even if they would not put it like that, or accept that there was a choice to be made in this respect. Russia’s emergence this year from the traumas of 2008-9 may very probably encourage such a cast of mind.

But as Wood points out, the economic crisis has spooked the elite and severely dented ordinary Russians' confidence in the future, a potentially deadly combination that could eventually call into question the political legitimacy of the current ruling class:

There is also a shifting pattern in the way that Russia has thought about itself which has had a formative influence. Its effects since 2000 have been masked by the destruction of subordinate entities, and the center’s control of the mass media. But the assurance, even arrogance, which had developed under Putin and prevailed for most of 2008 has been dented. Hopes of an early return to the comparatively fat days of Putin’s Presidency are still widely shared, but so are doubts. Medvedev may not have the answers, or the power to implement a credible program, but by raising concern, even alarm, about Russia’s longer-term future, he has made space for a wider and more public discussion about what ought to be done to ensure the country’s future prosperity, or even for some, its survival. That matters, because it casts doubt not just on the ability of the current and seemingly unchangeable elite to manage affairs, but also their right to do so.

For the past year this has been manifesting itself in schisms at the top and increased unrest in society. Wood expects "that the inherent tension between economic renewal and the frozen political structure will continue to mount in 2010." And if Putin decides to return to the presidency in 2012, " it is probable that this contradiction will become steadily more evident."

I tried to hit the highlights here, but recommend giving the whole paper a read.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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