It began with a roar and it ended with a whimper.As 2012 wound down in Russia, the soaring expectations for change that accompanied the civic awakening and mass protests at the year’s dawn had clearly faded.
But the social, economic, and political forces that spawned them will continue to shape the landscape well into the new year.
A fledgling middle class remains hungry for political change, splits still plague the ruling elite over the way forward, and a fractious opposition movement continues to struggle to find its voice.
With the Kremlin unable to decisively squelch the mounting dissent and the opposition unable to topple President Vladimir Putin, Russia has entered an uneasy holding pattern that has the feel of an interlude between two epochs.
“I don’t think we are at the end of the Putin era, but we are at the beginning of the end,” says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, international editor of the British weekly “The Economist” and author of the recently published book “Deception.”
With economic headwinds on the horizon, generational conflict brewing, and new political forces developing, Russian society is changing — and changing rapidly. But the political system remains ossified.
So what can we expect in 2013? Below are several trends and issues to keep an eye on in the coming year.
The Oil Curse: Energy Prices And The Creaking Welfare State
If 2012 was all about politics, 2013 will also be about economics.
The Russian economy, the cliche goes, rests on two pillars — oil and gas. And both will come under increasing pressure as the year unfolds.
World oil prices, currently hovering between $90 and $100 per barrel, are expected to be volatile for the foreseeable future. And any sharp drop could prove catastrophic for the Russian economy.
Energy experts and economists say Russia’s budget will only stay balanced if oil prices remain between $100 and $110 per barrel. Five years ago, the figure needed for a balanced budget was $50 to $55.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s dominance of the natural gas market is being challenged by the development of new energy sources like shale gas and liquefied natural gas.
“The Russians are going to have to face, just as the Saudis did in the 1980s, the possibility of dropping energy prices,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.
The flush days when petrodollars could power Russia’s economy and lubricate Putin’s political machine are coming to a close.
How the political system responds to these challenges will be a key question in 2013.Leading Russian economists like Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin have stressed the need to diversify the economy away from its dangerous dependence on nonrenewable energy. Both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have likewise made calls for diversification.
But despite all the rhetoric, there has been little real action.
Part of this is due to fierce resistance from powerful figures in the Russian elite with ties to the energy industry, like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin crony.
But the reasons for inaction are actually much more fundamental. Diversifying and modernizing Russia’s economy would entail a degree of decentralization and the subsequent development of alternative centers of economic power. This, in turn, would eventually lead to new centers of political power with more independence from the Kremlin than Putin appears willing to tolerate.
“The decoupling of gas and oil prices, the large quantities of liquefied natural gas on world markets, the growth of shale gas have all [diminished the regime’s] ability to collect natural-resource rents,” Edward Lucas says. “And the collection and distribution of those rents is central to its model.”
With resources declining and no economic diversification program in sight, the authorities appear to have concluded that they need to reform the country’s creaking social-welfare system. But such a move is certain to be politically volatile, especially since Putin’s main base of support is now the rural poor and the working classes.
The Kremlin is still haunted by the protests that broke out in 2005 when the government attempted reforms to the social safety net.
Fathers And Children: The Looming Generational Conflict
When Putin took power in 2000, the 40-something former spy looked like an energetic young leader, especially compared to his geriatric predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
But more than a decade later, he and his team are aging together. And by most accounts, they intend to remain in office at least until 2018 — and possibly until 2024. By that time, much of his ruling circle will be in their 70s.
The comparisons to Leonid Brezhnev that accompanied Putin’s return to the Kremlin were not superfluous. In addition to the fears of stagnation, the graying of Team Putin also sets the stage for a generational conflict within the elite.
“The lack of institutional mechanisms for promotion and rotation is a problem because, when you don’t have that, it leads the younger generations to get frustrated if they don’t believe there is a way to advance within the system,” Gvosdev says. “If everything is blocked off it creates tension. You can’t just freeze the government establishment because the energy of people is going to be directed toward breaking into it or replacing it, and that becomes a danger.”
How this generational discord develops will be one of the key underlying trends to watch in 2013. This is especially true since a whole new cohort entered the elite over the past four years.
During his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev made a concerted effort to bring younger cadres into the Kremlin, which analysts say added a political element to the generation gap.
“Real fragmentation is taking place by age because Medvedev rejuvenated the system of administration,” prominent Moscow-based sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” this summer. “The more conservative older part of the elite was irritated by this and moved toward Putin. And those who were younger moved toward Medvedev in hopes of a quick career if Medvedev remained for a second term.”
The young guns who came in with Medvedev are also ideologically inclined toward greater pluralism. “Many observers are convinced that these leaders are giving financial support to the opposition,” Kryshtanovskaya said.
The generational gap in the elite is mirrored by a similar one in society as the cohort born after the fall of the Soviet Union — and which has only faint memories of the chaos of the 1990s — comes of age.
“This group of citizens sees itself as not only post-Soviet, but non-Soviet,” says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “They don’t consider themselves to be vassals of the state. They are more free-thinking.”
Lipman adds that this younger generation is helping fuel Russia’s civic awakening. “This process is irreversible,” she says. “And as Russia continues to urbanize and cities become centers for younger people, this process will only accelerate.”
Strange Bedfellows: When Aleksei Meets Aleksei
When speculation emerged that anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin may be cooperating politically, it raised eyebrows among Kremlin-watchers.
And the reason for the interest goes much deeper than an abiding fascination with these two emerging players on the political scene.
An alliance of the Alekseis would have pointed to one of the key developments analysts have been watching for since mass protests broke out a year ago: collaboration between the technocratic wing of the elite and moderate elements in the opposition.
Such a marriage makes sense in many ways. Elite technocrats understand that Russia is dangerously dependent on energy exports, that current levels of corruption are unsustainable, and that in order for the economy to diversify and modernize, the political system will need to become more pluralistic.
Moreover, as moderate opposition activists come to understand that a colored revolution in Russia is unlikely, they are more likely to place their hopes in evolutionary change.
And in the event that the Putin regime begins to look dangerously shaky, overtures from inside the halls of power to the opposition will become more likely.
“We are going to see more people toying with defection to the opposition, people opening up back channels,” says Mark Galeotti, the author of the blog “In Moscow’s Shadows” and a professor at New York University. “We’re going to see the economic elite trying to reach out [to the opposition] and this is going to be very dangerous for the state.”
On the opposition’s Coordinating Council, a bloc is already emerging that seeks to negotiate political change with willing elements in the Kremlin, rather than trying to topple the regime, according to press reports.
The faction apparently includes 16 members of the 45-seat council. In addition to Navalny and his backers, it reportedly includes socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak and her supporters, as well as longtime opposition figure Ilya Yashin and entrepreneur Aleksandr Vinokurov, the co-owner of Dozhd-TV.
For his part, Kudrin has been trying to position himself as a bridge between the opposition and the authorities to foster what he calls “evolutionary change” toward greater pluralism. So has billionaire oligarch and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov.
If a bridge is ultimately built between the opposition and the technocratic wing of the elite, it could result in negotiated political reforms, in the co-opting of a vital wing of the Kremlin’s opponents — or a measure of both.
“I think it is more likely that as we see divisions within the regime that one faction tries to exploit public discontent,” Lucas says. “It will still be kind of ‘inside baseball’ rather than a 1917-style change.”
Beyond The Street: Will The Opposition Mature?
Bouts of soul searching are an inevitable ritual after the past few opposition demonstrations.
The heady days of December 2011 and January 2012, when dissenters found their voice and discovered they were not alone, are a fading memory. Likewise, the period from the beginning of the year until Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May, when the opposition seemed to control the national conversation, is also over.
And opposition leaders look increasingly uncertain about what to do next.
“They’re focusing on the glory days, the revolutionary days of December through May. But nobody is thinking about what happened after May, when they lost control of the agenda,” says Sean Guillory, a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies. “How are they going to recapture the agenda and how are they going to really start making connections with society?”
The opposition, of course, is not a unified movement. It comprises nationalists, leftists, and liberals, united only by their opposition to Putin.
Will a single leader emerge in the coming year? Will the Coordinating Council, an elected body designed to bridge the divides in the opposition and establish a bond with civil society, prove an effective form of collective leadership?
“A process we are going to see is the opposition actually beginning to fragment,” Galeotti says. “You will begin to see ideological blocs, real opposition movements rather than just the generic ‘we want Russia without Putin’ thing. But it will be a painful process.”
What happens with the opposition, whether it is able to move beyond the street and develop into a potent political force, is a trend to watch because there is a deep well of discontent in society to potentially tap.
“They have this feeling of stagnation,” Lucas says. “Of institutions that don’t work, of a public life plagued by lies, evasions, and propaganda. They want more decent behavior by public officials and public institutions and they aren’t getting it.”
Copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036
Coronavirus: Why Russians Are Lucky to Be Led by Putin
On Tuesday, March 24th, the following happened:
Reuters bannered “U.S. has potential of becoming coronavirus epicenter, says WHO” and reported that,
The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it was seeing a “very large acceleration” in coronavirus infections in the United States which had the potential of becoming the new epicenter.
Over the past 24 hours, 85 percent of new cases were from Europe and the United States, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters. Of those, 40 percent were from the United States.
Asked whether the United States could become the new epicentre, Harris said: “We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the U.S. So it does have that potential.
Right now, on Wednesday the 25th, the U.S. again has the world’s largest number of new cases reported, 11,074. That’s a 25% increase added to the 43,734 cases total on March 24th. And, within just three more days, America will have the world’s largest total number of cases, if Italy won’t. And after yet another day, the U.S. will almost certainly have the world’s largest total number of cases, because Italy has been adding only around half as many new cases per day as the U.S., though Italy’s total right now is higher than America’s, and is actually the second largest total after only China’s. China will have the world’s third-largest total number of cases by this weekend, the 28th or 29th, and America will be #1 then, not only on the number of new cases, but on the total number of cases, of this infection. That quickly, then, China will become no longer the #1 coronavirus-19 nation, but, instead, #3, behind the #1 U.S., and the #2 Italy.
America has been in political chaos because each of its two houses of Congress, and both Parties, and the President, have been blocked from agreeing on what to do — all of them were ignoring that this is an existential emergency and thus dealt with it as if it were instead just another way for each to increase its chances of re-election at the expense of the others. Both political Parties, Republicans and Democrats, and Congress and the President, agreed on a “$500 billion fund for corporations” to reduce the negative impact on billionaires’ wealth, but Democrats demanded that limits be placed on executives’ pay, and “included reducing student debt and boosting food stability programs. Some of the ideas would be major sticking points with Republicans: The bill, for example, would invest money ‘to eliminate high-polluting aircraft’ and ‘research into sustainable aviation fuels.’” Democrats also wanted, but Republicans refused, some costly measures to continue workers’ incomes during their plague-induced period of unemployment. Agreement had been reached only on the billionaire-bailouts — protections especially of stock-values. This is the way America’s ‘democracy’ works. Rule by the billionaires is considered to be ‘democracy’. Luxuries are treated as being more important than necessities are. (Billionaires are thought to be superior people, who must be served before anyone else.) Dollars rule, people don’t. And this chaos is the result of that.
On March 23rd, the prominent progressive economist James K. Galbraith headlined “What the Government Needs to Do Next” and described in detail what a governmental policy-response would be that would subsidize the public to deal with this crisis, but not subsidize the billionaires (who already have way too much and can well afford to become merely millionaires while not actually suffering at all), and that would be of maximum benefit to the total economy by protecting the assets of the most-vulnerable (who could then continue to shop and work), but his common-sense proposal wasn’t even being considered by the legislators, nor by the President.
Only a few countries had a faster rate of increase in cases than the U.S. did on March 24th, but all of them had far fewer cases: Portugal, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda. For example, Rwanda had the world’s highest percentage-increase from the day before, almost a doubling, but that was 17 new cases, up from a total of 19 on the day before. So, America’s 30% increase was clearly the world’s worst performance, on that single day.
Russia’s performance is perhaps the world’s best.
On March 22nd, CNN headlined “Why does Russia, population 146 million, have fewer coronavirus cases than Luxembourg?” (that’s a country of 628,000 people) and reported that
Russia’s early response measures — such as shutting down its 2,600-mile border with China as early as January 30, and setting up quarantine zones — may have contributed to the delay of a full-blown outbreak, some experts say.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to criticism over the number of recorded cases.
A strong record on testing
“The director-general of WHO said ‘test, test, test,’” Dr. Melita Vujnovic, the World Health Organization’s representative in Russia, told CNN Thursday. “Well, Russia started that literally at the end of January.”
Vujnovic said Russia also took a broader set of measures in addition to testing.
“Testing and identification of cases, tracing contacts, isolation, these are all measures that WHO proposes and recommends, and they were in place all the time,” she said. “And the social distancing is the second component that really also started relatively early.”
Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s state consumer watchdog, said Saturday that it had run more than 156,000 coronavirus tests in total. By comparison, according to CDC figures, the United States only picked up the pace in testing at the beginning of March.
On March 20th, the permanently anti-Russian U.S. organization, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (whose “Orwellian” name was perhaps one of the inspirations for George Orwell’s permanent-warfare novel, 1984) headlined “Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated”, and tried to put as bad a face on Russia’s coronavirus performance as they could, such as by alleging that (alleged) dictatorships were performing no worse than ‘democracies’ at controlling the coronavirus threat:
The state has reasserted itself as the prime actor on the global scene. International institutions like the World Health Organization have become mere statisticians, and even the EU has taken a back seat to the governments of member states.
The world’s democracies are not faring better in the crisis than nondemocracies.
However, back on 27 July 2015, that organization had bannered “How Authentic is Putin’s Approval Rating?” and reviewed more than 15 years of Putin’s approval ratings from the Russian public, and reluctantly concluded that it was and had always been “Authentic,” and almost always high.
Internationally, too, Putin’s leadership of Russia is more highly regarded than is the current U.S. President’s leadership of America.
Back in 2017, the British firm of WIN/Gallup International issued “Gallup International’s 41st Annual Global End of Year Survey Opinion Poll in 55 Countries Across the Globe”, which sampled 1,000 persons in each country in order to determine in each one the percentage of the public who rated “Favorable” and who rated “Unfavorable” each of the following 12 national heads-of-state (listed here in descending order of their net favorability, or “favorable” minus “unfavorable”): Merkel, Macron, Modi, May, Xi, Putin, Saud, Netanyahu, Rouhani, Erdogan, and Trump. (Merkel globally scored highest, Trump lowest.)
Amongst Russians, the score for Putin was 79% Favorable, 11% Unfavorable, for a net score of +68%.
Though Germany’s Merkel had the highest score worldwide, her score in Germany was only 54% Favorable and 44% Unfavorable, for a net of +10.
Macron’s net score in France was -1%.
May’s net in UK was -18%
Rouhani’s in Iran was +37%
Erdogan’s in Turkey was +22%
Modi’s in India was +72% (that’s 84%-12%)
Trump’s in U.S. was -23% (35%-58%) — the worst of all.
The following leaders weren’t surveyed in their own countries: Xi, Netanyahu, and Saud.
So: Putin’s net +68% score amongst his own country’s population was second ony to Modi’s — and, whereas Modi had been in office for only 3 years and had not yet begun his controversial actively anti-Muslim campaign, Putin had led Russia for 17 years, and was a very firmly established high performer in these figures. Here are some of the reasons for this.
Russian-Japanese dialogue in the context of amendments to the Constitution
As Russia discusses amendments to the Constitution, an issue of particular concern has been the amendment that prohibits the alienation of Russian territories. The amendment will likely be put to vote on April 22. It is not surprising that it has evoked interest abroad, especially in Japan, where they still expect to regain control of the so-called “northern territories”. Unlike a great number of categorical alarmist comments in the Japanese press on this issue, Sankei Shimbun writes: “The amendment includes the wording “except for cases of demarcation or re-demarcation of borders with neighboring states”. Thus, negotiations on the Japanese “northern territories” can be considered not in conflict with the new Constitution. “
Are there grounds for such an interpretation of the amendment in question? “Any moves aimed at alienating territories, as well as calls for such actions, are not permitted,” – the presidential amendment says, specifying that it is not indeed about delimitation, demarcation, or re-demarcation of the state border.
Japan, claiming the southern islands of the Kuril Ridge, cites the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of October 19, 1956 “On ending the state of war between the two states and restoring diplomatic and consular relations”, according to which the USSR pledged to transfer the Shikotan and Habomai Islands. The Declaration, ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, has not been abolished. Another presidential amendment to the Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulates that Russia is the legal successor of the USSR in its territory and as a member of international organizations and international treaties.
However, the Tokyo Declaration indicated that the de facto transfer of these islands to Japan would be executed after the signing of a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan. In addition, the Soviet Union was also far from happy about the presence of American military bases on Japanese territory.
At present, what obstructs progress on the islands and the peace treaty is Japan’s unwillingness to take into account Russia’s strategic concerns about the status of the four islands of the South Kuril Ridge. In particular, Russia would like to receive guarantees about the neutral status of these territories and the non-deployment of US military bases on them.
The main thing is that while considering the issue of concluding a Peace Treaty with Japan, Russia insists that Japan recognize the results of World War II – something it has refused to do for many years. This approach is regrettably deeply rooted in the minds of the Japanese establishment and expert community. The abovementioned newspaper, for example, cites the opinion of Professor Sindzo Hakamada of Niigata University that “if Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes part in the celebration of Victory Day this year, it will mean acknowledgment of a blatant distortion of history by Russia and its uncompromising policy towards Japan.
From the Russian point of view, such statements are characteristic of the position of Japan. History, by the way, remembers cases when Tokyo changed this position depending on the political situation. A. Koshkin writes that in the spring of 1945, amid fears that the Soviet Union could participate in the war against Japan on the side of the Allied Powers, the Japanese leadership began to develop plans to “interest” the Soviet government by the concessions which Tokyo could make in exchange for Moscow’s neutrality and consent to mediate in armistice negotiations, including the abandoning of claims on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.
Some Japanese experts, for example, M. Sato, believe that even after the amendments are made, there are two ways to resolve this problem so that the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan does not contradict the Russian Constitution. “The first way: to confirm that the transfer of Japanese islands to the USSR was recorded in the Yalta agreement of February 1945 and that in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Kuril Islands, which Japan turned down, do not include Habomai and Shikotan. The transfer of Habomai and Shikotan is not an act of alienation of territories, but the result of demarcation of borders, so this will not run counter to the Constitution of Russia. The second way: since the Soviet-Japanese declaration is an international agreement signed long before the approval of the Russian Constitution, the provisions of the Fundamental Law of Russia should not apply to it.
In any case, the presidential amendment that delimitation, demarcation and re-marking of the state border do not fall under the alienation of territories is fairly substantial. There have been similar situations in the past, for example, how would the Russian leadership act when considering the demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border in 2005 or the Russian-Norwegian border in 2010?
However, in the case of Japan, the formality – when and if the presidential amendment is adopted – is less important than content. The Russian-Japanese dialogue on a Peace Treaty is still possible and may end to the benefit of both parties if they manage to accept the terms of the Tokyo Declaration taking into account the new realities. In my opinion, this is what the presidential amendment to the Russian Constitution is all about.
From our partner International Affairs
Coronavirus: A blessing in disguise
Last week, many universities and colleges in Europe and other countries canceled classes and moved to online instruction amid coronavirus fears as the authorities are trying to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, such measures can prove beneficial to the world’s leading universities that practice online training and have developed platforms for this, above all in Russia, where the oldest educational institutions have long been using digital technology in teaching.
St. Petersburg State University (SPbU), the alma mater of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is among the institutions, which are best prepared to go on-line, and a large number of dedicated courses developed by the university can already be found on federal educational platforms such as https://openedu.ru/. The issue of digital education featured prominently on the agenda of the 4thInternational Labor Forum held in St. Petersburg in February – the last major international event held by the university before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking at the forum, the university’s rector, Nikolay Kropachev, described SPbU as being at the forefront of the development of online courses and distance learning.
Nikolay Kropachev also said that the university had come a long way in promoting international cooperation, and was among the first to protect foreign students from being subjected to irrational and ill-advised measures related to the spread of coronavirus. In February, after many Russian politicians proposed isolating all students from Southeast Asia, Nikolay Kropachev appealed to common sense, questioning the need to place in quarantine for several months students who have not been in their home country since their last vacation.
Now that the entire university has gone on a kind of “antiviral” vacation, St. Petersburg State University is working out an algorithm of distance learning, including by foreign students, who come for a year or two studying in English and other languages. Thus, even if the coronavirus epidemic lingers on, students will not lose a semester or two and will be able to fully communicate with their tutors via a computer screen. Also, everyone is welcome to come aboard and join the training process. For more details, go to the University website.
Note: St. Petersburg State University is a complex of early 18th century buildings – the city’s oldest stone structures, which housed the ministries of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great. Nikolay Kropachev wants to move some of the classrooms out to create in their place several museums dedicated to Russian history and Russia’s greatest scientists. Just like other Russian universities, SPbU now has chance to check the effectiveness of its achievements in the field of distance learning. “A blessing in disguise” as the Russian proverb has it.
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