Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Despite Initial Euphoria, Many Russians Less Certain Putin’s Crimea Ploy Benefits Them

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 18 – Despite the initial euphoria promoted by the Kremlin’s propaganda effort, ever more Russians appear to be concerned that what Vladimir Putin has done in Crimea, however good it made them feel in the short term, may have bad consequences for themselves, their country, and even for those who have backed this annexation.

            On RBCDaily.ru, Vladislav Inozemtsev, the director of the Center for Research on Post-Industral Society, says that Russia “will pay dearly” for its Crimean action. Not only will it have to spend 4-5 billion US dollars a year on the peninsula, but it will face expanded capital flight, declining reserves, and increased inflation (rbcdaily.ru/economy/562949990858632).

            Because of these threats and to protect its own power, he continues, “the Kremlin, not waiting for US and EU sanctions has begun on its own to erect around itself ‘an iron curtain,’” a move that Inozemtsev says will only “accelerate the fall of the Putin model of administration” by adding to the woes of the Russian people.

            Domestic investment will decline at an accelerating rate as a result of Putin’s “protectionist” policies, and consequently, there is no reason to hope for the revival of domestic industrial production.  And the more steps the Kremlin takes which isolate it from the world, the faster the decline will be.

            “The rest of the world is dangerous [for Russians] by its successes rather than by its threats. If anyone has forgotten, the Soviet Union collapsed when no one was threatening it but when the lack of any prospects for its authoritarian model became obvious” to everyone, Inozemtsev says.

            According to the researcher, for the Kremlin, “Crimea is more important than economic success, but that isn’t necessarily true for the Russian population or a guarantee for the regime’s stability and survival.  “In the Kremlin, they are convinced that it is,[but] the leaders of the USSR in the middle of March 1991were certain of the same thing.”

            A second commentary, by Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior analyst at the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, makes some similar points, noting that there are “new questions” now that the Crimean referendum has taken place and Moscow has gotten the result that it wanted (politcom.ru/print.php?id=17326).

            She says that there are four key groups of questions that Russia must now face up to.  First, there are questions of law, including the legitimacy of the referendum and its precedential value in places Moscow would prefer it not be applied. Second, there are serious issues to be decided on how Crimea is to be absorbed into the Russian Federation.

            Third, she writes, there are the foreign policy problems that Moscow’s actions have already caused, problems that are likely to get worse at least in the immediate future.  And fourth, there is “the economic dimension,” which involves both the burden Crimea will be on the Russian economy and the impact of any Western sanctions.

            Many Russians who are enthusiastic now about absorbing Crimea and who are expressing their support for Vladimir Putin may be less pleased as these costs and burdens become more evident and as more people ask whether they should have to pay for all this, especially at a time of economic difficulties in Russia.

            A third commentary suggests that one of the groups that has been most supportive of Putin’s policies in Crimea may soon be numbered among the disaffected because, in the words of Marat Gelman on Ekho Moskvy, the absorption of Crimea ultimately is “bad news” for them (echo.msk.ru/blog/marat_gelman/1281522-echo/).

            There are three reasons for that. First, there is the “fundamental” one that as a result of Crimea, there have arisen a group of people who are “Russian by origin” who now look with “distrust” or even “hatred” toward Russia. Among these are the ethnic Russian citizens of Eastern Ukraine.

            Second, the Russian regime having obsessed about Ukrainian nationalism almost certainly “will be forced” to rein in Russian nationalism, all the more so because “the imperial philosophy” of the Kremlin “appeals to ‘Russian lands’ and not to ‘Russian people,’” a difference that matters to nationalists.

            And third, Gelman continues, Russian nationalism has maintained as a central tenet the idea of “’three Russian peoples’” – the Russians, the Belarusians, and the Ukrainians. After what Putin has done in Crimea, there is little chance for that idea to gain any traction among any of the three.

            A fourth commentary, this one by Aleksandra Samarina in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” argues that Putin’s approach to Crimea presages and indeed has already been accompanied by an increasingly harsh and repressive policy toward the population of the Russian Federation itself (ng.ru/politics/2014-03-18/1_coldwar.html?print=Y).

            While many Russians for a time may overlook this in their happiness about the latest victorious little war, the paper’s political analyst says, they are likely to become less happy as they realize that they have entered the era of a new “cold war,” but this time one within their own country rather than between it and the rest of the world.

            According to Samarina, “recent events have seriously changed the discourse of the Kremlin’s domestic policy. The authorities have become a hostage to their own decisiveness: there is nowhere to retreat. But the continuation of this banquet requires constant control over the attitudes of the population and the elites ... [and] discussion becomes impossible.”

            Finally, a fifth commentary is provided by the editors of “Nezavisimaya gazeta.”  In a lead article today, they argue that by his actions, Putin has made himself dependent on “political radicals” and that their demands are likely to push him to even more extreme actions or lead to his replacement by one of their number (ng.ru/editorial/2014-03-18/2_red.html?print=Y).

                Up to now, the editors say, “the Russian authorities as a rule have exploited two basic themes which have allowed them to boost their ratings: social guarantees and patriotism.” Just now, in the Crimean case, they are relying on “the second lever,” with propaganda that is increasingly simplistic and is eliminating many taboos.

            Such an approach may work for a time, but it contains within it real dangers for the authorities, the paper says. When Putin relied primarily on the other lever, on promoting social guarantees, he “became the hostage of leftist attitudes and demands,” a situation that led him to devote more resources to this sector.

                But the Kremlin put himself at risk in two ways, the paper says. On the one hand, he ran out of resources to carry out this policy.  And on the other, he faced ever more people who were pushing him to take even more radical steps in that direction.

            “Now, lifted by the patriotic wave in the media, Putin is becoming a hostage of the other electoral stratum, the one consisting of revanchists who dream about the rebirth of the USSR at any price.” Earlier, Putin could move between one and the other to preserve his position, but now, the advocates of this radical position “can dictate to him.”

            According to “Nezavisimaya,” “the logic of the revanchists is similar to the logic of the left electorate: the growth of appetite, dissatisfaction with the slowness of the authorities, and a willingness to give preference to more radical politicians. This dependence,” they say, “gives the policy of the authorities a dangerous rhythm which Putin may not be able to withstand.”

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