Staunton, July 28 – Continuing low growth or even complete stagnation in Russia will lead to dissatisfaction and growing apathy just as they did in Soviet times under Leonid Brezhnev, Dmitry Travin says. But in the absence of foreign or domestic shocks, these feelings are unlikely to prevent Vladimir Putin from remaining power for decades.
In an interview with Galina Ostaapovets of Kyiv’s Delovaya stolitsa, the St. Petersburg University economist says that this prediction is based on the fact that “in Russia politics is not directly connected with economics” (dsnews.ua/economics/-pochemu-putinskiy-rezhim-prosushchestvuet-do-2042-go-goda--26072017220000).
Even though without reform, poverty and income inequality will continue to increase and the regions will have ever less month, he argues, but “the system could exist for a very long time, and in 2042, Putin would be 90” and could easily still be alive and in power in much the same way that Brezhnev remained in power “from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.”
Russians should remember, Travin continues, that Brezhnev’s Soviet Unioin “was a country in which it was possible to live but it did not develop. And all the problems which existed at the start of the Brezhnev period were handed over to Gorbachev at its end. Nothing was decided, not a single problem.”
And today, he argues, “we have approximately the same situation, with only one difference: there is not the same deficit of goods, one can buy everything, and there is a market economy.” But without development, the situation could end just as it did for Brezhnev’s system, first with feverish efforts to reform and then with collapse and disintegration.
“The Union collapsed when people in various regions felt that it was time to take power into their own hands because Moscow was blocking development.” And there were enormous hopes that all regions and republics could replicate the success which the three Baltic countries seemed to promise.
Now, “if the country will stagnate for many years, then the Russian leadership will find it difficult to struggle with the desire of particular elites and political forces to resolve [these problems] on their own.” The country could come apart not into the existing oblasts but in ways that today are not predictable.
Obviously, a new wave of disintegration would be tragic for many, especially if Moscow does not take care to plan for it because in that event “the collapse will occur with revolution and blood.” No imperial demise is easy and most are not pretty for most of those involved, the economist says.
Putin, Travin points out, is “an experienced manipulator.” He has suppressed the opposition and even though he has driven the economy into stagnation, his regime could last for a very long time. But there are factors, both domestic and foreign, that could change that in rapid and unpredictable ways.
Even now, the economist continues, “there is a strong opposition movement in Russia,” and in five years, Aleksey Navalny could present a real challenge to Putin. “If oil prices fall significantly, then the economy could shift from stagnation to recession and then suffering in particular regions would be so strong that mass resistance would emerge.”
Again, the Brezhnev era is instructive, he argues. At home, “people then lived badly but over the course of 20 years there were no sharp declines. That is the way it is now: if things will be bad but without sharp worsening, then the regime can exist for a long time. But if suddenly that changes, then there could be problems.”
Young people aren’t going to continue to support a regime that promises them now future, Travin says; but he adds that “from this it doesn’t follow that young people will be able to overthrow the regime.” Russia lacks the conditions for a Maidan. People may protest but this will either end in nothing or with mass arrests.
The situation abroad will also play a critical role. Now, Putin uses the problems in Ukraine as the basis for generating support at home for himself. But if Ukraine proves successful, then “Putin will not have any arguments” in that regard. However, “if there will be a permanent crisis in Ukraine, that will be the best possible support for Putin.”
The same thing is true of the impact of the West. If Western countries can solve their problems and develop rapidly and in a stable fashion, “the Putin system may exist for a long time, but it will be impossible to reproduce itself permanently … But if the world around will be in crisis, then leaders like Putin will be produced continually – Putin I, Putin II” and so on.
Nonetheless, Travin says, “even if the Putin regime exists until 2042, this will be the last authoritarian personalist regime in Russia. It will be very difficult to come up with some new Putin.” But if Ukraine and the West are in crisis then too, “a new Putin could easily emerge” and the system continue.
After Putin, Russia is likely to begin democratization, “but it is not obligatory that it will be successful. It could follow the scenario” of the successful Central and East European countries “or it could follow the scenario of Ukraine, where the crisis unfortunately has lasted longer than it did in Poland, Czechoslovakia or Estonia.”
“I fear,” Travin concludes, “that Russia will be closer to the Ukrainian scenario,” although he expresses the hope that Ukraine “will develop well and will catch up with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Then Russia too will choose the European example in all senses of the word.”