Staunton, January 6 – Tatyana Khrulyeva of the Rosbalt news agency interviewed five leading expert commentators on where Russians and the Kremlin are at the start of 2019. Their common conclusion is that Russian society is once again in motion as it was in 2011 but the regime will find it harder to suppress dissatisfaction because of the rising level of popular anger.
First, Ella Paneyakh of St. Petersburg’s Higher School of Economics notes that declines in Putin’s standing with the population have been severe and that there is no chance they will return to their former levels regardless of what he does. Propaganda alone certainly will not do the job ( ).
Many now think, she says, that the Kremlin may try to recover by annexing Belarus; but this won’t have an effect anywhere close to that of the Crimean Anschluss. Most Russians do not see the situation in Belarus as dire and won’t accept the argument that Moscow is acting in order to protect Russians in trouble.
Second, Liliya Shevtsova, now with Chatham House but resident in Moscow, says that the last year has been one of “an historic pause,” one in which the international system has been called into question by many. “The irony in this is that Russia,” whose leaders want to see that system fail, have been “beneficiaries of that order.” Now they face a more hostile West.
Moreover, it is one in which they are increasingly outsiders, with the US preparing for a binary world, but with China not Russia as the other pole. Russia will seek to gain allies among underdeveloped countries who will use ties with Moscow to extract more resources from the West but won’t do much to support Russia.
Domestically, Russians increasingly view Putin’s new term as his last and think now about who will come after him. The boost he received from the annexation of Crimea has been “exhausted.” Moreover, many see that the Kremlin, accepting that sanctions are for a long time to come, has adopted a policy that won’t work.
On the one hand, Moscow now wants to rely on its own resources, but on the other, it isn’t investing in those sectors and individuals that would give it a chance at a breakthrough. Instead, it is pursuing a policy of “de-modernization” and resource extraction, neither of which will lead to its proclaimed goals.
Third, Igor Eidman, a sociologist who does commentaries for Deutsche Welle, says that the main trend in the last year has been “the transition to the final stage of Putinism.” His last term was defined by aggression toward Ukraine and confrontation with the West. “This was the peak of the regime as an expansionist force.”
His current term “will take place under conditions of stagnation and the gradual self-destruction of the country. Signs of this are already in evidence,” including the growing dissatisfaction of the population. As a result, “’the autumn of the patriarch,’ one comparable to the last years of Stalin and Brezhnev, has begun.”
Those around the throne give the impression of well-being, but they have “ceased to understand what is occurring int eh country. Moreover, he system is falling apart to an ever greater degree, and all attempts to modernize it are leading to nothing. The conservative and corrupt bureaucracy is leading the country into a dead end, if not into an abyss.”
Fourth, Ivan Kurilla, a professor at St. Petersburg’s European University, says that Russians now have lost hope in improvement in relations with the US in the near term, and because “dialogue with Washington always has influenced Kremlin policies within the country,” they have lost hope in that as well.
In large measure, he says, Russia is “to a certain degree returning to the situation of 2011.” People are angry and in motion, and their protests will be ever more difficult to keep separate and local. Instead, just as seven years ago, anger about various things is increasingly likely to come together.
What this will lead to is very much unclear, Kurilla says. Recently people have begun to talk in apocalyptic terms, such as the annexation of Belarus, but these notions reflect “not any signs from the kremlin but memories of how the powers that be have acted in the past,” when circumstances were different.
He says that in his view, “the leadership of the country does not have so many options in reserve. You will not reunite Crimea twice and it is not guaranteed that similar actions now will have the same effect they had in 2014.”
And fifth, Vadim Zhartun of the Nova Team consulting company says that in his view the signal event of the last year was the government’s unsuccessful effort to block Telegram. Telegram resisted and won, creating “a small island of freedom in the Runet” and showing that resistance can work even in a sector the regime cares a lot about.
To be sure, the powers that be have been able to achieve “all that they want,” but increasingly these victories look “Pyrrhic.” And it may be the case, Zhartun says, that they are bringing the Putin regime ever closer to its end and the birth of a free Russia ever closer to taking place.