Staunton, August 31 – The sudden incapacitation or death of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov has sparked three kinds of speculation, one about who will succeed him, a second about what any transition will mean for Uzbekistan and Central Asia, and a third about what similar successions in other post-Soviet dictatorships will bring.
The third kind of speculation, one not focused on the murky world of Tashkent politics, is likely to prove the most interesting and instructive, as evidenced by a commentary offered by Ilya Milshtein about what Russia and the world might expect when Vladimir Putin passes from the scene (graniru.org/opinion/milshtein/m.254172.html).
“Russia without Putin is an unthinkable country, a house without a master, a city condemned,” the Moscow commentator says because in the minds of a majority of Russians, “without Putin there is no Russia;” and so it is “strange even to imagine” what the country once was and will be at some point again “without Putin”
Karimov’s sudden demise, Milshtein suggests, has prompted many Russians to think the unthinkable and led some like blogger Mitya Aleshkovsky to suggest that contemplation of such a future is “terrifying” (twitter.com/aleshru/status/770350376151289857). Not surprisingly, this has highlighted the existence of two Russias, a minority that looks forward to that day and a majority that fears it, and forced each to consider the existence of the other.
Indeed, Milshtein says, the discussion about a Russia without Putin has meant that “almost everyone immediately and forever has forgotten about the Uzbeks and Karimov,” often forgetting that what happens will depend not only on how Putin departs the scene but also on the nature of the population that will be left behind.
Will Putin leave “in the Karimov way or like Stalin, according to Avtorkhanov, or as a result of a softer palace coup, or simply be pensioned off, freeing up the throne for some final successor and begin to act in the manner of Deng Xiaoping?” These are very different scenarios and they will have very different outcomes.
One reason Russians are focusing on the Karimov precedent is that they cannot imagine any other outcome. At some point, Putin will die; and only then will there be “a Russian Federation without VVP.” But the existence of the other variants needs to be considered by those expressing either hopes or fears.
How the elite left behind reacts will matter a lot, Milshtein says. After Stalin, those left behind wanted to guarantee that they wouldn’t ever again have to live under a Stalin. After Brezhnev, the elites having aged alongside him simply waited to die – or in a few cases, they thought about the radical transformation of the country.
“After Putin will remain a mixed group of elites who in an extremely conditional manner can be divided between the party of money and the party of blood,” although that schema “does not explain anything by itself” because no one knows at a time of universal lies and distrust who is a “secret” liberal and who is not.
Only one thing seems clear: “all of them will want to live as they did under Vladimir Vladimirovich, but they are hardly likely going to be able to agree on how to do that.” The liberals don’t have the forces on their side and may attract siloviki by corrupt means, while the siloviki may use their own resources to win out.
“This conflict threatens Russia with the kind of shocks that even Stolypin did not guess about,” the commentator says.
And that means that the question of the foreign policy course of a post-Putin Russia remains completely beyond anyone’s ability now to predict. It simply isn’t the case that the liberals will always be for peace and the siloviki for war. Some liberals will undoubtedly want a liberal empire, and some siloviki won’t want to risk destruction in a nuclear war.
But it is not only the elites that matter in this case, Milshtein suggests, given that “after Putin the vaunted ‘Putin majority’ will remain.” And they may prove to be the basis for the kind of fascist state that Aleshkovsky says could happen. This majority created by Putin may end up determining Russia’s fate even more than he has.
“In the final analysis,” the commentator continues, “a besieged fortress is not a metaphor but a condition of the soul, one that exists independently of what an individual thinks about the Kremlin, Crimea, Ukraine, Europe and America.” And that provides the basis for thinking a post-Putin Russia may be truly horrific.
But however that may be, a post-Putin Russia will eventually happen just as a post-Karimov Uzbekistan now appears to be beginning. It is useful to think about it, Milshtein says, as long as one is not distracted from the far more important if depressing tasks of thinking about “what to do today and tomorrow.”