Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Putin’s Authoritarianism Less ‘Unshakeable’ than It Appears, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 13 – No one doubts that Vladimir Putin will be re-elected with a massive majority or that he enjoys widespread support, Yevgeny Gontmakher says. Nor do many think that his authoritarianism will do anything but continue and even strengthen.  But that is “an illusion” because “Russia is pregnant with radical changes.”

            What is unclear, the Moscow commentator says in a comment on the Ekho Moskvy portal, is which changes will emerge – “reforms which will return  the country to a European path or a catastrophe threatening not only Russia itself but the entire international community” (

                In Gontmakher’s telling, “Russia society is based on the imitation of the principles of democracy, a market economy and human rights,” something that worked as long as oil revenues were high.  But “in reality, all of these things function around one real functioning institution – the irreplaceable power and its chief person, Vladimir Putin.”

                “In order to conceal this fact, the most powerful propaganda machine works, which controls all the main means of mass information and marginalizes any real political opposition,” the commentator says.  But at the same time, the economic model based on high oil prices is increasingly fragile and the country’s prospects uncertain.

            And that means that “the still high rating of trust in Vladimir Putin is now combined with the concerns of citizens regarding their own social future and a consensus of experts that Russia needs reforms.”

            Three major approaches to resolving Russia’s problems are on the table, Gontmakher continues. According to the first, nothing needs to be changed in the political system and that economic growth can take off by providing cheap loans to businesses and only “cosmetic” adjustments.

            According to the second, which is often associated with former finance minister Aleksey Kudrin, the first will only lead to an outburst of inflation and a worsening of the investment climate.  What is needed, Kudrin and those who think like him is an opening of the economy and society to “a Big Europe.”

            Such a change would be impossible with real democracy and thus “the replacement of the political regime in Russia,” Gontmakher says.  And in addition, it would require a shift in Russian foreign policy from its current aggressiveness to a search for partnership with the West, “based on common fundamental principles.”

            And according to the third approach, Russia can succeed by pursuing “a special, non-European type of civilization constructed on the basis of so-called traditional values,” the chief feature of which is the centrality of the state as a sacred thing that must not be criticized by anyone.
            That is what Putin has partially put in place already, but such an approach will lead to an economic crisis and even worse relations with the West.

            In principle, Putin could choose any one of these three ideas, although there is little indication that he wants to select the second of them. Instead, Gontmakher suggests, the Kremlin leader will try to combine cosmetic changes with the notion of a special path.  But despite that, the pressures to move toward a Big Europe approach are growing.

            “The problem of Russia,” he continues, “is not only that it simply doesn’t have enough money for both an arms race and for social programs.” Instead, it is this: “innovative development including in the military sphere in the 21st century is secured only by free individuals living in a democratic society.”
            “The conception of ‘a state civilization’ which Vladimir Putin likes is not compatible with this at all.”  That means the next six years are going to be difficult for him and for Russia because his “desire to change something without changing anything significant sooner or later will push the situation in the country toward an open crisis.”

            The only question, Gontmakher says, is what price society will have to pay for this.

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