04 January 2021

Forecasting the unpredictable: Russia in 2021

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

It is equally difficult to guess the true opinions of the Russians about Moscow’s leaders and the political system in the country and identify the consequences of the constitutional changes initiated in 2020. Often, we follow the feint: the extension of Putin’s mandate, the consolidation of autocracy, the maintenance of the anti-Western agenda. And that would not be wrong at all. That’s the reality. But that’s not all the truth. Russia is not as easy to interpret as CNN and EuroNews journalists think, nor as complex as its own elites would want it to be perceived, yet it is a country whose geography and history are asking for constraint when some want to talk about what is happening or could happen between Dnieper and Vladivostok. And if it happens for a contradictory year to end just then, like it happened with 2020, then 2021 definitely has all chances to be an unpredictable year.

Image source: Profimedia

So where does Russia stand now, a few days after 2020’s end?

The situation in Russia at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 is not as optimistic as presented by the Russian TV channels, which is Kremlin’s main propagandistic tool, yet not that serious as many Western analysts are describing it, some of them even providing media institutions and think-tanks with only convenient truths.

Yes, in 2020, Russia voted for the change of the way the president can be elected (which allows the current leader, Vladimir Putin, to keep the power until 2036), has consolidated the anti-demonstrations laws and adopted a law, controversial in the country as much as it was outside of it, on the immunity of former presidents. It seems that this situation could respond to any scenario that might occur or that could be considered by president Putin before the long-disputed 2024.

This period seems to be one of alienation for the leading elite of Russia. It is something proved mostly after 2018 – once the “Crimea moment” was estranged, as well as the gradual decrease of patriotic and nationalist inertia in the 2014-2015 period, increased by the failure of pensions’ reform and incomes’ decrease in general. The Russians, alike other parts of the world, are indeed disappointed on their leaders when they cannot provide them money anymore.

Nowadays’ Russians want to live like the Europeans, even like the Chinese people. Especially those in the big cities or in the European side of Russia.

Given these circumstances, the regime, aware that the society is starting to change, sometimes not how the Centre wants, it trying to adapt, yet not change too much, because it loses the privileged club logic that leads Russia.

With one eye on Habarovsk, where the most important public demonstrations in the last years took pace, and the other on Minsk, where another president – a less educated copy of the autocrats from the former Soviet space – is trying to get over these popular protests, the Kremlin regime it learning and adapting. That means that 2021 will be marked by this political engineering process to keep the power and the distance between leaders and the people. Because otherwise, like I was saying, the “good” autocratic traditions of the Russian society’s functioning might get lost.

The country is divided, although it does not admit it, maybe it reached a climax in this post-2000 period. Russia is a country wherein the “bugetniki” represent a social class itself. They are the maneuver people of the regime. Depending on state’s capacity to reward them, their loyalty is bigger or smaller.

This period is not very good for them. The economic boom of the 2000-2010 has lost passed, the pandemic also consumed some of the resources, the foreign economic sanctions are also affecting the economy, although they do not admit it.

The public trust is a great unknown. Periodically, the surveys are showing a certain trust of the population in the authorities, in president Putin, which could make the Western capitals jealous, but the situation is not that simple. According to some studies made including by Russian institutions, like Levada Centre, out of those who are approving the official policy, 50% are doing it out of ignorance. Percentages are not the only ones important, but also the tendencies. The vote on the approval of the modifications of the constitution also showed that a third of the electors were against, through absence (given that the referendum lasted a week!). Of course, that is not that much. But in an autocratic regime, the negative percentages are important.

The Kremlin regime is, lately, like a bunker, as it does not have technical means and does not share the subtle approach of their Chinese friends with keeping their opponents’ mouths shut.  When problems appear on the Internet, Moscow’s solution seems to be blocking it. When demonstrations take place, the mass arrests seem to be the perfect solution. When a loquacious opponent takes a stand, he is offered a glass of... water. What did you think of? In China, on the other hand, the Internet continues to work during difficult times as well, yet controlled. The leaders of the opposition are selectively arrested, sometimes they disappear then, all of a sudden, they appear again, with different speeches.

However, they are trying to adapt, and the constitutional changes are a proof to that end. The regime makes the difference between the civic protests (allowed, sometimes even encouraged) and the political ones (prohibited, repressed). The latter also represent a maneuver if kept locally, regionally, they do follow central authorities.

The problem is that in a society that does not publicly express itself but rarely, such social explosions can shake the entire construction. Therefore, the Kremlin is very careful with controlling any hotspot, to repair any breakdown in the system. What happened in Habarovsk is just an example. And it shows that the challenge against it can also come from the parties which cannot necessarily be from the opposition, but nationalist and communist ones.

That is why the adaptation should not be confused with a reform of the regime, being only a tightening of the ranks to face any scenario. A new characterization formula, used lately, is that of a "shell" type regime, which closes and strengthens.

Another problem is that of predictability, as no one knows what's next. When the debate on constitutional amendments began, the public expectation was that they would reflect a background, at least in appearance, of President Putin after 2024.

This did not happen. The amendments allow the continuation of his presidential term. But without a public statement, it is unknown at this time if he will take advantage of this situation. But if not, why did he change the constitution?

The lack of predictability affects the "group of loyalists", the political, diplomatic and service elite, as well as those around 20% of Russians who are part of the regime's believers.

The lack of predictability also affects the economic environment, left to develop relatively autonomously, to develop certain liberal approaches in its operation and in trade relations with the state or with external partners.

The lack of predictability creates problems in positioning the main power groups that surround the Presidential Administration: loyalists (as I said), siloviki (force structures), nationalists (promoters of "normal" Russia: autocrats and extended to historical borders), liberals (economy Russian rite market).

Another phenomenon is the erosion of the decision-making system, which can also be interpreted as an erosion of the political system. During the pandemic, managerial decisions were transferred to the level of regional authorities, which took measures sometimes against each other or those of neighboring regions and republics.

The "success" claimed by the authorities in the development of an anti-Covid vaccine was not replicated by the economic capacity to produce it in the necessary quantities.

There were islands of economic performance in a sea of ​​stagnation.

Even on a foreign plan, the president focused on a presence, including physical, only in favorite areas of interest - hence the ironic finding of the evolution of political science of analysis of the Russian leadership, from "Kremlin-ology" to "Soci-ology”- such as the southern one, the Black Sea and the Caucasus.

Thus, let’s hit the 2021 road …

… with some uncertainties:

- the continuity issue was not solved in 2020, and 2021 will probably be just a year of transition. Russia is still dependent on Putin’s decisions, which makes the entire Russian political system tense, with little energy to solve other problems;

- the health crisis has been managed badly and incoherently, the education system as well, which affects and will affect the popularity of the regime among a large part of the population, part of the "dumb crowd";

- the economy is not as bad as it is sometimes said, the decline in GDP by only 5% is in the forecast area for most western states. In other areas as well, the situation is not very serious, theoretically. During the pandemic, it was discovered that the Russian medical system is quite efficient, with hospital beds being at the same rate as the number of inhabitants, as in Germany, for example. The decision-making inconsistency and inequalities between Moscow and the regions, between European Russia and the rest of the country, have kept the situation good on paper only. This, of course, will not change overnight;

- the relationship with Washington after the arrival of the new American presidential administration and the one with the European Union, which is at a historical level of distrust, will not change, maybe neither the one with China. Although, in this case, there may be some developments. A worsening of relations with the West and a more intense pressure from the USA towards the ideological component of the Kremlin regime, respect for human rights, corroborated with the maintenance/strengthening of economic sanctions, etc. it could bring Moscow even closer to Beijing, including militarily. A real Sino-Russian military alliance, not the Shanghai Cooperation Organization-type intergovernmental alliance, has already been discussed. Grivei still has to accept it as well.

But there is also fuel for possible developments:

-there will be elections for the State Duma, probably in September (it should be held before September 19, if the electoral calendar is respected). They are important not because there is a real electoral struggle, but because they clearly show how the Kremlin approaches the issue of political legitimacy. How "United Russia" will run in the elections, with what leader (I know, now it's Dmitry Medvedev), what list of candidates - all these are benchmarks for the future profile of the regime. The other two main parties, the Communists and the Liberal Democrats, have septuagenarian leadership, Ziuganov (77) and Zhirinovsky (75). There will probably be a change of leaders. Before or after the election? What will the results look like?

- the Russian civil society has, at times, demonstrated the ability to gather for political goals and topics, but which can quickly become "hot potatoes" for the regime. Who would have thought of Khabarovsk? In June 2020, the inhabitants of the large eastern city voted 62.3% for the constitutional amendments proposed by President Putin. Demonstrations against his decision to change the local governor began a few weeks later. And anti-Putin slogans were also present. And also the support of the demonstrators in Minsk was there. Much of Russian society is no longer informed by official television channels. The informational alternative can have surprising effects;

-In 2021, Russia's political elite will watch President Lukashenko's actions, while civil society will monitor opposition activities, in both cases, to take notes. Developments in Belarus can, paradoxically, be a source of inspiration for both sides;

- the Russian population is mostly paternalistic and conservative, in other words, always waiting for a leader to take care of it. Public trust is high in the institutions of power: the army, the president, the secret services, and lower in the democratic ones: the parliament, the parties, the media. But this is not just happening in Russia.

This happens also in other former communist states, including in the ones that moved their alliances and loyalties on the other side of the Curtain.

An explanation to that end is that there is a strong budgetary sector which depends on what the state is offering. The 2020 crises, the health and the economic ones, turned this population end becomes even more dependent on the authorities.

Another explanation could be that the democracy elements entered in the Russian society as well and we might witness some democratic developments.

We will see if they will be developed with or without the will of the Lord of the Rings from the Spasski Tower. But 2021 does not seem to stay under a good sign to do that.

And if not, here comes the unpredictable.