Putin 4.0: Five Issues Facing Russia’s President In The Next Six Years
(Article ©2018 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Robert Coalson – May 11, 2018 – also appeared at rferl.org/a/putin-4-0-five-issues-facing-putin-in-the-next-six-years/29221585.html)
Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL
With President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a fourth presidential term in the books, Russians are looking ahead to the next six years.
But many of the judo-loving, ex-KGB officer’s past political tactics may not work as successfully anymore as the question “What comes next?” becomes increasingly pressing.
“I think this will be a very difficult period for him,” Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin predicted. “Perhaps it will be the most difficult period of his entire life.”
RFE/RL surveyed several Russian analysts who identified five key issues that the 65-year-old Putin will confront over the next six years.
Dizzy With Success
Putin’s election campaign and general image-building effort have emphasized the achievements of his 18 years in power (as either president or prime minister). Putin, the Kremlin likes to repeat, has lifted Russia off its knees.
“People think that since we have gotten up off our knees and reunited with Crimea, that means we have become richer,” Oreshkin said in a reference to Russia’s annexation of that Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, “but just the opposite is true.”
“He has cultivated the image of one who has gathered in and raised up the Russian lands. Unfortunately for him, to a certain extent, this image is more virtual and propagandistic than real,” Oreshkin said before going on to suggest that Putin’s policies have instead risked alienating Russia’s neighbors.
“He didn’t really strongly gather in anything. On the contrary, he lost Ukraine. Now he seems to be gradually losing [the breakaway Moldovan region of] Transdniester, which is drifting out of Russia’s sphere of influence. And Armenia is beginning to move away…. But the television view is that Putin is a victor, that he restored Crimea. But is it such an achievement to lose Ukraine with its 40 million people to gain the 2 million in Crimea?”
Similarly, Oreshkin added, Putin’s intervention in Syria could end up being a Pyrrhic victory.
“Putin achieved a lot, from his point of view,” the analyst said. “He wanted the West to speak with him, and the West began speaking with him — however, not exactly in the language that he expected but in the language of missile strikes against Syria, the language of harsh sanctions, the language of a rather harsh information war. This isn’t exactly the sort of thing that it is worth sacrificing money, people, and equipment for. And getting out of [Syria] isn’t going to be easy.”
Oreshkin suggested that Western leaders are less likely to be caught off-guard by Putin’s tactics.
“Now the West is used to him,” Oreshkin said. “He won in the past because it never occurred to people that he would go and bite off Crimea. That violated the rules of the game and laws that Russia had signed onto…. But since Putin is above the law he went ahead and did it, and many Russians loved it. But now everyone knows what to expect from him. Everyone is anticipating him. I don’t think there are any more wins for him on the international stage, and, therefore, I don’t expect growth in his popularity.”
With the public’s heightened expectations comes a desire for change that appears to run directly counter to the essentially conservative nature of Putinism.
“Having secured such powerful support in the [March presidential] election, Putin most likely does not feel the need to change his direction,” said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov. “The essence of the regime — the complete atrophy of institutions and their replacement by the political will of one person — is not going to change…. Putin will rule with the support of the conservative majority, suppressing the liberal minority.”
Analyst Aleksandr Morozov agreed, adding that the immediate reappointment of Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister demonstrates “the extreme conservatism of the current system of government, which undoubtedly satisfies Putin and the Kremlin.”
Oreshkin argued that even if Medvedev were replaced by former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, as was rumored before the election, “his task would not be to secure the greatest possible economic growth that is possible under the current model of political power, but rather to minimize the losses entailed by maintaining this ineffective power-vertical structure.”
Politics vs. Economics
Russia increasingly is facing economic challenges, while the Putinist system demands that its needs always take precedence, the analysts said.
“The only stimulus for change is the deteriorating economic situation,” said Gallyamov. “Therefore there will be reforms, but they will be purely tactical.”
“As a result, the economic situation will get worse, social pessimism will grow, and in order to achieve its political ends, the system will ratchet up a new round of hatred toward ‘national traitors,’ gays, the Americans, Ukrainians, and so on,” he concluded.
Oreshkin agreed that Putin’s options for improving the economy are limited. “International business doesn’t trust him,” he told RFE/RL. “There is no investment. There is no confidence. But there are sanctions. Nonetheless, at some point the problem of raising living standards will have to be faced.”
In the meantime, Oreshkin said Putin could look for easier domestic achievements.
“He will need domestic victories — uncovering traitors, tightening the screws, exposing sabotage or some other terrible things — as was done in Stalin’s time, although, of course, in a much gentler, hybrid form,” he said.
No Future In Sight
Putin must also contend with the fact that many Russians do not see any future for Russia beyond Vladimir Putin, who will be 72 when his current term expires in 2024.
“We don’t think that there is life after Putin,” analyst Andrei Okara said, characterizing a seemingly common sentiment. “Without Putin, there is no life. People who remember 1953 [when Josef Stalin died] say that there was such a mourning over the entire Soviet Union that it was as if life had simply stopped…. Now the situation is very similar. People do not think that anyone can come after Putin.”He compared the so-called Putin generation with his own Soviet experience.
“A whole generation has come onto the stage that was born when Putin was already president and does not remember a time without Putin,” Okara added. “When I was young, I also thought that [Communist Party leader Leonid] Brezhnev would live forever. It seems to us as if we get older and will someday return to dust, but Putin will go on.”
At the same time, however, Russia’s ruling elites already appear to be gearing up to battle for post-2024 influence.
“The struggle among the elites for 2024 will intensify,” said former liberal State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov. “That is, there will be a struggle for the candidacy to be the heir or there will be an attempt to change the constitution to make a way for Putin to stay in power after 2024.”
“In general, I see two trends,” he said. “One trend is the attempt to build Turkmenistan in Russia, and the other is an effort to somehow normalize relations with the West and to create a sensible economic policy. These two trends are going to pull Russia in opposing directions.
Young Person’s Dilemma
Economist Yevgeny Gontmakher noted that Russia’s demography is shifting and that Putin must increasingly rely on the backing of younger people who are interested in career opportunities and material success.
“I don’t think the image of a tsar is attractive to those people, who are demanding a more contemporary person,” he said.
Putin’s televised inauguration included an episode in which he shook hands and took selfies with smiling young people who worked on his election campaign. One after another, they thanked Putin for giving them the opportunity to “realize themselves.”
Russia’s young people are divided, Gontmakher said, between those represented by the ones taking selfies with Putin and those represented by the anti-Putin protesters who risked arrest and beatings by state-backed vigilantes to take to the streets on May 5.
Indeed, many young Russians have found a place for themselves within the Putinist system, said analyst Morozov.
“The youths who stood with Putin at his inauguration understand that the government is taking on people aged 30-35,” he said. “There are quite a few young people in the administrations of regional governments. The so-called social elevator is working to some extent, and you can’t say that Putin and his team are the same sort of gerontocracy that we had under Brezhnev.”
“But it is another matter that young people might not see that becoming part of that system means giving up a lot of liberties and dignity,” Morozov said. “This is simply a fact. And everyone has to understand for themselves exactly what compromises they are making. It is a very complicated life choice.”