The Five Big Russia Questions For 2018
(Article ©2017 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Brian Whitmore – December 28, 2017 – also appeared at rferl.org/a/five-russia-questions-for-2018/28944045.html)
With 2017 almost behind us, and 2018 nearly upon us, here are five questions The Power Vertical will be keeping an eye on going forward.
1. How Will The Kremlin Handle Navalny’s ‘Campaign’?
As expected, Aleksei Navalny won’t be allowed on the ballot for next year’s presidential election.
And, as expected, Navalny plans to go on campaigning anyway — just as if he were on the ballot.
As soon as the Central Electoral Commission denied Navalny’s registration, the anticorruption campaigner called for a “voter’s strike” on January 28.
Navalny clearly isn’t going away anytime soon. And as a result, next year’s campaign will probably be like no other we have seen during Vladimir Putin’s long rule.
Because Russia’s tightly choreographed elections are not about the result, which is preordained. Instead, they’re all about the narrative and they’re all about the show.
They’re legitimization rituals in which Putin’s regime needs to tell the electorate a compelling story.
And with his charisma, his command of social media, and a loyal following ready to take to the streets, Navalny has an ability — unique in Russia’s opposition — to spoil, if not steal, the show.
And this presents something of a dilemma for the Kremlin.
“Navalny is posing a challenge and a double question to the Kremlin: ‘What will you do with me? And what will you do with this election?'” former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky wrote recently.
Sure, they can lock Navalny up again or place him under house arrest. But doing so would turn him into The Story. It would allow the anticorruption crusader to steal the spotlight at a time when the Kremlin wants Putin’s campaign to be at the center of everybody’s attention.
Alternatively, the Kremlin could simply try to ignore Navalny or hinder him with petty harassment.
But this would effectively give him free reign to campaign against — as well as ridicule and troll — yet another “fake election.”
“For three presidential elections in a row, in the elections of 2004, 2008, and 2012, they have worked to make the campaigns a politics-free zone in which the outcome was fully predetermined. Navalny is now working hard to spoil this script,” Pavlovsky wrote.
2. Will There Be A ‘Sobchak Effect’ In The Election?
Closely related to how the Kremlin will deal with Navalny is the question of how Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak will deal with each other.
Both Navalny and Sobchak emerged as political figures during the so-called Bolotnaya protests, the mass demonstrations that engulfed Moscow in the winter of 2011-12.
Both came to Russia’s opposition movement as outsiders. And both have built large and loyal followings on social media.
And the political relationship between the socialite and former reality television star and the tough-talking anticorruption blogger has now become ground zero of Russia’s opposition.
Despite her denials, Sobchak’s candidacy is widely viewed as a Kremlin-backed operation designed to generate excitement and boost turnout in an otherwise dull election, as well as a ploy to neutralize the Navalny factor.
Perhaps for this reason, Navalny was initially dismissive of Sobchak, calling her a “caricature of a liberal candidate.”
He has since softened his rhetoric.
In an October 26 video on his YouTube channel, Navalny said that Sobchak “is a Russian citizen who is older than 35 years old and who — thank God — is not incarcerated and she has the full right to be a candidate. She’s an adult, she can make her own choice.”
For her part, Sobchak has made every effort to reach out to Navalny and has offered to withdraw her candidacy if he were allowed on the ballot.
Whether or not her candidacy is a “Kremlin project,” Sobchak also appears to be playing her own game. And as a former reality television star, she knows a thing or two about putting on a show.
If they act in tandem, Navalny and Sobchak could create a powerful force that could — while not threatening Putin’s reelection, which is a foregone conclusion — severely damage the Kremlin’s narrative and undermine the regime’s legitimacy in the process.
If they operate at cross-purposes, they will play right into the Kremlin’s hands.
3. How Will The System Handle Putin Becoming A ‘Lame Duck’?
Despite the potential for Navalny and Sobchak to create a less-than-smooth election for the Kremlin, we can probably go out on a limb and safely predict that Putin will win a fourth term in March.
But then what? Well, then Putin effectively becomes a lame duck — sort of.
“There is a growing sense that this election is less about the future as it is about the end,” Valery Solovei, a professor of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, told the U.K. daily The Independent.
Likewise, Pavlovsky told The Independent that the regime was entering a “terminal” phase,” adding that “whichever way you play it, this campaign is about transitioning to a post-Putin Russia.”
Part of this is simple mathematics. Putin turned 65 in October. If he completes another six-year term as president, he’ll be 71.
He could then change or ignore the Russian Constitution and seek a third consecutive term in 2024 — a move that would effectively amount to declaring himself president for life.
Or he could try to repeat the so-called “castling” and anoint a placeholder president as he did with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008-12 — and triumphantly return to the Kremlin in 2030 at the age of 77?
Either is possible, but probably unlikely.
As Tatiana Stanovaya noted in a recent column for Republic.ru, “the Kremlin has repeatedly sent signals making it clear that Vladimir Putin intends to leave his post after 2024. The next term will be his last.”
And for a hint of what comes next, we only need to look to previous periods when transitions of power appeared to be looming.
As Putin’s second term drew to a close in 2007-08, rivalries in the security services descended into an open and violent conflict that became known as the “siloviki war.”
And the twilight of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in 1999 was marked by a vicious conflict between two factions of the elite, open rebellion in the regions, a war in the Caucasus, and a series of suspicious apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities.
4. Will There Be ‘Constitutional Reform’?
Of course, Putin can always leave without leaving.
The Russian media and social networks have been awash with leaks and rumors that some form of “constitutional reform” is being prepared, one that would make Putin Russia’s de facto ruler even after he stops being president.
The speculation has taken various forms, including transferring executive power to the prime minister’s office, establishing a State Council as the supreme authority on the Chinese model, and creating a “national leader” position akin to a “Russian ayatollah.”
We’ve been in this place before.
When Putin’s second term was winding down a decade ago, speculation was rampant that the Kremlin was cooking up a scheme to keep him in power indefinitely — eventually settling on using Medvedev as a placeholder president and the so-called “castling” four years later.
But the difference now is that Putin is 10 years older and there is an understanding that any constitutional fix to keep him in power beyond 2024 will only put off the inevitable.
He is, after all, mortal.
For the first time, the Russian elite is being forced to seriously consider life after Putin and how they will preserve their power and privilege after he is gone.
“The ruling class,” Dmitry Badovsky, an adviser to State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, told Gazeta.ru recently, “is entering a period when they are more interested in the question of how power and property will be handed over in the future, how a new generation will come to power, and how current membership of the elite will be transmitted to the future. And which rules of the game will be absolute, immutable, and which ones may change.”
And as a result, Pavlovsky notes, Putin the man and the so-called “collective Putin” comprising his closest cronies are becoming estranged.
“At the end of 2017, it is now possible to talk about a system that operates without Putin,” Pavlovsky writes. “He is not acting in sync with his inner circle.”
He adds that “the discussions” in the Kremlin court “are all about preserving the system, not about preserving Putin” and “unlike Putin, this is a system determined not to disappear, and it is run by champions in the art of survival.”
“The start of the 2018-24 presidential term,” he notes, “will be the occasion for deal-making at the highest level. The deal will be about more than the interests of a tired older gentleman, nor can it rely solely on the Kremlin circle of ‘regents,’ who have too great an interest in gaining control over Putin as he weakens.”
5. Will Sanctions And The Economy Force A Reset Of Foreign Policy?
February looms large for many in the Russian elite.
Because that is when a U.S. government report is due identifying Russia’s most significant political figures and oligarchs “as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth.”
The report is mandated by new sanctions legislation Congress passed in the summer.
“Judging by the decibel level in Moscow, and intense activity by Washington lobbyists on behalf of Russian clients, many in the Russian elite would hate to be fingered as being creatures of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Anders Aslund and Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council wrote recently.
“It’s clear why: Being named in this report could lead to future U.S. sanctions, and the threat of being cut off from the dollar and American banking system can be crippling; even without sanctions, being listed would make it harder to do business in the West.”
Moreover, according to media reports, foreign investors are leaving Russia in droves in anticipation of new sanctions.
Kommersant reports that Russia could lose up to $1 billion in foreign investment due to a year-end exodus.
Living standards are declining and labor unrest is rising.
Economists are also talking about a looming liquidity crisis.
Earlier this month, Russia’s Central Bank nationalized Promsvyazbank, the country’s ninth-largest lender, and bailed out its creditors.
It marked the third major bank failure in four months
These tremors point to one more key question as we look ahead to 2018: Will sanctions and a struggling economy finally force Putin’s regime to reset its foreign policy, seek an exit strategy from its war in the Donbas, and ease its confrontation with the West?
“The Kremlin,” writes Anton Barbashin, managing editor of Intersection magazine, “is trying to adequately calculate its resources it can bring to bear in a time of low global oil prices, sanctions, and strategic tensions.”
Many remain skeptical that any change is in the cards.
In a blog post on Kasparov.ru, Russian historian and political activist Aleksandr Skobov argues that just as during the Cold War, conflicts between the West’s liberal system and the illiberal Putinist system have an irreconcilably and irrevocably antagonistic character.
He concludes that this “‘Second Cold War’ will only grow and can end only with the complete destruction of one of the systems.”