Russia’s departure from quasi-democracy is beyond doubt, but it drifts rather than marches toward a debilitated and corrupt authoritarianism as Vladimir Putin’s third presidency settles into a tedious pattern. The discourse of “modernization” has been discarded and most of Dmitry Medvedev’s “innovations” have been cancelled, but Putin’s meeting with the activists of Popular Front, which was supposed to keep his support base mobilized, was distinguished only by a complete absence of a meaningful agenda (Kommersant, October 19). Alienated liberals keep arguing that Putin has made a conscious decision to progress to a mature autocracy and destroy the fledgling opposition (Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, October 19). In fact, however, he tries to muddle through the unexpected turmoil, seeking to bore rather than to scare the “thinking classes” and to deliver the society into a habitual torpor. Regional and local elections a week ago marked a small triumph of this non-strategy as the official candidates gained the planned victories, while the turnout in most places was below 25 percent (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Grani.ru, October 19).
Those in the opposition camp who had hoped that elections would help their newly-registered parties to gain some recognition are bitterly disappointed (Gazeta.ru, October 15). Many others refuse to play by the rules set by the Kremlin and put their energy into organizing alternative elections for the Coordination Council that would spearhead the organization of new protest rallies in Moscow and other cities (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 19). They know that the regime, corrupt and exhausted as it is, would falsify every election to come, and can be shaken only by collective actions fuelled by outrage over the blunders of an isolated “national leader” and discontent over declining earnings. Rallies would hardly escalate to a revolution, but they could incite splits and desertions in the ruling elite. One sign of this disarray was the resignation of Oleg Govorun from the position of minister of regional development (Kommersant-FM, October 18). He is a seasoned courtier with many years of experience in the presidential administration under Vladislav Surkov, and his decision to quit indicates growing anxiety among Kremlin insiders (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 19).
This anxiety might appear irrational as the majority of Russians remain indifferent and the economy stays on the trajectory of sluggish growth. Yet, the prevalent perceptions foresee the stagnation of the latter radicalizing the former—with the reform of the heavily indebted pension system becoming the probable trigger (Forbes.ru, October 19). Such perceptions are a powerful economic force driving the sustained capital flight, and they also influence the behavior of Western companies that revise upward their risk assessments of investing in Russia. The latest example is the BP decision to sell to Rosneft its half in the profitable TNK-BP oil company; other evidence includes the collapse of the Shtokman mega-project because Total and Statoil refused to commit to an investment decision, and the estrangement of many European partners from Gazprom, which leaves it isolated in the conflict with the EU Commission (Newsru.com, October 20). Instead of showing flexibility, Rosneft and Gazprom appeal to Putin for protecting their monopoly on developing fields on the continental shelf, which has proven to be completely counter-productive (RBC Daily, October 19).
Increasingly pronounced hostility toward the West—which affects the investment climate and informs the propaganda that portrays the opposition as “foreign agents”—is a consequence of the drift towards authoritarianism. But here again Putin cannot opt for a determined confrontation. He does not speak any more about Russia’s “European choice.” His elites, however, would not accept a self-isolation similar to the “pariah-state” Belarus, even if they only gloated when he ordered reportedly notorious oil trader Gennady Timchenko to return home from his cozy hideout in Geneva (Vedomosti, October 19). This half-heartedness shapes Russia’s policy toward the civil war in Syria, particularly when Moscow discovered the damage that its “principled” support for the Bashir al-Assad regime had done to the strategic partnership with Turkey, which is of premium value for Putin (Kommersant, October 13; Gazeta.ru, October 18). Xenophobic propaganda is also responsible for the growth of negative Russian attitudes toward the United States, from the usual plateau of 25–30 percent to 38 percent; but still, 46 percent of Russians maintain positive views of the US (Levada.ru, October 17).
This October provides a valuable reflection point on the risks of confrontation revealed by the Cuban crisis 50 years ago, and Putin saw no better way to mark the date than by presiding over major strategic exercises that involved missile launches from land, sea and air (RIA Novosti, October 20). This demonstration of nuclear might would have been more convincing if new weapon systems were tested, while in fact the goal was to examine whether old missiles were still usable; and one aged Topol actually failed to launch when Putin hit the symbolic “red button” (Newsru.com, October 19). The efforts to extend the service life of strategic armaments can be successful only until a more serious accident puts a stop to them. And in this context, the political decision not to extend the famous Nunn-Lugar program on decommissioning and utilization of nuclear weapons looks self-punishing (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 19). The Russian defense ministry cries for additional funding to compensate for the lost grants, while its own record of safely utilizing conventional munitions is dismal (Kommersant, October 17).
Another anniversary has passed unnoticed by the official Russian mainstream: Ten years ago, a Moscow performance of the musical Nord-Ost was interrupted by an attack of Chechen rebels, and in the rescue operation 129 hostages died from gas poisoning (Kommersant-Weekend, October 19). Putin never took responsibility for that tragedy. Rather, while taking charge of the perpetual “counter-terrorist operation,” he has claimed credit for eliminating this threat despite the smoldering civil war in Dagestan and the despotic lawlessness in Chechnya. The feebleness of his policy in the North Caucasus proves that the hesitant application of authoritarian methods only signifies a slow degradation of governance in Russia.