Staunton, December 21 – The collapse of oil prices and the ruble along with Western sanctions have destroyed any basis for the grand bargain that the Kremlin had made with the Russian people – economic growth in exchange for political passivity – and raised the question as to whether there can be a new one or not, according to Aleksandr Belousov.
With the old one gone, the Moscow commentator argues, “the main question now is what a new one might look like, who will be its participants and whether it will be concluded at all.”
According to Belousov, there are three possible variants of a new grand bargain, and which one becomes the most likely depends as in the past on the calculations of the authorities even though they have fewer options now than they had in the past.
The “first and most banal” one is simply to call for patience and to suggest that the old grand bargain will return shortly. That would require a reduction in the level of the regime’s aggressiveness and there is some evidence that Moscow is moving in that direction with its predictions that the crisis will end in two years and its willingness to talk with the West.
But Moscow’s ability to achieve this depends, the commentator says, on the willingness of the West to reach agreement and on the currency and raw materials market places. In short, it is not something over which the Kremlin has the kind of control that it would like to believe and thus is not the most likely outcome.
The second variant, he argues, is “isolationist, military, and in fact Hobbesian: ‘life in exchange for well-being.’” Hobbes described the basic social contract as being “a voluntary giving up by citizens of part of their freedoms to the state in order to achieve their own security.” That is very much an option for Putin.
But it presupposes being able to create at least the image of a constant and nearly universal threat to Russia that makes such an accord palatable and that in turn calls for an increasingly aggressive foreign policy that constantly provokes such opposition if it doesn’t exist.
Moreover, it requires that the population which has already given up its freedom for security now be willing to give up its well-being as well, something that may be harder for them to accept after having had the experience of a dramatically improved standard of living within living memory. At the very least, such suggestions will raise questions.
One part of the population will certainly be willing to enter into that new bargain: the military and security forces. But even they will want to be ensured a better life in exchange, and that will be possible only by extracting more resources from everyone else, thus further suppressing the standard of living of most of the residents of Russia.
And there is a third variant, Belousov says, one that can be described as “satiety in exchange for greatness.’” Under its terms, Russians will be offered a sense of national greatness as compensation for their deteriorating economic situation. The annexation of Crimea will be presented as something that was worth such a sacrifice.
That bargain recalls the Soviet one, and if Moscow goes in that direction again, “the state will be conducting itself in a typically socialist fashion, conceiving everything around as a resource for itself and its values.” In this sense, Belousov argues, “contemporary Russian patriotism [would be] in no way distinguished from Soviet patriotism.”
In thinking about a new grand bargain, he continues, it is necessary to distinguish the very different roles that Crimea and the Donbass play. The first is “a marker of national pride” but requires spending money; the second is “a marker of security and of a willingness to sacrifice oneself for ‘the Russian world.’”
In short, Belousov says, the state would be offering to and asking for very different things from the population depending on which of these issues it makes central, if it goes in this direction. And that means Russians will be waiting “impatiently” for Putin to answer the question as to what they should sacrifice in the coming year, not why or who is guilty.
For Putin, of course, this question is critical because on its answer depends his ability to form a new grand bargain. If he is not able to do so, then it is entirely possible that he will face a situation in which others will propose different accords between the power and the people, accords far less profitable for himself.