Staunton, VA, January 3, 2017 – Donald Trump’s election has led many Russians to conclude that Western sanctions against Russia will be eased or lifted entirely in the coming months and that life in Russia will “really become easier.” But Moscow commentators warn that paradoxically that could become “a catalyst” for growing popular discontent within Russia.
The reason, Andrey Polunin of Svobodnaya pressa says in summing up their views is that “if an external enemy in the form of the West disappears,” the Kremlin won’t be able to blame it for all of the shortcomings in Russia as it has done quite successfully up to now.
If in 2017 Western sanctions are lifted, Russian government experts say, the GDP of Russia could rise by 0.6 to 0.8 percent, a small but significant increase that could be improved further by rising oil prices. But Polunin says that no one should forget that “sanctions are far from the main cause of the slowing down of the Russian economy.”
One need only remember, he says, that the Russian economy began to head in the wrong direction already in 2013, before Crimea and the imposition of sanctions, “when the rate of GDP growth fell from 3.7 to 1.3 percent. Already then it was obvious that there were serious structural problems that Moscow was not addressing.
The upsurge in popular support for Vladimir Putin in the wake of the Crimean Anschluss and the West’s imposition of sanctions gave the Kremlin leader the opportunity to put off any serious reforms and to blame the West for all the difficulties that the Russian people have been facing.
But if sanctions are lifted, Polunin says, “2017 could unexpectedly become a year of heightened turbulence in domestic policy, something that would weaken Putin’s position in advance of the presidential elections in 2018.” He spoke with three Moscow commentators about this scenario.
Mikhail Aleksandrov, a military specialist at MGIMO, said that there are real risks that Putin will continue the “liberal-economic” policy he has been pursuing rather than consider alternatives, something he should do. After all, even Stalin in 1951 organized a discussion of how the state should respond to slowing economic growth.
Putin is comfortable with the liberal economists as they came with him from St. Petersburg, and they are telling him that Trump’s coming to power in the US “will promote the growth of political stability in Russia.” Aleksandrov says that he is convinced of the reverse: any lessening of confrontation with the West “will lead Russians to focus on domestic problems.”
That is especially true because “in the foreign policy arena, Russia doesn’t have any obvious successes except for Syria” and unless there is a breakthrough on Ukraine, the conflict there will continue to exacerbate feelings in Russia. That suggests the Kremlin needs some domestic successes.
After all, Russians are going to ask, Aleksandrov says, “why if the level of confrontation with the West has fallen are we continuing to suffer failures in the economic area?” That will lead to a decline in the support for Putin, however much his political technologists work to preserve it.
“Of course, Vladimir Putin will win the presidential elections in 2018.” No strong candidates are going to emerge or be allowed to emerge. But there is another question that should be asked: “in what condition will he leave the country to his successor” whenever that handover happens?
Unless something is done, economic stagnation will continue even if sanctions are lifted, “and this will take place on the background of a rapidly growing China and small but stable growth in Germany and the United States.” Russians will notice this and draw conclusions, Aleksandrov says.
And that is all the more likely because the Kremlin is currently pursuing deeply unpopular policies like “the commercialization of healthcare and education” and doing nothing to combat “the growing stratification of society.” All this, he says, “will intensify dissatisfaction and thus it is impossible to exclude outbursts” as a result.
Sergey Markov, the director of the Moscow Institute for Political Research, says that the majority of Western politicians continue to think that “the strengthening of anti-Russian sanctions will increase social tension in Russia.” They are wrong. In fact, sanctions have kept social tensions in check; and if sanctions are lifted, that will change.
But the Kremlin has insured itself against the consequences of this by effectively taking total control over all the channels through which such popular anger might be expressed. And that means, Markov says, that “we will see a plethora of half-administered half-revolts which will break out” across the country but not become a serious challenge to the regime.
These protests won’t have a clearly expressed ideological platform, except perhaps for a nationalist one because “nationalist circles in Russia are represented least in the political system and their representatives thus have nothing to lose.” Such protests would likely occur in the fall if sanctions are reduced in the next quarter.
And Mikhail Remizov, the president of the Moscow Institute of National Strategy, says that the chief task the Kremlin has this year is to come up with a platform for the upcoming elections, something that won’t be easy because the Putin regime hasn’t fulfilled any of its main promises from the last election in 2012.
The Kremlin leader could choose a mobilization program, but he is unlikely to do that. In foreign affairs, such a change would require a real break with the West; and in domestic affairs, it would perhaps undermine the regime’s top supporters. Consequently, Remizov says, the regime is likely to continue its “inert” policies.
In that case, the Moscow analyst says, “Putin will be re-elected in 2018, but against a background of processes of the erosion of his political leadership.”
Neither Polunin nor any of the commentators he spoke with acknowledge the possibility that their arguments are directed in the first instance to the West and are intended to encourage the lifting of sanctions with the possibly false prediction that lifting sanctions will promote the West’s interests in Russia.
That cannot be excluded. But neither should this: if the current sanctions regime is not working as intended, that does not mean that sanctions for Putin’s crimes in Ukraine are not appropriate. What are clearly needed are more carefully targeted sanctions so that those who suffer most from them are not the Russian people but Putin personally and his comrades in arms.
Staunton, VA, January 3, 2016 — The Putin regime does not need any further expansion in its capacity to put pressure on the population in order to guarantee its security, Aleksandr Verkhovsky says; but despite that, the regime is so organized that that it will inevitably continue to tighten the screws with “new repressive or senselessly harsh laws” in the coming year.
Verkhovsky, the head of the SOVA monitoring group which the Russian government recently declared was a “foreign agent”, says that among the most noxious developments of the past year has been “the unbelievably large number of criminal prosecutions for really intolerant expressions”.
On the one hand, the SOVA researcher says, one can only decry the rise of such attitudes in the Russian public space; but on the other, one must condemn the politicization and even more the criminalization of actions which Russians have the right to engage in under the terms of the Russian Constitution.
It might be possible to “understand” what the authorities have been doing, Verkhovsky says, “if in the country the activity of ultra-nationalist, radically Islamist or other genuinely dangerous movements had been growing.” But in fact, just the reverse has been true over the last 12 months.
“Radical nationalism is in ever-progressing decline, and genuinely militant Islamists more often prefer to go to Syria than to organize and fight in Russia,” he points out.
The Yarovaya package of laws adopted this past year is deeply disturbing, but he points out that it is his impression that “the space of freedom is being reduced not so much by laws as by various kinds of methods of intimidation only part of which are directly based on law. The laws themselves are understood more as ‘signals’” that officials then act on.
That doesn’t mean that laws aren’t important at all, but rather it suggests that it is the extension of the intended application of these laws to other groups that is the most worrisome development, Verkhovsky says. The Yarovaya package was ostensibly about combating Islamist terrorists; it has been used to repress Protestant missionaries and others far from Islam.
If activists protest these things, they can sometimes but far from always make a difference, the SOVA head says. Protests lodged with the interior ministry about the misuse of some laws actually had an impact and led to improvements. But that isn’t always the case, he continues. And the year ahead promises to be even worse.
(For a survey of 2016 laws, see here; for a list of laws that have gone into force this month, see here; and for a list of those who have died while incarcerated, an indication of what detentions and arrests can mean, see here).
Russian commentator Andrey Piontkovsky extends Verkhovsky’s remarks. In his New Year’s greeting to Russians, Piontkovsky says that 2017 is just like 1937 in that the powers that be can now arrest anyone they like, “be he a blogger or a member of the government”.
Russians and unfortunately others have gotten used to this because that practice has been introduced slowly and in what is still a relatively small way, thus repeating the experience of the frog who ultimately is killed in boiling water because it is gradually heated rather than jumping out because it is hot to begin with.
“In the provinces” of Russia,” Piontkovsky writes, “an individual can be arrested for a post in social networks, for the most ordinary expression, and this already is not something which generates general anger in Russia and the West. Instead, it has become routine.”
And those who complain about such arrests are told that what the Putin regime is doing is not a return to Stalinism because one is talking only about hundreds and not millions of people incarcerated. But what Putin has established was the foundation of Stalin’s repressions: anyone can be arrested if the authorities want him to be. Law is irrelevant.
Moreover, “whether 100,000 are arrested or a thousand depends exclusively on the choice of the powers that be.” At present, Putin doesn’t need mass arrests, and he would not gain anything from incarcerating millions in a new GULAG. His degrading economy doesn’t need workers. “But however many the powers that be need to arrest will be arrested.”
Just like in 1937.
Staunton, VA, January 3, 2017 – Avraam Smulyevich, a leading Israeli specialist on ethnic issues in the former Soviet space, says that Kyiv might be forced to agree to a Trump-Putin deal on Crimea but that such a deal would “only convince the Russian dictator that he had invade other countries without being punished” and thus lead him to launch new wars.
“Putin himself has acknowledged,” the head of the Israeli Institute for an Eastern Partnership told Kseniya Kirillova in an interview published today by Radio Liberty, “that the Syrian war is a training ground for his army and that the state of his army has really improved”.
The Kremlin leader is “evidently preparing his country for war” in order, among other things, to preserve his own power by launching aggression abroad. The rest of Ukraine is less likely to be in his sights than the Baltic countries, Poland, or “some countries in the South Caucasus such as Azerbaijan.”
And in the current environment, Shmulyevich says, it is possible that Putin will reach an agreement with Turkey’s Recep Tayyp Erdogan “about the participation of the Middle East or a dash into Central Asia,” a region Ankara has long coveted and one that Moscow would like to rebuilt its power in.
With regard to a settlement on Crimea, he continues, “the return of Crimea is even more important for some representatives of the West than it is for the ruling Ukrainian elite.” That is because Kyiv wants to end the conflict as soon as possible, while some in the West want to maintain the principle of the inviolability of international borders by force alone.
That commitment explains the recent UN General Assembly resolution on Crimea, but Shmulyevich says, “it is important to understand that for the majority of the Western establishment, returning Crimea to Ukraine is not as important as simply finding a way to resolve it in a legal fashion.”
Putin clearly understand this, the Israeli analyst argues, and that explains why he bases his actions on what he says was Khrushchev’s illegal transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR and on the fact that the Budapest Memorandum is null and voice because none of its signatories has lived up to its provisions. Putin’s people are also arguing that “the Helsinki Accords fixed inter-state and not intra-state borders, and that the state which signed them was not Russia or Ukraine but the Soviet Union.” Indeed, they point out, the only high-level international agreement both Russia and Ukraine have signed was the one creating the UN.
But from the point of view of Ukraine and the West, that too is a legal argument that undermines their case, Putin thinks, according to Shmulyevich. That is because when the Ukrainian SSR signed the UN treaty, it did not have Crimea within its borders, something other UN members may take note of.
What is thus likely to happen, he says, is a willingness in Kyiv to accept a deal if it formally keeps Crimea as part of Ukraine even if it does nothing to end Russian occupation, an arrangement unlikely to spark massive protests by Ukrainians given their reluctance so far even to declare war on Russia following Russia’s invasion and seizure of their territory.
In exchange, if such a deal were to be arranged, Russia would fulfill the Minsk agreements, returning the Donbass de jure but in fact retaining control there through the pro-Russian separatists on the ground who “redressed in Ukrainian uniforms” and with power remaining “in the hands of the local oligarchs.”
That would be a tragedy for Ukraine, Shmulyevich says; but a far greater tragedy would likely emerge from how Putin would read such a deal, as an indication that the West is not ready to stand up to him and that he can engage in more aggression with impunity.