By Dr. Indrani Talukdar
Russia’s geographic and strategic location, along with its economic and military power makes it a powerful country. Though Russia takes the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, under President Vladimir Putin the country has to a large extent been able to regain its lost status. It has been able to exercise power in Eurasia. It is trying to influence Latin America and Africa. Economically, the World Bank has given a positive signal as GDP rate has touched 1.9 percent in the second half of 2018. Multilaterally, it is contributing in various forums such as United Nations, G20, BRICS, and Russia-India-China (RIC). Interestingly, these contributions have taken place in the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis of 2014 that has put Russia under sanctions.
The Achilles heel for Russia is its internal challenges— its political, economic and social sector, if not handled appropriately may soon challenge the sense of stability Russia is enjoying. A cautionary proverb says that ‘a lion is killed by its own worms in its bowels’.
Russia, since 2000 is following ‘sovereign democracy’ – meaning a controlled democracy with a free market but state owned and regularised. According to President Putin, ‘sovereign democracy’ is a mix of post-modern authoritarianism and assertive nationalism. It has become an ideological and political declaration of the Unified Russia party under President Putin. For the outside world, Russia seems to be a democratic country but an internal look shows it to be contrary. The essential elements of democracy i.e. political parties, competitive elections and a diverse media appear to be cosmetic in the country. Addition to the lacuna in the political aspect, the country also faces challenges such as a decline in demography and other social vulnerabilities.
President Putin in his earlier tenures enjoyed popularity which helped him in constructing Russia’s defiant and aggressive foreign policy to regain Russia’s lost status of a ‘great power’. Russia looks strong, but its political institutions appear to be weak and fragile. The Kremlin, through ‘sovereign democracy’, retains the trappings of democratic procedures and ceremonies. The regime is able to marginalize the opposition by manipulating the media and civil society and by tailoring electoral procedures to keep the current regime in power indefinitely. In democracy, electoral rules are clear while the outcome is uncertain. However in Russia, the outcome is certain while the rules are unclear. The results of all the presidential elections since 2000 are a product of this system.
In 2011, President Putin witnessed resentment from the Russian middle class in the form of demonstrations. People condemned the alleged ballot-rigging in parliamentary elections and demanded a rerun, which was declined. This protest was termed as ‘Snow Revolutionaries’. It went on till the Spring of 2012, but the disillusionment within the people somewhere continues. This year, due to the raise in pension age, people showed their discontentment against President Putin, which it turn affected his popularity rate into coming down to 67 percent. Irrespective, he has been able to retain his power.
Russia is a unique case, and it is because of the citizens themselves. Though Russians are unhappy with the tenure of President Putin and want change, simultaneously groups such as ‘Another Russia’ led by the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, the National Bolshevik Party led by the extreme nationalist Eduard Limonov, or the mainstream liberal opposition party Yabloko led by Grigoriy Yavlinsky have not been able to garner support in their own country. Amongst the opposition, Mr. Alexy Navalny has been able to to make a mark to some extent but not one that is strong enough to oust President Putin or his party.
Despite the internal situations, President Putin has been able to retain his power partly because of the patriotic fervour within Russian citizens. There is an anti-West, especially, anti-US and anti-UK, sentiment within Russia, which is only becoming stronger. In 2016, President Putin considered patriotism as the only national idea in Russia that will help the country bind together. The secession of Crimea has strengthened this feeling. It has helped the country’s economy by handling the blow from sanctions, the military as well as its foreign policy. During a survey in 2018, 47 per cent of the people said that President Putin was able to manage to stay in power because he was able to return Russia to the status of a great,respected power.
After a decade of decline, Russia’s economy in the 1990s went through difficult post-Soviet reforms. But between 2000-2008, Russia enjoyed an average growth rate of 7 percent because of the boom in oil prices. The country could not escape the global financial recession between 2008-2009, however it resumed a slow growth from 2010 till 2012. After 2012, the growth chart hit low at a rate of around 2 to 1 percent. The sanctions after 2014 were hard hitting. The graph of growth rate became negative and the Russian economy hit a recession. The rouble collapsed, inflation soared, and the government was forced to dig deep into its international reserves to keep the banking sector afloat. Partly helped by a recovery in the oil price (in April 2018, around US$70 per barrel), Russia’s economy started growing again in late 2016. In 2017, growth reached 1.6 percent.
In 2018, the growth rate was 1.3 percent in the first quarter and 1.9 percent in the second. According to the World Bank, Russia’s growth prospects for 2018-2020 remain modest, forecasted at 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent. The report forecasted a sound macroeconomic framework with relatively high levels of international reserves ($461 billion), low external debt levels (about 29 percent of GDP), and a comfortable import cover (15.9 months), positioning Russia well to absorb external shocks. The overall growth can be seen in the level of poverty too.
During the recession in 2015-2016, 13.4 percent of people lived below the poverty line. However, perceived poverty is even higher where 20-23 percent of the population considered it poorer in 2017 than in 2014. The reason behind it was falling wages rather than unemployment, which were at the rate of 5 percent during the recession period. Although the economy started growing again in late 2016, it has taken much longer for the benefits to trickle down to ordinary Russians. The real disposable income has started to grow only since 2018.
Although the status of health in the Russian economy has been positive according to the World Bank, there are problems which the government face such as poverty and inequality. These two factors are becoming major political issues. In an April 2018 survey, 45 percent of the respondents saw continuing income inequality as President Putin’s greatest failure while 32 percent complained that there were no raise in wages or pensions. During his re-election speech in March 2018, he set a target of cutting poverty by half. However, nothing much has been done in this aspect.
In addition to all this, Russia also faces the problem of brain drain. Since 2012, the number of Russians leaving the country has tripled, reaching 250,000 in 2016. The target category of brain drain emigrants is researchers, entrepreneurs and people with IT skills. There is shortage in the technological sector. With Russia targeting a 4.0 Industrial Revolution, this can be discouraging news for the economic growth of the country. What needs to be seen is the reason behind the brain drain.
Demographic and the Threat of Radicalisation
The great-power ambitions of Moscow’s current elites cannot be realized without ample, developed, and highly skilled human resource. Since the 1980s, however, Russia has experienced dramatic declines in population, fertility, and life expectancy combined with increases in mortality and disease rates, including a rise in the rates of HIV /AIDS, tuberculosis infection, cardiovascular diseases and cancers. Cheap opiate narcotics which are being used by Russians are imported from Afghanistan and Central Asia, along with synthetic drugs being produced within Russia.
President Putin in 2018 had announced further support to increase population apart from the 2007 scheme of maternity capital programme. However, the current solution of stimulating births by paying may create a problem in the future. While the numbers and health status of Russia’s ethnic Slavs and Orthodox Christians continue to decline, Russia’s Muslim population is growing, rapidly transforming the ethnic makeup of Russian society. This might have political, cultural and ideological implications for Russia. Ethnic Russians feel uneasy as the prevailing ethnically-based notion of the Russian national identity is being challenged. The changing ethnic makeup of Russian society and the growing radicalization of Islam fuel ethnic tensions among Russian citizens.
With growing xenophobia, racism and refugee problems worldwide, Russia, too, is not immune to these challenges. Hence, immigrants coming from Central Asia and other Asian countries, might create problems in the future. With the defeat of Islamic State terrorists in Syria and regrouping in the neighbouring areas (like Chechnya) and return of the native terrorist groups in North Caucasus and Chechnya (who fought alongside the IS), Russia faces the problem of Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism.
Russia, undoubtedly, is emerging as a strong and assertive country in the international system with many feathers in its cap such as Syria and the talk with the Taliban, which gets emboldened with the national idea citizens uphold. Economically, too, the country is forecasted in an upward mode and with its economic initiatives, like the Eurasian Economic Union, the economic growth should be safe. However, there are problems which cannot be ignored such as the single-party rule since 2000. Media is controlled and no strong opposition to the ruling president and the party exists. Though Putin’s popularity has declined and there is discontent amongst the middle class, a drastic change within the country is doubtful.
In addition to this, a growing problem within Russia is the nostalgia of returning to the Soviet times. This in itself will open a whole lot of problems not only domestically but also internationally. Externally, it will be a threat for Common Independent States (CIS) or Russia’s ‘near abroad’. There will be escalated repression such as ‘missing’ of opponents, killing and imprisonment of journalists, gross violation of human rights within the country to achieve the dream. Till now, the Kremlin has been able to manage its people. However what remains to be seen is till when this peace will last.
Dr. Indrani Talukdar is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.