The return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia is yet another unhappy milestone in that tragic nation’s post-Soviet history. No country inspired more hope than Russia did when the Soviet Union fell 20 years ago in the wake of a peaceful revolution — and nowhere is it more evident that the Soviet Union today is being resurrected in a somewhat revised form.
The election of Putin to his third term as president was hardly an exercise in democracy. Candidates capable of challenging Putin were not allowed to run, and the entire state bureaucracy was put to work on behalf of his candidacy. Nonetheless, it does indicate that many Russians still are ready to sacrifice freedom for what they mistakenly think is stability. The irony is that the longer Putin holds on to power, the more tenuous that stability will become.
There are three trends in Russia that could push the second nuclear power toward dramatic and dangerous events. The first is the delegitimization of the regime. The younger, urban generation is aware of the farce that Russian democracy has become. That attitude was exemplified by the fact that 370,000 Russians signed up to be poll watchers in the presidential elections, an almost unprecedented display of distrust by a people for its own government.
The second trend promoting Russian instability is its utter dependence on oil exports. In 20 years of post-Soviet economic development, Russia has done very little to improve its manufacturing capacity. Its products are not competitive in any major market except that of Iran. It has, however, benefited from the boom in the price of commodities, and, just as in Soviet times, the Russian rulers are behaving as if rising prices will never experience a reversal. A significant decline in oil prices would put tremendous economic pressure on a country in which stability and prosperity are complexly intertwined.
Finally, by reinforcing his political position with constant references to a threat from the West, Putin is encouraging the growth of radical nationalism. Russian leaders from Soviet times have sought to depict the country as a besieged fortress as a pretext for curtailing their subjects’ rights. But the virulent nationalism that this inspires cannot always be kept under control. Though it remains autocratic, Russia today lacks the unchallengeable police-state apparatus of the Soviet Union, and its population is multinational.
By adopting Soviet tactics, Russia is putting itself at risk in ways its leaders have not anticipated. Putin has benefited from an extraordinary run of good luck. The rise in oil and gas prices that occurred in the 2000s was perfectly timed to help the new market mechanisms that were created in the 1990s begin to function. The resulting increase in prosperity was attributed to Putin. But no one can live on luck forever. Putin’s drive to dominate Russian political life in perpetuity is doomed to fail. The world can only hope that the Russian people will take the situation in hand before they and the world have too high a price to pay.