«What’ll happen to the Motherland and to us?» - sang Russia’s most popular rock band DDT eighteen years ago, in the midst of the turbulent post-Communist transformation. These days the question is being asked again – after the announcement of Vladimir Putin’s anticipated comeback to the Kremlin in 2012. The temptation is to answer: “Nothing much will happen both to the Motherland and to us”. As someone who thought that in the run up to parliamentary and presidential elections the Russian political class would change the stage props if not some of the policies of the last decade I have to admit I was wrong. So shall we say, business as usual will continue?
I am not so sure. I will probably agree with quite a few of other esteemed commentators, who say that Mr. Putin’s third (fourth?) term will be more or less a variation on the theme of his previous two (or three, depending on how you assess Mr. Medvedev’s tenure). However, if so this may become the biggest problem of Mr. Putin’s return.
The ideas that informed his stay in the Kremlin were simple – and hence effective. These were: taking national TV networks under direct or indirect state control; getting rid of the 1990s legacy, denounced as that of chaos and criminality; using oil and gas revenues to boost consumption and, consequently, jack up the poll ratings; at least partly restoring Russian power in international affairs, and especially, in the post-Soviet space – using Gazprom as the country’s most potent policy tool abroad.
Of these only the TV control survives intact. “We saved you from the 1990s debacle” is much less potent as a slogan today than it was twelve years ago – and will completely fade as time goes by. People anywhere in the world tend to have short memories and Russia is not an exception. A whole generation is coming of age now that is largely indifferent to this message. There is a constituency, and a large one that values stability above all, but I think there are more and more people who ask: “OK, what’s next?” To this we haven’t yet heard any specific answers. I doubt we will because “If you don’t do anything you do not fail” seems to be the slogan of the day.
Oil and gas revenues are dwindling. The now departed minister of finance, Alexei Kudrin, has regularly reported on the continually rising oil price ceiling that affords Russia to have a balanced budget. Shale gas, renewables, LNG, the changing nature of the gas market itself, moving towards spot trading – all this makes the task of maintaining the Russian budget healthy much more difficult. Crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure, a nearly bankrupt national pension fund, skewered demographics and migration patterns make the economic problems ever more acute and ever less amenable to quick “let’s pour in more cash”-type fixes.
Finally, Russia's foreign policy is visibly constrained by all of the above plus lack of truly reliable allies and friends. Moscow’s influence in the post-Soviet space is under pressure from China, the EU as well as the political elites of those countries. They formulate their nations’ interests by themselves, for themselves and, increasingly, without bothering to consider what will Moscow say. Tools that are still at the Kremlin’s disposal – like the Customs Union or the Organisation of Collective Defence Treaty – have limited usage, as these organisations never achieved a clarity of goals and unity of action that are needed to make them really effective. Essentially they remain largely symbolic barriers against what is still called here “Western influence”. Russia’s relations with “the West” itself are undergoing a transformation that is ominous. In the eyes of Europe and America the return of Mr. Putin will signify that a relationship devoid of values and based solely on interests and competition is on the cards. This may sound great to those in Moscow who dislike the “values’ chatter”. However, this may also mean a much less lenient approach to Russia itself and its vital interests. The EU anti-monopoly commissars raiding ‘Gazprom’ affiliates recently may have given everyone a taste of things to come.
“More of the same” in Russian politics will very probably not mean “more of the same results”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.