Russia: The end of the ”zero” years

Monday, 13. December 2010     0 comment(s)
Arkady Moshes
Programme Director - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

On December 31, 2010 Vladimir Putin may wish to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his ascent to power. Ten years ago the late president Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin to be his successor, and although in 2008 the latter as well vacated the presidential position to comply with the letter of the constitution, he never abandoned the steering wheel.

This decade was baptized as the “fat years”. Stability, it was argued by Kremlin propaganda officers, replaced chaos, while the inflow of the petro dollars created an illusion of sustainable economic development. But now all this is quickly becoming history.

Putin’s legitimacy and popularity was based on three pillars – the economic growth, the claim of restoring “law and order” by means of decreasing the omnipotence of oligarchs on the one hand and the organized crime on the other, and a “macho” foreign policy, aimed to regain Russia’s world status at any cost, including the use of military force if necessary.

What is left from all three?

Well, Russian economic performance is far from impressive. In 2009 the country had the worst record in G20, BRIC or if compared with other energy producers. The growth has resumed in 2010, but in the foreseeable future 3-4 per cent will be a dream. Even with the current - very high - levels of oil prices the Russian state budget shows deficit, and it is not easy to understand how the government is going to maintain the level of social expenditure or, for that matter, finance the defence procurement.

A terrible tragedy in a town of Kushchevskaya in Southern Russia has revealed that criminal gangs may now be stronger – and feel safer – than a decade ago. 12 people, including small children, were brutally tortured and killed, and the neighbours were terrified to call the police, because all previous attempts to get protection had failed - the police and organized crime were too well-connected. 154th position of Russia in the Corruption Perception Index does not go along well with legalistic statements of Russia’s leadership, and the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky points at selective justice.

Finally, foreign policy. Yes, Moscow was able to prevent NATO from accepting Georgia and Ukraine. But is this enough to call Russia the first-rank power? On the contrary. It is undeniably much weaker vis-à-vis China than it was in 2000. Its western CIS neighbours, Belarus included, are intensifying their cooperation with the European Union, whereas post-Soviet energy producers show little inclination to bandwagon Russia. More importantly, even when asked to intervene in order to maintain stability, like it was in Kirgizstan in spring 2010, Moscow lacks the resources to do so. And even if reluctantly, Russian leaders start to demonstrate the understanding that cooperation with the West is better than rivalry.

Vladimir Putin may still stay in power. He may return as president in 2012 – for six or for twelve years – and open both the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014 and the Football World Cup of 2018. But to do so, he will need a new legitimacy and new slogans. The old myths – stability, vertical of power and the “full independence” of the foreign policy line – will hardly attract people’s sympathies any longer.

In this sense the “zero years” are really over.

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