Russia: Coping with the constraints of the Kremlin's

attitudes toward Russia tend to shift much like a swinging pendulum:
euphoria quickly turns to dismay, or, alternatively, despair in no time
morphs into hope. The reason that perceptions of Russia are so volatile
is that the West tends to harbor all sorts of extravagant expectations
about its proverbially enigmatic eastern neighbor. More often than not,
these notions are based not on hard knowledge, but on wishful thinking.

Now, amid the global economic downturn, both the United States and
European Union are hoping for a ”new beginning” in their troubled
relationship with Moscow. Here is the rationale behind the West’s
hopes: Russia’s own economic woes coupled with its young president’s
self-proclaimed democratic instincts seem to be pushing the Kremlin to
pursue domestic liberalization and reengagement with the West. Helping
to encourage such hopes, the Kremlin does appear to be sending
encouraging signals, including Moscow’s positive reaction to
Washington’s latest overtures and President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent
wide-ranging interview with a hard-hitting opposition newspaper.

It would be inadvisable, however, to hold your breath while waiting for
Russian reforms: there are serious structural constraints that are
preventing Russian from making significant changes. Thus, anyone who is
optimistic that Russia will soon change its ways seems bound to get
caught up in the cycle of disillusionment.

In the post-Soviet age, Russia has never had anything more than a tepid
interest in integrating with Europe. A set of deep-seated historical,
cultural, economic and social factors instead have encouraged Vladimir
Putin’s Kremlin to pursue its own course. Accordingly, Russia has
developed a peculiar socio-economic system that Putin aptly dubbed
”managed democracy.” The evolution of this awkward system of government
now makes Russia’s integration into the associations of democratic
states impossible for the foreseeable future. It also makes the
enlargement of Euro-Atlantic institutions seem like a threat to what
the Kremlin claims to be Russia’s national interests.

Seemingly unperturbed by the dramatic disconnect between Russia’s and
the West’s values and interests, the Kremlin pursued two geopolitical
goals in recent years. Buoyed by an unprecedented windfall from energy
exports, Russia tried to position itself as an independent great power
unconstrained by any alignments. It also sought to fashion itself as an
alternative values center – a norm-maker in its own right, on par, say,
with the European Union or the United States.

The global economic slump ended up exposing severe flaws in the Russian
system, in particular a glaring lack of checks on executive authority.
The excessive concentration of power in the hands of a few now seems to
be hampering the country’s ability to come to grips with a spreading
economic crisis. A more open system, one that encouraged the promotion
of the best and the brightest, as opposed to those who best curry favor
with Putin, would stand a far better chance of guiding Russia out of
its present economic mess.

During the ”fat years,” the abundance of energy-export revenue meant
that the Kremlin leadership didn’t have to worry about its brittle and
arcane management structure. But now, with surpluses giving way to
ballooning deficits, Russia’s rulers have ample reason to be worried
about their futures.

It seems that at least some of the Kremlin’s leading men are aware of
their plight, and are interested in finding a way out. Thus, some
appear to be ready to reengage the West following the breakdown in
relations last year, stemming from Russia’s blitz into Georgia. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. This forward-thinking
faction also seems to be tentatively probing for ways to reinvigorate
the Kremlin management team, with the aim of making it more flexible.

But the real question is whether Russia’s paramount leader – Putin – is
ready to admit that the system he built has turned out to be
dysfunctional. Until an answer manifests itself, Russia will find
itself stuck. Putin’s dependence on managed democracy has left the
government ill-equipped to handle the economic crisis, as it can
neither opt for thorough democratization, nor can it effectively follow
the path of authoritarian adaptation.

Democratization, of course, is blocked by the conspicuous lack of the
agent of democratic change: the current elites are unwilling to give up
their privileges, and the atomized population is incapable of
self-organization and purposeful collective action. But the sad irony
is that, due to a peculiar power arrangement – for lack of a better
term, the Medvedev-Putin diarchy – Russia, unlike other
authoritarian-minded states such as China, cannot resort to a purely
authoritarian means of course correction either.

The thing is that the Medvedev-Putin ”tandemocracy” is neither a
democratic division of power, nor is it an efficiently functioning
duumvirate. Under conditions where dwindling resources are fostering
competition among various elites, Russia’s peculiar power arrangement
stands to become a factor of instability.

When Putin anointed Medvedev as his successor he made sure that
Russia’s next president would be politically and institutionally weak
and dependent on him. As a result, Medvedev is essentially an impotent
leader: he cannot sack Putin, his prime minister, make him responsible
for all Russia’s current woes (as many Russian autocratic rulers did to
their predecessors in the past) and then attempt to introduce certain
changes ”from above.” For his part, Putin also appears to be stuck with
Medvedev as his presidential pick. What follows is a virtual political
stalemate with Moscow being unable to come up with a semblance of a
coherent policy.

As Russia’s political system remains largely unreformed (and seemingly
unreformable), its foreign policy is likely to be more of the same. For
the Russian leadership, the notion of the country’s great power status
will stay unchanged. Russia, therefore, is likely to become
increasingly prickly in its dealings with the United States and
European Union due to its own inherent internal weakness.