Russia: Coping with the constraints of the Kremlin's

Igor Torbakov

Western 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.