A rally of truckers and activists against the Plato system in Ufa, Russia. Photo: twitter.com/kyxapkaufa
As Russia approaches its 2018 presidential election, dissent in Russia has taken an ominous turn. A wide-spread truckers’ strike against road tolls pits the working class against the oligarchs. An unexpectedly large “youth protest” against corruption in March pits the young against the last post-WWII generation of the Soviet Union as well as their parents who suffered through the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. And, a housing protest in Moscow pits ordinary Russians against their local government. What happens to Moscow’s plans for a smooth election if dissent metastasizes into opposition?
The threat appears very real because Russia today is threatened by the same economic stagnation, succession turmoil and external pressures as was the Soviet Union in 1991. The circumstances are similar to other pivotal moments, as well, in Russia’s history, such as its “Time of Troubles” in the late 16th century when economic trouble, a succession crisis following the death of Ivan the Terrible and conflict with Poland resulted in years of political turmoil. The legacy of such moments in Russian history has been dramatic upheaval and regime change.
Although Russia appears to be emerging from two years of economic recession, prospects for economic growth are dim because of under-investment and falling consumption. Economic wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. Russia has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major economy in the world. The wealthiest 10% of the population owns 87% of Russia’s wealth.
Moreover, economic activity is increasingly concentrated in a handful of cities, especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as the Soviet Union’s single industry towns and rural communities die out, leaving entire regions economically and socially devastated. To balance the Russian budget Putin has reduced spending on welfare, including pensions, health care, and education, and on government salaries, further immiserating the Russian people. At the same time, the Russian government is increasing Russia’s international reserves rather than using that income to soften the impact of economic stagnation or to stimulate growth. High international reserves insulate the Russian financial system from
Meanwhile, military spending is draining resources from the economy. Russia’s military strength on show in Syria and in eastern Ukraine does not signify growing power but a hollowing out the rest of society. In an otherwise fairly positive assessment of Russia’s military capabilities, the Carnegie Endowment makes the point that,
“Excessive spending on the military may indeed be unsustainable in the long term. After all, this was a major contributor to state collapse in Russia at least twice during the twentieth century (in 1991, 1917, and, more debatably, 1905) and routinely served as the catalyst for major social upheaval in previous centuries.”
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Russia’s leaders concede that sanctions due to the seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine are likely to last a long time, hindering economic recovery, because there is no path that they are prepared to contemplate that would change the circumstances on the ground. Russia’s international isolation suggests that Russia may not receive significant support from outside as it did in 1991 if things go from bad to worse, ensuring an even steeper descent, even if no world leader wants to contemplate a Russia plunged into internal chaos. Meanwhile, Russia’s leaders await the miracle of a failure of Western resolve or Western collapse to alleviate their own suffering.
Domestically, the firmament of the Russian state is being shaken, not just from popular protests by truckers and students and apartment dwellers but also from militant nationalism and elevated levels of societal violence of both non-state (mafia) and state (suppression of civil society that punishes dissent and non-conformism under the guise of patriotism) origin. Violent crime is rising in Russia because of economic hardship but also because of lawlessness in its vassal territories that is filtering back into Russia. As one commentator puts it,
“Russian mercenaries who have fought in the Donbas…have gotten a taste for easy money, easy blood, and easy opportunities for satisfying themselves,” in short, all “the criminal joys.” And they don’t forget these when they return home, yet another way that Putin’s war in Ukraine is harming Russia.”
As Russia anticipates the election of Putin to a fourth term as president in 2018, it faces a new time of troubles. The problems of economic decline, weak political processes, and international tensions are familiar and the fault lines are increasingly clear. If the collapse of the Soviet Union was unimaginable in 1991, what of the collapse of the Russian Federation today without a change in trajectory?
Under the threat of continued economic decline, social discontent will rise. The truckers’ strike, which began simmering in 2015 when a new road toll was announced, has spread to 80 of 85 Russian regions. The apartment renters’ protest in Moscow coalesced on May 14 in a protest by an estimated 20,000 participants. Under pressure to preserve its privileges, the Russian elite will likely divide on the question of who will succeed Putin, just as it did in 1991. Under economic pressure, also, central control of the oblasts will become weaker and perhaps fracture, with Moscow losing political coherence south of the Volga and east of the Don Rivers—the internal borderlands between Slavic and multi-ethnic groupings in Russia’s empire. The Caucasus, where Moscow has tenuous control, will fracture, with Chechnya seeking independence if not its own Muslim zone of dominance, since it has as much to fear from extremism as does Moscow.
Differences will emerge elsewhere possibly splitting off additional regions from Moscow’s control, such as in the southwest where Moscow had difficulty containing the “Cossack” nationalists who swarmed eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. Crimea, Rostov, and Krasnodar are farther from Moscow than, say, Kyiv, if local economic and social issues overwhelm centralized control by Moscow as it runs out of money to dampen civil conflict. Even in the north, regions such as Karelia may drift away from Russia’s orbit and strengthen old relationships with the Nordic countries. This is what Moscow’s elite fears.
These are driving Russia down the road to collapse.
Russia’s turmoil during the time of troubles in the 16th century was followed by its greatest political and cultural achievements. To replicate that accomplishment today Russia will have to shed its imperial impulse and complete its transformation begun in 1991 to an open political culture and an engaged civil society in order to emerge as a viable, modern nation-state. If social unrest continues to grow, the 2018 presidential election may bring that question to a head.