Russia’s coming Time of Troubles

A rally of truckers and activists against the Plato system in Ufa, Russia. Photo:

A rally of truckers and activists against the Plato system in Ufa, Russia. Photo: 

Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Dirk Mattheisen

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?

Read more: Russia’s truckers win biggest victory yet: Daghestan to press for repeal of Plato System

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

High international reserves insulate the Russian financial system from a financial crisis, but building those reserves comes at the expense of the real economy where jobs, production, and economic growth come 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.”

Russian client states are deep wells of expenses that weaken Russia

Its military adventures are costly. Russia has not successfully concluded a single conflict, including Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and eastern Ukraine. As these frozen or festering conflicts proliferate and perpetuate themselves, the financial and reputational cost to Russia rises, even while the welfare of the subject peoples declines dramatically. Russian client states are deep wells of expenses that weaken Russia in Moscow’s misplaced anticipation that nominal control of slivers of territory will legitimate future claims to historical areas of political control.

Read also: Stages of Russian occupation in a nutshell

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?

Read also: Rest assured, Marine Le Pen, sanctions against Russia work

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.

Rather than address directly the problems of economic decline, political paralysis, and international isolation, Moscow is promising economic welfare without economic reform, invoking democratic principles without meaningful political participation, and battling fascism where none exists.

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.

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  • RedSquareMaidan

    It’s such a shame for a country with so much potential to waste so much money on imperialism and fighting phantom fascism. The real fascism is within, fight that.

  • Ihor Dawydiak

    Throughout recorded history there has never been an empire that has not imploded or disintegrated for a variety of reasons. As far as Russia is concerned it happened in 1991 and there is considerable potential that its further disintegration has not yet run its final course. The reason: internal rot.

    • Dagwood Bumstead

      The breakup of the USSR was not completed in 1991. It will be finally completed when Dwarfstan breaks up. The cracks are already apparent and will become ever larger. They are most apparent in the Far East, where Peking is already taking over, and the Caucasus, where Kadyrov is slowly building his Caliphate.

  • veth

    Ukraine’s army advances one km closer to occupied Debaltseve in Donbas – volunteer

    The Ukrainian army has advanced one kilometer closer to the Russian-occupied town of Debaltseve in Donetsk region and taken new positions after Ukrainian troops had to repel enemy attacks, according to volunteer who raises funds for the Armed Forces of Ukraine Yuriy Mysiahin. War 20:39, 22 May 2017

    Russian proxies used heavy artillery weapons on Monday to shell Ukrainian troops / Photo from UNIAN “After continuous provocation and shelling by the enemy, the infantry of the 53rd brigade had to move forward a long distance. And they not only advanced, but also mounted defenses on new advanced positions,” the volunteer said on Facebook on Monday, May 22.

  • Dirk Smith

    Once this international mafia syndicate collapses; relocate the World Cup to Poland/Ukraine, initiate a country-wide de-programming program for ALL employees of this
    Tambov mafia ponzi scheme, suspend their position on the UN Security Council, chop up ruSSia like Yugoslavia, give China Siberia, and proceed with the international tribunal at the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

  • zorbatheturk

    I just want RuSSia to collapse and disappear. I am sick of RuSSia, RuSSians, and RuSSian trolls. They are simply scum.

    • Dagwood Bumstead

      Patience, grasshopper. The slow implosion of the Russkii Mir has already started. Pedo Putolini’s policies are merely accelerating the process and he should be given every encouragement to continue.

      • zorbatheturk

        Evil regimes have a way of sticking around.

  • Dagwood Bumstead

    I disagree with “the Russian government is increasing Russia’s international reserves”. The current situation means Dwarfstan is burning up its reserves; both Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Tatyana Golikova, Head of Dwarfstan’s National Accounting Agency, have publicly stated- in the Duma, no less- that the Reserve Fund will be empty some time this year, leaving only the Welfare Fund of $80 billion to be squandered. The latter will be running on fumes by the end of 2018.

    If Dwarfstan were actually increasing the international reserves then the Reserve Fund would not have to be depleted to plug the holes in Dwarfstan’s budget.

    • Dirk Mattheisen

      You make a good point. It is in fact unclear what is happening to Russia’s financial accounts and budget. Elvira Nabiullina, head of the central bank, has managed to maintain her credibility for managing Russia’s finances, which lends credibility to Russia’s financial reporting. However, other evidence suggests that there is considerable legerdemain, at least in the government’s budget accounts. For example, the recent “privatization” of Rosneft that took place hurriedly at the end of 2016 in order to make the end year budget numbers look better, involved almost certainly flows of funds between corporate, government and central bank accounts in a way that makes it impossible to be confident that there is really any new money. Putin does not distinguish between government, government-owned corporate and private corporate accounts managed by Putin’s friends, so knowing the true financial health of Russia is not easy.