A gap exists in Russian politics, former opposition politician and energy expert Vladimir Milov said at a round table discussion in Sofia, Bulgaria. According to Milov, the Vladimir Putin regime is straddling a gap between the administration’s desire to focus on geopolitical conflicts and the demands of the Russian people to address deteriorating economic conditions.
“That gap is really what matters right now in Russian politics,” Milov said. “There is no such thing as a forever in Russian politics.”
The Oct. 2 event, hosted by Bulgaria Analytica and the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies, featured Milov and doctoral student Yulia Zhuchkova on a panel alongside Bulgarian experts on energy and geopolitics, Vasko Nachev, Alex Alexiev and Ilian Vassilev. Zhuchkova followed Milov’s speech with a breakdown of the Russian economy under Putin and projections as to where it is headed.
Milov, who co-authored a report with now-slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov assessing Putin’s first two terms in office, said polls have revealed that about 70 percent of Russians pay no attention to foreign policy and geopolitics. Simultaneously, there is a clear demand that the government shift its attention to the domestic economic situation, which is pretty dire, Milov said.
Putin’s current popularity is artificially inflated, according to Milov. The Russian president’s approval rating hovered well below its current level until the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The euphoria from the annexation of Crimea has now essentially faded, but the Kremlin’s skillful promotion of the idea that there is no alternative to Putin is keeping the government afloat, Milov said.
“I think the key factor which is keeping Putin’s government afloat is not his super heroic popularity but the fear of change,” Milov said.
Most people are not terribly pleased with life in Russia, but they do not see an alternative to Putin and fear that change might result in chaos, Milov said.
However, the influential writer stressed throughout the event that a business as usual approach does not last forever in Russian politics. Political pressure builds up and, at some point, the situation explodes, Milov said. That scenario has played out repeatedly over the last century in Russia.
Currently, Milov is lending support to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s campaign for the Russian presidency. Milov described Navalny as an “agent of change” and said the support he has built is not so much personal as it is an endorsement of a new political course in Russia.
“It is not about Navalny. It is about competition,” Milov said.
Milov said the large rallies Navalny has recently organized across Russia have shown there is a demand for real competition in Russian politics. The energetic rallies have also reawakened cities that were nonexistent on the Russian political map over the last 25 years, Milov noted.
The Kremlin is currently weighing whether or not to allow Navalny to run against Putin in the March 2018 presidential election. There is a legal case both for and against Navalny’s candidacy, and the Kremlin will make a purely political decision as to whether the opposition leader, who has a recent criminal conviction, can run against Putin, Milov said.
Looking ahead, Milov said Putin’s eventual exit from power will not permanently ensure a competitive political arena in Russia. When Russia becomes a more democratic, pluralistic society, there will be attempts to reestablish an autocracy, Milov said. That can be avoided by Russia developing democratic mechanisms and institutions, he said.
“I believe Russia will ultimately be back,” Milov concluded.
Zhuchkova, a Ph.D. student at the National Research Tomsk State University and frequent contributor to publications in Russia and Europe, did not share Milov’s optimism about Putin’s downfall. Zhuchkova said the Russian president can maintain a positive enough image to keep his regime propped up into the 2020s.
Nonetheless, Zhuchkova did not paint a rosy picture of the Russian economy over the next presidential term. Assuming Putin stays in power, Russia’s economy will continue with low growth, and a severe economic downturn is possible in the coming years, Zhuchkova said.
Under Putin’s extended rule, Russia will not diversify its economy, and the energy sector — even if its is contracting — will remain the core industry. Russia will continue selling gas, as the European Union is not ready to boycott Russian energy exports, and Moscow can pivot to China, albeit it might not do so profitably, the economic prognosticator said.
Reviewing the first 17 years of Putin’s rule, Zhuchkova said that early GDP growth combined with a drop in the poverty rate, a doubling of per capita income and huge growth in Russian budget revenues created an illusion of effective economic policy. In reality, skyrocketing oil prices, coupled with a ruble devaluation that jumpstarted Russia’s exports and an elimination of over-investment in certain non-financial sectors, were the basis of the ecnomic success in the early Putin years.
In the years since the 2008 financial crisis, Putin’s economic model has been exposed, Zhuchkova said. The Putin model requires high, constantly increasing oil prices. And Putin has concentrated too much of the economy and budget in the energy and defense sectors, while placing too high of a burden on entrepreneurs. In turn, capital outflow increased from around 30 billion euros in 2010 to more than 130 billion euros in 2014.
Zhuchkova reiterated that the weakening economy does not mean Putin’s regime will collapse. But when considering Putin’s eventual retirement or demise, Zhuchkova said the regime in Moscow will live on, just with a new face. However, while Putin is on the way out, the West will have an opportunity to bring change in Russia.
“I think that the West should be more decisive in its measures and behavior toward Russia to push it to the world community,” Zhuchkova argued.
The round table discussion can be watched in entirety on BulgariaAnalytica.org and on the Bulgaria Analytica YouTube channel.