Russia 2014: Challenges of the New Year

http://www.imrussia.org/en/politics/643-russia-2014-challenges-of-the-new-year

The year 2014 will be an intense one for Russia. In February, Sochi will host the Olympic Games. The G8 summit will also be held in Sochi in June. Ukraine, relations with which are far from settled, will remain the Kremlin’s foreign policy priority. But political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya suggests that it is domestic policy that will prove the most uncertain: Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to choose between a further “crackdown” and “controlled plurality.”

 

In 2014, the outlook for the Kremlin remains grim, as the political system becomes too slow and inefficient.

 

One gets the impression that Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers to be engaged in foreign policy, rather than in domestic affairs. The year 2013 was rather successful for him, although Russia’s progress can be considered limited. First of all, there’s Syria, in which Putin has played a central role in the prevention of war. In addition, Russia and the United States managed to avoid a new wave of confrontation following the passage of a sinister law prohibiting the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens, and following the mutual introduction of sanctions “lists.” Most of Russia’s problems remain unsolved, however. Moscow continues to be worried about the anti-ballistic missile issue, and the Russian leadership’s ideological alienation from Western democratic values continues to grow. Although Putin’s rhetoric against the West softened noticeably in 2013, compared to late 2012, the lull in his attacks seems like an attempt to obscure the growing value gap between Russia and the democratic world.

In this regard, the Kremlin’s foreign policy priorities will markedly contradict its domestic political priorities in the coming year. On the one hand, Putin is likely to continue to adhere to the “conservative” agenda, relying on “traditional values,” the ideological meaning ​​of which is tied to the current trend in Russian politics of opposing Western values. Putin has had to increasingly explain why Russia does not go down the democratic road in the Western sense, pursuing the full range of human rights for its citizens—why “we” are not like “them.”

On the other hand, in 2014 Russia will lead the G8 summit, and this will work to constrain the “conservative wave.” The Russian leadership’s choice of priorities is not accidental: anti-narcotics cooperation (linked to this is the issue of expansion of Russia’s influence on the situation in Afghanistan against the backdrop of the U.S. withdrawal, the optimization of cooperation with NATO); the fight against terrorism (perhaps the best theme for effective interaction between Russia and the U.S. and NATO); conflict settlement; the formation of a global risk management system for natural and man-made disasters (where Russia is trying to take the initiative by proposing a set of technological solutions); and global health security. The success of Russia’s leadership of the G8 depends on Putin’s restraint within the country; in fact, under certain circumstances, Western leaders will refuse to attend the G8 summit, as well as the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. In this sense, the greatest danger could be Putin’s frustration with Russia’s inability to integrate into the group of full-fledged world leaders. He experienced such a disappointment in 2005–2007, and this resulted in him taking his policy in the direction of “sovereign democracy” and “state corporatism.”

Another such disappointment could push Putin to put greater pressure on the opposition. In 2014, the investigation of criminal cases against Alexei Navalny, who has already received five years’ probation in the “Kirovles case,” will be continued. There is also little call for optimism with regard to “Bolotnaya case”: despite the government’s decision to grant amnesty to four defendants, the rest, according to public statements of the president, could get real time. Putin’s principal aim is to engrain in protesters’ minds that physical resistance to law enforcement will not be tolerated—to get citizens to recognize the authority of law enforcers, and to prioritize their interests above all others’.

In domestic policy, the Kremlin’s stance against critics of the government can be expected to remain the same; however, the time has passed when the authorities regarded the opposition as an insignificant factor. Two years ago, during his TV “live line,” Putin maliciously mocked white ribbons (a symbol of political protest) and the leaders of the Bolotnaya Square protests. This was reflective of old tactics aimed at reducing opposition activists to straw men, relegating them beyond the realm of legitimate political struggle. But this approach has been revised: the practice of holding direct elections for governors has been reinstated; the rules for registering political parties have been simplified. The Kremlin has de facto recognized protest as an essential factor in the country’s political life that it would be dangerous to ignore. The year 2013 confirmed this trend: the Kremlin decided not to imprison Navalny, who took second place in the Moscow mayoral election, and Yevgeny Roizman, who had previously also been subject to criminal prosecution, was elected the Yekaterinburg mayor.

This year will be a big test for Putin personally as well. His main challenge is not the opposition or Western leaders’ toughening criticism, but Russia’s own bureaucracy coupled with the state oligarchs.

The new political tactics of the Russian authorities do not constitute a change of direction, however. The Kremlin intends to do everything possible to prevent the opposition from progressing beyond the electoral field. The struggle for minds will take more violent forms, and the majority will be increasingly contrasted with the “decaying” minority. Therefore, in domestic politics, a transformation of the ruling party can be expected: the United Russia party will gradually fade into the background, giving way to a more aggressive “Russian Popular Front,” which will try to take the position of quasi-state between Putin and formal government institutions.

In recognizing the opposition as a real player, the Kremlin has begun building relationships with opposition members—striking deals and twisting arms: someone is promised a position as mayor; someone else, an opportunity to earn more money; someone else, a chance to negotiate access to high offices. Government critics are invited to sign “constructive” contracts in exchange for protection from political and criminal prosecution. The authorities seem to be saying to the opposition, “We will let you work, but you must recognize us as the only legitimate power center.”

The Moscow City Duma elections will be held in 2014. These elections possess the significance of a federal election, and it is likely that Mikhail Prokhorov’s “Civic Platform” party will run (the businessman promised to take revenge for the fact that he was prevented from participating in the Moscow mayoral elections). Prokhorov, however, has already proven his flexibility in relations with the Kremlin, and there is no doubt that his party’s participation in the elections will be based on “constructivity.”

There will also be fourteen gubernatorial elections in 2014. Despite the persistence of the “municipal filter” that allows the current heads of the regions to weed out any unwanted competitors, these elections will be a factor in reviving the country’s political life and increasing political competition. It is possible that St. Petersburg will see a new governor; rumors of George Poltavchenko’s exit circulated extensively in late 2013. Dmitry Kozak, who will complete the primary mission of his current post—carrying out the Olympic Games in Sochi—could replace him. This might open the possibility for a cabinet “reconfiguration,” although the chances that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will retire remain small.

In the coming months, the Kremlin will have to focus on two things: the Olympics and Ukraine. All resources are utilized to ensure that the Games pass without serious incidents. Despite the refusal of many Western leaders to attend the Olympic Games in Sochi, for Putin, they still remain the central event of his reign. It is politically important that he demonstrate Russia’s efficiency to the world through the example of a grand sporting event. Hopefully, the story of the poorly made Olympic torchwill not be typical of Russia’s Olympic construction projects.

In the coming year, Ukraine will be one of the main problems of Russian foreign policy. The gas issue remains unresolved, as does the problem of Ukraine’s accession to the Customs Union. Moscow expects tractability from Kiev, but Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is trying to keep one foot in both worlds (Russia and the EU) and is not making any promises. Therefore, we cannot dismiss the possibility of new gas wars and political instability in Ukraine itself, where Yanukovych’s position is becoming increasingly vulnerable.

This year will be a big test for Putin personally as well. His main challenge is not the opposition or Western leaders’ toughening criticism, but Russia’s own bureaucracy coupled with the state oligarchs. The system has become too slow and inefficient, and Putin’s political opportunities to influence it more limited. Russian officials steal a lot and openly, abusing their proximity to the budget (the most significant source of their wealth), and neglecting state governance. Perhaps 2014 will be the year in which Putin finally realizes that loyalty to him personally (the principle on which he built his system) does not mean loyalty to the Russian state, and that at some point, an opportunity to steal will not be a perk but an end in itself, for the sake of which the bureaucracy will walk over national interests, and over Putin himself.

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