Can Putin survive Putinism? (Part II)
Behind the scenes
Western political analysts usually portray Putin as a mastermind chess player, who anticipates his enemies’ moves and is always ahead of them by some steps. In reality, Putin is rather a tactician than a strategist, as he plays much more according to the judo’s rather than the chess’s philosophy. Instead of preparing a concrete aim, he created a situation in which he could choose from plenty of possibilities. As many options would be left open before him, he couldn’t be driven into a corner. And as a professional judo player, he is willing to strike through using and turning his adversaries’ weakness for his own advantage. That is why Putin keeps everyone in uncertainty – to avoid others to gain a positional advantage. But this derives not from his demonic ingenuity, but rather from his limited room for manoeuvre.
At the same time, more and more people from the population want Putin to leave. Although currently, his political basis could be noted as stable, in the long run, he could only keep their support with an increasing standard of living. But this can be only achieved through remarkable economic growth and infrastructural investments. Before the oil price war with Saudi Arabia and the United States, the regime would have resorted to using its reserves in order to finance projects that could inspire economic growth. But the budgetary support also dwindled remarkably as a consequence of the low oil prices. Although the weak rouble can compensate part of them for a while, if oil prices stayed low in the long run, the government would have reduced the expenditures or raise taxes – maybe both. Albeit after 6 weeks of turbulence a final deal had been concluded, Russia came out from this conflict in a much weakened position. Besides her further international isolation, she not only lost important markets, but the Russian economy has to calculate with far lower oil prices than before the conflict emerged. In the eyes of the people, these happenings could erode Putin’s already decaying popularity even further.
On the contrary, although the political elite is also divided, they stand as one about the question of supporting Putin’s staying in power. Namely, a successor would not only mobilise his own men inevitably but may also sacrifice some former leaders symbolically to distinguish himself from the former regime. That is why the elite is interested in stability and exerting pressure onto Putin to conclude this question as soon as possible. The current amendments were proposed for their tranquilization presumably. Although it is almost certain that Putin will keep the presidency, we cannot exclude the option in which he could change his mind. But if this came into the light too early, he would put himself into significant danger.
This is because in this case, the elite would immediately start courting the possible successor, or even worse, they would make a deal about one. Both of these scenarios would bring the immediate start of turf wars in the background, and Putin would become a lame duck as everyone would position themselves for the upcoming times. However, if Putin will not dare to appoint and build up a successor, the moment he weakens, cruel turf wars could break out within the elite, just as happened in the cases of Lenin and Stalin. So it can be imagined that one day Putin could share the fate of his predecessors. While one day he is the lord over life and death, the following day he could easily become the incapacitated victim of his own over centralized system.
European History teaches through many lessons, what happens to those over centralized political systems like Putin’s. These regimes are collapsing the right moment when the person who holds the real power has been taken out from the picture. But Russia is a different civilization, one that has been through a very different Historical development compared to Europe. Here, the transition of power has never happened democratically. The all-time regime has never transmitted its power, or it has been overthrown through the use of violence. However, no matter how the transition of power happens, in the end, someone will take all the power. Presumably, that will happen after the era of Putin as well. Putinism is likely to live on for a while in Russia unless the system will not be overthrown by violence.
But if Putin finally decides to complete two more presidential terms, an interesting question appears over what will happen with him after 2036, at the age of 83. Obviously, no one can answer this question now, as we don’t even see the events of the near future. Besides this, many variables could also appear, which are not counted yet by anyone. This situation is clearly reflected by the current Coronavirus Crisis, although the consequences of Climate Crisis or technological development could bring even more factors of uncertainty. For example, Russia’s neighbour, China has demonstrated not only her ability to operate capitalism without political liberalisation but also that with the help of the Internet, she can accomplish greater state control over her society than ever before. Unfortunately, the technological advances of the future may open up entirely new perspectives of exercising power before such dictatorships like the Putin regime.
Of course, countless junctures could happen in the meantime, even in the short term. It is far not a negligible question about Putin’s 2024 presidential term, whether the state party could gain enough support in the Parliament during the 2021 elections or not. However, in the medium term, the demographic crisis and the country’s outdated economic structure represents the greatest threat to the regime. The regime has to find a solution to these challenges even in the short term if it doesn’t want to risk collapse or even a possible explosion within the society. However, breaking out from this deadlock could be accomplished by the liberalization of the political system, the opening up to the West, and the modernization of the economy. But due to the bitter experiences of the 90’s and the political logic of the system, the regime would presumably respond only with further tightening of the political system. This, however, would only increase the international isolation and lagging of Russia, making the regime even more vulnerable.
However, whether the political system created by Putin will survive him or not is not the question in the short term. On the contrary, the real question is whether Putin could survive Putinism, or sooner or later will also become a victim of his own system. Nonetheless, Putinism is not the real cause of Russia’s current situation – it is merely its symptom. The root of this problem is the dilemma that Russia has been looking for an answer to for 300 years.
Namely, the greatest question of Russian History is whether Russia will be able to be committed to and fulfil the modernization of her political and economic systems consistently, or will she continue to jump back and forth between modernization and isolation. Avoiding to commit to modernization only creates so many deadlocked political systems over and over again, just like the regime of Putin. They will never offer real solutions to Russia.
The author of this article is András Mikó