The Politics of the Economic Crisis in Russia:

The financial crisis and especially the recent decline in oil prices have hit the Russian economy hard, and have shaken previously strong popular support for Vladimir Putin's regime. In late January, there were widespread anti-government demonstrations organized by a variety of opposition groups. Russia's growth during the 8 years of Putin's rule has been overwhelmingly based on revenues from oil exports, which boomed as oil prices rose. Now, however, the game seems to be up. Although oil prices might go up again, they are unlikely to regain their pre-recession levels anytime soon.

Putin's popularity has suffered enough that even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev - whom Putin handpicked for the post - is beginning to distance himself from his longtime patron - criticizing Putin's economic policies and tabling a Putin-sponsored law that would have criminalized most political dissent as "treason."

Until now, both Russian and foreign opinion has mostly seen Medvedev as a lackey that Putin installed in the presidency last year so as to circumvent term limits. If this particular rat is considering jumping ship, that means the vessel in question might really be in danger of sinking.

Anders Aslund, a leading expert on the Russian economy, says that the nation has arrived at a crossroads:

Russia is at a crossroads. There are basically two choices. Either it becomes more authoritarian, with state capitalism and protectionism — [and] then it has no need for cooperation with the European Union. Or we see a political and economic liberalization, which is the opposite direction.

I suspect that Aslund is right. It's possible that the regime will now be forced to liberalize, and Medvedev has been making a few gestures in that direction. Liberal democratic opposition leaders, such as Garry Kasparov, might be able to turn the crisis to their advantage.

However, it's also possible that the economic crisis will ultimately play into the hands of Russia's communists and ultranationalists. The latter have also been out in force lately, blaming Russia's economic woes on the West (as Putin has also done) and on the Jews. Unfortunately, anti-Western and anti-Semitic sentiment has been bolstered in recent years by the Putin regime's nationalistic propaganda, which even went so far as to sponsor a TV "documentary" claiming that the US government itself organized the 9/11 attacks so as to manufacture an excuse to assert dominance over the world. The influence of Putin's propaganda might outlast Putin himself.

As bad as the authoritarian Putin regime is, there are nationalist and communist forces in Russia that are even worse. It remains to be seen whether they or their liberal rivals become the main political beneficiaries of Russia's economic crisis.


The Future of Russia:

Economist Moscow correspondent Arkady Ostrovsky has an interesting article on the future of Russia in the wake of the economic crisis. Like me, Ostrovsky worries that the crisis will strengthen communist and radical nationalist political forces that may be even worse than Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime. As he points out, the Kremlin is trying to avoid blame for Russia's current economic troubles by claiming that it's all the fault of the US and the West. More generally, they have been using the government's control of the media to promote Russian nationalism and anti-Americanism and minimize the crimes of communism for several years now. Obviously, this has the effect of making the Russian public more receptive to the ultrananationalist message.

The problem is not unique to Russia. Nationalists everywhere love to whitewash their own country's history while blaming foreigners and ethnic minorities for all their problems. That, however, will not be much comfort if radical anti-Western nationalists manage to take over one of the world's largest oil producers and second biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the harmful legacy of Putin's propaganda campaigns and repression of the liberal democratic opposition might well outlast Putin himself.


Garry Kasparov on Putin:

Russian opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov argues that Vladimir Putin's days are numbered. Kasparov may be right that elite and public anger at the economic crisis and Putin's poor handling of it might lead to the collapse of his regime. I am less optimistic than Kasparov, however, about the likelihood that a post-Putin Russian government will be better than the current one. Kasparov seems to assume that Putin's fall will open the door for pro-western liberal democrats like Kasparov himself. I hope he is right, but I fear that ultranationalists and possibly the communists are in a stronger position to inherit Putin's mantle. They have greater influence in powerful institutions such as the military and secret police, and may well also have greater support from Russian public opinion. As I noted in earlier posts in this series, Russian opinion has been heavily influenced by years of nationalistic and anti-Western propaganda sponsored by Putin even as liberal democratic oppositionists were largely banned from the electronic media.


Will President Medvedev Really Break with Putin and Liberalize Russia?

In recent months, there have been a few indications that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev might break with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - the authoritarian leader who handpicked him for his current position - and liberalize the country's economic and political system. In today's Wall Street Journal, however, Russian opposition leader Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion, writes that a Putin-Medvedev breakup may be less likely than many Westerners hope:

It has become fashionable to speak of change and liberalization in Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev. May 7 marked his one-year anniversary in office. He has recently granted an interview with an opposition newspaper, allowed a few human-rights activists to criticize Russia's regime, and even started a blog. There is also a new administration in Washington that wants a fresh start with foreign powers.

However, Mr. Medvedev's gestures have not been matched by policy. It is more appropriate to think of Russia as living under Vladimir Putin's ninth year in power. Mr. Putin is now prime minister but still in charge. His agenda of oppression and plunder is still the course in Russia. The Kremlin's willingness to install its candidates in office [without free election] and persecute its opponents remains undiminished.

If Medvedev does make a decisive break with Putin, Kasparov believes it will likely be because of political pressures created by the global recession rather than because Medvedev genuinely wants liberalization:

There are optimistic rumors in the West of a potential rift between Messrs. Medvedev and Putin. With the steep drop in energy prices, the Russian economy in free fall, and the need to find a scapegoat, a clash is likely. But it will not be because the two men differ significantly in matters of morality and power. We have seen enough to recognize that they are both enemies of democracy, open competition, and free expression.

That seems roughly accurate to me.


Obama to Meet with Russian Opposition Leaders:

Like Cathy Young, I worry that President Obama might be overly solicitous of the interests of Russia's authoritarian regime. In this respect, he could potentially repeat the mistakes of President Bush, who - until relatively late in his presidency - tried very hard to develop a close relationship Russia's ex-KGB ruler Vladimir Putin (including ending US criticism of Russian atrocities in Chechnya, signing a nuclear arms limitation pact on terms favoring Russia, and waxing eloquent about how he had looked into Putin's eyes and saw an "trustworthy" partner with a wonderful "soul"), while getting few concessions from the Russians in return.

President Obama's decision to meet with Russian opposition leaders during his trip to Moscow is, however, a small hopeful sign:

President Barack Obama has invited several prominent members of the Russian opposition, including United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov, for a meeting in Moscow. Boris Nemtsov, a chair of the Solidarity opposition movement, has also been invited to the meeting, set to take place on July 7th at the Ritz Carlton hotel. The format of the event was still unclear.

"Of course, this will be interesting," Kasparov said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station. "The previous American administration didn't dare to do this...."

Obama will travel to Moscow on July 6th for meetings with the Kremlin as well as business and civil society leaders. A meeting with Russia's leading human rights advocates has been scheduled at the Metropol hotel, the location of a consultation between representatives from NGOs in the US and Russia.

Earlier, Boris Nemtsov argued that it was essential for Obama to meet with opposition forces in Russia. "If the White House agrees to Putin's suggestion to speak only with pro-Putin organizations… this will mean that Putin has won, but not only that: Putin will become be assured that Obama is weak," he said.

Falling oil prices and the financial crisis have reduced Putin's popularity and weakened his regime's grip on power. Now more than ever, it is important for the US to avoid putting all of our eggs in the Putin basket and encourage pro-Western liberal opposition forces in Russia.

That doesn't mean we should never cooperate with Putin on issues of common interest. For example, if Putin suddenly shows a willingness to work with the US on Iran, North Korea, and other issues, Obama should pursue any such opportunities that might arise. Effective foreign policy sometimes requires cooperation with unsavory regimes. While the current Russian government is odious, it isn't nearly as bad as its communist predecessors, or as repressive as the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and several other US allies.

So far, however, the Putin regime has done virtually nothing to reciprocate either Bush's many overtures or Obama's more recent efforts to press the "reset button" on US-Russian relations. As opposition leader Boris Nemtsov suggested in the passage quoted above, perhaps Putin will be in a more cooperative mood if we avoid looking weak and demonstrate that we have other options. Even if he doesn't, we have little to lose by working to foster liberal forces in Russia. And if the current regime's popularity continues to decline, we have a lot to gain from working to promote liberal alternatives to the strongly anti-Western communists and ultra-nationalists who are the other main alternative to the status quo in Russia. Obama's meeting with the Russian opposition leaders is a small but symbolically valuable step in the right direction.