Russia: Bright Present, Darker Future?

Posted in Russia | 23-Jul-07 | Author: Dieter Farwick

"The opposing groups are able to organize demonstratuions, but they have no political clout"
"The opposing groups are able to organize demonstratuions, but they have no political clout"
Summertime 2007 in Moscow and St. Petersburg is an exciting highlight for visitors. Compared with a first visit in 2004, progress is visible in the streets. Buildings have been refurbished, cars are bigger, more expensive and newer models, women are dressed beautifully and the number of obviously poor people in the streets has decreased. Luxury is not hidden but presented without second scruples. The wedding ceremonies are celebrated driving leased stretched limousines and drinking champagne in front of historic sites. The fashion shops present clothing and accessories at prices higher than the annual salary of ordinary citizens.

One price for progress is the almost permanent traffic jams that have resulted in spite of an efficient and cheap public transport system.

The beauty of the Kremlin in Moscow and of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the numerous churches and palaces on the way from Moscow to St. Petersburg is breathtaking. It’s an irony of history that Russia nowadays attracts millions of visitors – bringing hard currency - with its churches, monasteries, palaces and manor houses of the Tsars and other noble families – assets that Soviet communism wanted to destroy forever.

Big Russian companies show their power with huge modern headquarters. The present sailors of the Aurora, from which the revolution in 1917 started, see the headquarters of Gazprom just on the other side of the Neva – a symbol of “turbo-capitalism” in Russia.

Visitors leaving Russia after their visits to Moscow and Petersburg without closer contacts to ordinary Russian citizens remember Russia as an affluent and booming country. This is one side of the coin. If one talks to ordinary Russian people and well-informed insiders, then the second side of the coin becomes visible. For visitors, Moscow and St. Petersburg are a kind of huge village of Potemkin. To visit Moscow and St. Petersburg is attractive, but to live there is a different issue.

The Putin System

The system is designed around one man – Vladimir Putin, who on the other hand depends upon a huge and loyal bureaucracy to govern this country with its eleven time zones. It is surprising that the question of Putin’s political future seems to be more interesting for foreign visitors than for the Russian majority. The majority of Russians are glad to have Vladimir Putin as President.

Michael Gorbachev is more respected in the West than he is in Russia. He is blamed for the demise of the Soviet Union – for Putin the “greatest tragedy of the 20th Century.” Boris Yeltsin is seen as the president who brought creative chaos to Russia. Under his presidency, a new business elite – the oligarchs – conquered and plundered Russia and got unbelievably rich. On the other hand, under Yeltsin democracy was given a fair chance to develop.

The famous White House became the cradle of Russian short-lived democracy. Corruption, organized crime and a huge bureaucracy became facts of Russian life. Increasing inequality split Russian society into a minority of very rich people and a majority of very poor people who have to work in two or three jobs to safeguard their living at a modest level.

After Gorbachev and Yeltsin, it was not too difficult for Putin to get better ratings than both of them in Russia – and abroad. His “guided democracy” – a nice name for an authoritarian regime – brought a kind of stability people had been missing. He created a strong state. “Bad oligarchs” were put in jail or left the country. “Good oligarchs” that cooperated with Putin were able to build new big companies as national champions- like Gazprom.

But as big and powerful they are and might become, they are puppets on the Kremlin’s strings. Putin’s power base is formed by the so-called “Siloviki.” The Siloviki are comprised of representatives from the secret services and the military as well as representatives of the military-industrial complex.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Elites at the Russian Academy of Sciences, commented on December 20, 2006, in Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty about the influence of the Siloviki:

“Today, 26 percent of the current Russian elite are people who used to work in military institutions, including secret services. The 78 percent figure comes from my special analysis of the resumes of all those belonging to the Russian elite. A number of them used to work in so-called affiliated structures – structures that were connected to the KGB during the Soviet era…Their number in power structures appears to have increased…New is the fact that Siloviki expanded to spheres that are not traditional for them – politics and economics, both on a government level and in state-related companies.”

However, the three groupings do not form a monolith block within the Kremlin. The three groups follow their own interests and fight for influence and power in consulting the president. The governors of the so-called 88 “subjects” are selected by Putin. In the Russian parliament – the Duma – the parties supporting Putin hold more than 70 per cent of the seats.

There are no free media in Russia. Critics lose their jobs or even their lives – as was the case for Anna Politkovskaya. Putin has restricted the work of international NGOs by law.

Dieter Farwick, left, and Konstantin Eggert, right: "It is never said but nevertheless there exists a clear arrangement between the…
Dieter Farwick, left, and Konstantin Eggert, right: "It is never said but nevertheless there exists a clear arrangement between the society in large and the powers."
There is no real opposition in Russia. They are split. Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion, is primarily fighting for human rights. He and Grigory Yawlinsky are individual figures. They do not cooperate. Kasparov’s political alliance with Eduard Limonov, the leader of the National-Bolshevik Party, caused other opposition groups to distance themselves from him. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov plays a minor role.

They all are able to organize demonstrations, but they have no political clout – at present. Even in totally free elections they have no chance to get more than 5 percent for each of the various opposition groupings. What does this mean for the presidential elections in March 2008? The Putin system will win a vast majority in the parliamentary elections in December 2007 and Putin will decide who will be the next president in 2008.

There are some speculations under discussion. People who know Putin better than I do cannot imagine that he will live as a political pensioner in Moscow or St. Petersburg. He will play a vital role – be it in industry, in “his” political party or – even as president. It might be possible that the Russian people will ask Putin via referendum to stay in charge. It might be possible that the Duma change the law, allowing Putin to go on. There is another option: Putin might pick and choose a candidate who might retire after a short period of time opening the door again for Putin.

There are two candidates from the Kremlin – Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev – who without any doubt have the competence and personal power to follow Putin.

But – this would not change the system in the short run. They would try to follow the line of their godfather Putin.

Elena Tregubova, a very courageous and critical Russian author who knows the power mechanism in Moscow’s Kremlin very well, writes in her book with the German title “Die Mutanten des Kreml” (Russian titles: Baiki kremljowskogo diggera” and “ Protschtschanije kremljowskogo diggers):

“Putin’s single aim and objective is to safeguard the power of his clan. He will not shy away from any means to reach this aim and objective…The talking heads change within the Kremlin, but the body remains the same – a Mafioso clan, a corporation, which holds the power even using brutal force” (tranlslation by D.F.).

After having survived a murderous attack and having lost her job, Elena Tregubova lives in exile in London. Along with Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in Moscow, Elena Tregubova is the most outspoken critic of Putin, whom she has known personally for many years, and the Kremlin’s politics).

Putin’s Foreign Policy

When I listened to Putin’s tough speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 10, 2007, many colleagues along with myself asked the question: What is the main target group of this speech? After my talks in Moscow, I am convinced that the audience at home in Russia was the main target group.

The Russian people had the feeling that under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Russia had lost its position as a respected power on the world stage. The loss of former Soviet republics, the enlargement of NATO as well as the status of the United States as the only surviving superpower from the Cold War re-enforced the inferiority complex that Russia has with the West - a traditional Russian mood. These feelings have been further strengthened by the emerging powers China, India and Japan.

With his speech in Munich and similar tough speeches that followed, Putin obviously gave national pride back to the Russian people. He skillfully plays the cards of Russian patriotism. Russians feel that their country is back again on the world power stage.

Sochi will host the Olympic Winter Games in 2014. This was a very successful coup of Putin. Putin’s reluctance to cooperate with the West to find a solution for Iran and Kosovo gets domestic support. His unilateral suspension of the CFE treaty is more symbolic than substance as the conventional forces in Europe – especially heavy tanks and artillery howitzer - have lost a great part of their former Cold War significance, but the suspension follows the same line of muscle flexing. The conflict between Russia and the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the refusal of Russia to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, who is suspected of being involved in the murder, and the mutual expulsion of four diplomats form another milestone in the rising tensions between Russia and Western countries.

With his attacks against the West in general and, in particular, against the US, Putin paints a gloomy picture of the great threats and risks that Russia is confronted with – now and in the future. These threats ask for a strong Russian leader – as Vladimir Putin represents in a unique way.

The Price is High for Guided Democracy

The renowned Russian political expert, Lilija Schewzowa, describes the fusion of the legislative and executive side of the Russian political system as efficient “vertical” – a clear top-down system without giving any leeway to lower level or different regions. It is surprising that the vast majority of Russian people accept the deficits of this political system as a price they have to pay for the stability of their lives.

In her book A Russian Diary”(Rossiskije chronikije), Anna Politkovskaya repeatedly blames her compatriots for their a-political attitude of “apathy and frustration.” The obvious misuse of alcohol might be the consequence of this apathy and frustration.

The murder of this renowned journalist caused a political and cultural tsunami. It sent a strong signal to people who oppose the Putin system. Putin’s reaction was remarkable. After three days of silence he called Anna Politkovskaya “irrelevant” and declared that her murder damaged Russia’s image more than her publications.

"Putin's power base is formed by the so-called "Siloviki"."
"Putin's power base is formed by the so-called "Siloviki"."
Another aspect of the Russians people’s reluctance to openly oppose the system is the dependence of many people upon financial state transfers. In Russia, there is obviously only a small middle class between the few rich and the many have-nots. The quest for a strong leadership and the ability to suffer are obviously characteristics of the Russian people. Many Russians are a-political and not too much interested in public life. They try to care for their private life and that of their families. Konstantin Eggert, Moscow Bureau Editor, BBC Russian Service, describes the relationship between the government and the people as follows:

“It is never said but nevertheless there exists a clear arrangement between the society at large and the powers that be – the society is pretty much left to its own devices, as long as in exchange it does not dabble in politics and votes “the right way” every once in a while – during parliamentary and presidential elections.”

The most pressing social issues are: The unfair distribution of national income, education, healthcare and in the mid-term, the demographic development.

Low salaries and very low pensions force many people to fight for their survival – looking at the higher living costs in the cities. Households need more than one income. Many people have two or three jobs. It is interesting to hear that they have to pay only 13 percent of taxes for the first job.

Healthcare is officially cost-free. But medical doctors ask for bribes for better treatment. In comparison with Europe, life expectancy is very low for men in Russia at 58 years. In this respect, the misuse of vodka plays a negative role. However, Russian society is getting older – especially women – and asking for a longer payment of pensions the state has to shoulder in combination with higher costs for medical treatment of the ageing population.

The Future of Russia

“It should become as it is.” This ironic assessment by the author Vasili Axjonow is quoted by Anna Politkovskaya and expresses the fear that present Russian life might not be sustainable in the future.

There are certainly serious reasons for this anxiety. The high revenues from selling oil and gas will not be infinitely available. Oil production in Russia has already come to a peak. Production costs will increase as production gets more complicated. It is far from certain that high investments in new or so far less efficient oil fields will be paid back by the market.

So far, Russia does not spend enough money to prepare for a post-oil era. Investments in education, new technology and better healthcare are insufficient. The ageing and decline of the population by millions under poor health conditions will demand high social costs.

For the time being, there is enough money to mitigate these social problems. But with declining revenues and mounting domestic problems, the current stability might fade away. The mixture of guided democracy with unlimited greed, corruption, organized crime, poverty, a lack of morale and of free media as well as non-existing justice is at present under control. But will it be so in the future?

When trying to assess the future of the US, the danger of “imperial overstretch” is often mentioned - this is not so regarding Russia, but this question is legitimate regarding Russia. Does a country like Russia with about 130 million people (US 300 million), with a GDP of about 400 billion USD (US 10 trillion), with a defense budget of about 60 billion (US 500 billion) have enough resources to match the US, the EU, China and India as present and emerging world powers? Can Russia sustain a policy of power projection from Asia via Europe to Africa? Can Russia afford well-trained and well-equipped military forces with a defense budget of about 60 billion USD (the US spends yearly more money on research and development than the Russian military gets for its total budget)? (Figures of defense spending are taken from “Military Balance 2006,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, London). How can they afford to equip military forces from the deep sea to space? How can they afford to station troops abroad – as in Georgia? What is the morale of Russian troops fighting for years in Chechnya with higher losses than the US encounters in Iraq and Afghanistan?

History does not repeat itself. Hopefully this is true for Russia, too. The Soviet Union imploded because it could no longer afford the arms race with the US and NATO countries. Does Russia want a new arms race? Russia should ask Gorbachev about the lessons he learned about the arms race. For him and the Soviet Union, SDI was the decisive signal that the arms race with the US was no longer affordable. This fact became the decisive factor for the demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

To counter the US Anti-Ballistic Missile system (ABM) with high investments would divert scarce resources in the wrong direction – investing in hard power instead of improving soft power.

Nobody, neither in the US nor in Europe is interested in a failing Russia. The West and Russia need each other – the West needs Russian energy, Russia needs Western high-tech and modern technology.

The West should offer a fair cooperation, but should avoid the term “partnership.” Partnership implies a set of common values and common goals. This is not possible between Western pluralistic and democratic governments and the Putin system. Russia has to solve an additional problem: National identity. Most Russians do not regard Russia as a multi-ethnic entity. Russia belongs to the Russians; ethnic minorities have to accept this view.

"The talking heads might change within the Kremlin, but the body remains the same."
"The talking heads might change within the Kremlin, but the body remains the same."
What is the position Russia and its people want to take? No country can escape geography and history. Both are not very favorable for a modern Russia. Do they believe they are Europeans or are they Asians – or both? Are they able and willing to build one strong pillar on the common Eurasian continent with the EU as the second pillar, or do they see China as a strategic partner and counterweight to the West?

Russians have to find the answers themselves. This includes the reconditioning of the Soviet past. The recent Russian movie “Grus 200” questions the official Kremlin picture of Soviet history and attacks the glorification of the Soviet past. It comes as no surprise that this movie provokes very controversial reactions.

The weekly magazine “Kommersant Wlast” calls the movie “the Russian movie without any compromise.” The TV channel “Rossija” calls the movie “the most anti-Soviet movie.” “Rossija” and other state controlled TV stations refrain from showing this movie.

The fact that Vladimir Putin celebrates officially the anniversary of the Chekists is – to put it mildly – surprising. Without an open debate and transparent information, the Soviet past will remain a closed chapter for most Russians and is next to impossible to deal with in the future.

Germany for example did a lot to openly and painfully tackle the dark chapter of 12 years under Hitler. It is important especially for younger generations to know the history of their own countries with the bright and the dark chapters. With this knowledge, the present and the future are better to understand and it makes the interrelation with other countries much easier.

The question is whether there is a chance to influence the future development of Russia and Russia’s political system from the outside. History teaches that this is very difficult. Any political and cultural change has to come from the inside – as we nowadays recognize in Iraq and in Afghanistan. But – does this mean that we have to keep our mouths shut although we are aware of the violations of human rights and democratic rules under Putin?

Western media – including the Internet – should provide a platform for Russian opposing view and should also inform the Russian people about relevant world affairs and opinions. Russian authorities have already recognized that the Internet can be a very dangerous means of infiltration of Russian society by exchanging opposing views within Russia and from abroad as the following report shows:

“A political battle is raging in Russian cyberspace. Opposition parties and independent media say murky forces have committed vast resources to hacking and crippling their websites similar to those that hit tech-savvy Estonia as the Baltic nation sparred with Russia over a Soviet war memorial….” Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations states: “A huge information war awaits Russia before the elections…. There will be purges of online publications, shutdowns or takeovers of last independent media outlets and strong pressure on Web users.”

In her book, Elena Tregubova accuses the West – especially the politicians and media - of being a complacent accomplice of the Putin system. She reproaches the West with its reluctance to call a spade a spade in talks with Russian leaders:

“ You have any right to forget what I have told you. But, please be not surprised and do not pretend to be innocent, if and when Putin (or any successor, perhaps a member of the new “Politbüro”) starts blackmailing the West. History does not know any dictator that sooner or later did not become aggressive against his near and more distant neighbors...

If you do nothing then you share the responsibility for the bloodshed in Russia done by the Kremlin” (translation by D.F.).

One issue is not visible in Moscow and St. Petersburg: Islam. There are only a few mosques for the 2-3 million of Muslims living there. Muslims dressed as Muslims are very rarely seen in the streets – less than in Germany. They are obviously dressed in the Russian style. But below the surface, problems with Moslems – coming from relatively poor southern republics of the Caucasus region – do exist, especially because of the war in Chechnya. I witnessed a clash between young Russians and young non-Russians right in front of the Kremlin. The police stopped the clash immediately.

Visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg is a reminder of common cultural roots with Europe. To find the common is sometimes more difficult than to expand on the divide, but it is worth trying.

"Russia should transform into a federal structure to enhance decentralization and regional initiatives."


  • Russia should start an open and fair reconditioning of its Soviet past

  • Russian leaders should have more faith and confidence in the Russian people to be able to design their own lives

  • Russia and its people have to identify their position and their role in the world

  • Russia should transform into a federal structure to enhance decentralization and regional initiatives

  • Russia should see the US and Europe as reliable partners for a common future

  • Russia should open the system to more democratic elements

  • Russia must enhance the protection of human rights and minorities

  • Russia should not start a new arms race they can only lose

  • Russia should allow free media and free speech and should stop cyber warfare at home and abroad

  • Russia should invest more of its revenues in education, modern technology and healthcare

  • Russia should accept the total independence of the former Soviet Republic and refrain from any kind of political blackmail.

  • Russia should allow international NGOs to work in Russia as in other countries

  • Russia should work together with the West to solve the problems with Iran and Kosovo

  • The West –especially politicians and the media – should transfer a realistic picture of Russia

  • The West should offer a fair cooperation to the mutual benefit, but should stop talking about partnership

  • Western media and publishers should offer platforms for publications of critical authors

  • The West should use the media – including the Internet – to inform the Russian people about worldwide political and cultural issues

  • Russia and the West should refrain from starting a new Cold War. They should use scarce resources in soft power capabilities

Please read the comment of Dmitry Udalov: "Hidden Problems of the Russian Economy"