Future Scenarios for Russia:
An Opti­mistic, but Realistic Outlook

Foto: Image & Shutterstock

Putin has turned Russia into a dicta­tor­ship, but the country is by no means destined to be a dark impe­ri­al­istic power. The Free World needs to support Russia’s next attempt for demo­c­ratic change instead of snubbing it, writes Vladimir Milov.

This paper is part of the project Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s own.

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ABSTRACT

The current dicta­tor­ship in Moscow does not reflect a delib­erate choice of the Russian people. It is the result of a swift and coor­di­nated power grab on the back­ground of strong economic growth in the early 2000s. Russian society has shown little appetite for aggres­sive imperial policies over the past years, and the pro-democracy movement has been far stronger in terms of street protest potential than all other political forces.

Portrait von Vladimir Milov

Vladimir Milov is a Russian oppo­si­tion politi­cian, publicist and energy expert.

The present regime is unlikely to switch course as long as Putin remains in charge, but once he is gone, demo­c­ratic change is much more likely than further radi­cal­iza­tion. The only thing which holds back softer policies is Putin’s personal worldview and his prej­u­dices after nearly a quarter of a century in power. Removing this constraint will be a signif­i­cant factor stim­u­lating liber­al­iza­tion. The cost of main­taining the current impe­ri­alist path will be enormous, while initi­ating liber­al­iza­tion offers huge benefits. The largely oppor­tunistic elites are likely to make a rational choice and take a softer course.

Projec­tions of a disin­te­gra­tion of Russia similar to the breakup of the Soviet Union are largely baseless. Russia’s national republics would face enormous chal­lenges in estab­lishing viable sovereign states while they lack the level of national conscious­ness that fueled the Soviet constituent republics’ aspi­ra­tions. Current trends among non-Russian ethnic­i­ties to speak up for self-deter­mi­na­tion and autonomy are helpful to achieve real feder­al­iza­tion, but those demanding complete inde­pen­dence typically lack broad popular support.

While a func­tioning democracy may still be a long way ahead for Russia, basic precon­di­tions like demand for democracy and a clear rejection of the usurpa­tion of power are there. A majority of future-oriented Russians over­whelm­ingly supports a demo­c­ratic form of gover­nance. It is essential that the demo­c­ratic West learns from past failures and supports Russia’s next attempt for demo­c­ratic change instead of snubbing it.

Discussing possible scenarios for the future of Russia after the current war is not easy. As tradi­tion­ally with Russian political debate, it is heavily dominated by the status quo: a ruthless and lawless repres­sive regime without moral bound­aries and with signif­i­cant resources still at its disposal, and a passive popu­la­tion which has seemingly lost all habits of even remotely inde­pen­dent political behavior.

However, it is worth to recall several things. The Russian political system has been changing like a roller­coaster in the past 50 years, despite permanent claims by the “perpetual status quo” party that if “Brezhnev-style socialism will last forever”, then “democracy will last forever” – now the same things are being said about Putin’s regime, albeit it has many problems sustaining itself. Resources are scarce and depleting, the monop­o­listic dirigiste economy is not working, China has no interest in strate­gi­cally investing into the global rise of a new Russia. The popu­la­tion is weary after a decade of declining living standards – Russians on average are at least 15 per cent poorer than they were before the 2014 annex­a­tion of Crimea – and it can be clearly seen that Putin’s popu­larity went into steady decline after 2008, which he was able to correct only with extreme measures like the annex­a­tion of Crimea (whose popu­larity boost didn’t last too long) and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine of 2022. The current system is clearly incapable to offer Russians any viable way forward, let alone a vision of the future.

All this means that changes will come. Let us look in more detail at what might possibly happen.

The status quo with Putin or another figure at the helm

To begin with – obviously, there will be no political changes in Russia while Putin maintains control. During his 20+ years in power, Putin has destroyed the elite in the classical political sense – those whom commen­ta­tors call “the elite” are largely totally dependent people without their own political base, who are very afraid of being perse­cuted by Putin and therefore unable to act inde­pen­dently. He has also destroyed the organized oppo­si­tion, de-politi­cized the majority of the popu­la­tion and scared it to death with repres­sions. Putin believes that he can maintain control indef­i­nitely and has built a complex system to defend himself against any potential plots and coups (that is a topic which deserves a separate analysis, but we omit that for now).

Regard­less of what Putin thinks about his mission, goals and his role in history, it is clear that he has developed a pattern: he believes that he knows better than anyone else, that he is a unique leader of global scale that was able to weather many years and diffi­cul­ties without being subjected to permanent rotations like the leaders of other countries and even other political heavy­weights inside Russia (his belief in his own “unique­ness” is a factor that very signif­i­cantly drives his thinking now), and it is safe to assume that he won’t change while he remains in charge.

But one way or another, Putin will be gone at some point. After that happens, there are signif­i­cant reasons to believe that his followers – although initially main­taining a facade of the similar consol­i­dated impe­ri­al­istic regime – will attempt a notable turn­around in domestic and external policies. The reasons for such an assump­tion include the following:

  • The great majority of Putin’s elite are pure oppor­tunists not bound to a partic­ular ideology. There are notable excep­tions – like National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and maybe a few other top “ayatol­lahs” – but they are a minority and do not possess the means for an ultimate consol­i­da­tion of power. Patrushev is 71 years old, he has neither charisma nor popular legit­i­macy (unlike Putin in 1999–2000), and it will be very hard for him to person­ally consol­i­date power Putin-style (after all, Putin’s power consol­i­da­tion was to a great extent based on public support of him as a young energetic leader). The rest of Russia’s ‘elites’ do not adhere to any partic­ular ideology or values and have been noticed for many ideo­log­ical twists and turns throughout their career (which can be easily tracked). There will be no deeply entrenched motives for them to stick to Putin’s ideology.
  • The costs for the elite asso­ci­ated with a contin­u­a­tion of the current course will be enormous, whereas the benefits of a political turn­around are clear.
  • Putin’s elites are well aware of the lasting popular discon­tent with most of their social and economic policies. Essen­tially, the popu­la­tion is pacified only by the domi­na­tion of Vladimir Putin’s personal authority that was built over the course of more than 20 years. None of the newcomer rulers will have similar legit­i­macy and public authority to be able to promote an unpopular course and unpopular decisions.
  • There is no bottom-up popular demand for an aggres­sive impe­ri­al­istic course from Russian society. Both the aggres­sion against Ukraine of 2014 and the all-out war against Ukraine of 2022 caught the Russian public by complete surprise; pre-aggres­sion opinion surveys did not suggest any demand for that. Even against the back­ground of signif­i­cant popular support for Putin’s war (which is also highly nuanced, but we omit this discus­sion here), most Russians believe that peace nego­ti­a­tions are the best way forward. Most opinion polls show that, however skeptical Russians are about the West, they would still predom­i­nantly prefer normal­iza­tion of relations as opposed to protracted standoff.
  • Main­taining mass political repres­sions to quell public discon­tent currently proves to be a costly option. It is not excluded that the new post-Putin rulers may still take that road, but since they don’t have the same ideo­log­ical moti­va­tion as the rulers of countries like Iran or North Korea (see above), a simple cost-benefit analysis offers tempting motives to at least seriously consider a softening of the course.

All these factors show that it will be very difficult for author­i­tarian post-Putin rulers to maintain his current isola­tionist and impe­ri­al­istic course – the costs will be signif­i­cant, whereas the benefits of a policy turn­around are huge. To continue Putin’s aggres­sive course would take a set of staunch dedicated ideo­log­ical figures – like the Iranian ayatol­lahs. But the Russian ruling elite doesn’t have many such char­ac­ters, as said above, it is made up mainly of purely oppor­tunistic people, who probably want to change the policy course, but are too afraid to inflict Putin’s wrath. They are no “ayatol­lahs” or Muslim scholars, nor were they baptized by North Korean Marxist priests. So “status quo” as such is probably the least plausible option.

However, it is reason­able to assume that the ruling elite will try to preserve control over society, and to maintain a de-facto similar regime, simply removing the most aggres­sive policy instru­ments. Similar devel­op­ments have happened in the Central Asian dicta­tor­ships – like Uzbek­istan and Kaza­khstan – where the new leaders who replaced dictators Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev have kept the old consol­i­dated author­i­tarian rule in place, at best paying some lip service to “political and economic changes” and trying to persuade the West and their own popu­la­tions that “enough change has taken place” and, save for cosmetic adjust­ments, author­i­tarian rule should remain in place.

The main question is whether the post-Putin author­i­tarian govern­ment will be able to sustain a slightly reframed Putin system after he is gone. Two major factors strongly work against this:

  • On the one hand, basic popular dissat­is­fac­tion with the system is enormous. That can be seen in many polls and past electoral behavior; essen­tially, in the past 15 years, popular support for the Putin system and Putin person­ally has steadily declined, always trending towards record lows. Only extreme adven­tures like the annex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014 and launching an all-out war against Ukraine in 2022 were able to restore it. The Russian people deeply despise the current system and want change. It will be very hard for a post-Putin nomen­klatura to maintain order without major repres­sion; on the contrary, rulers who will initiate change will enjoy a signif­i­cant boost in popu­larity – just like the gover­nor­ship of Sergey Furgal in Khabarovsk in 2018–2020, which saw the disman­tling of the political monopoly of the United Russia party and was met with universal acclaim and cheer across this Far Eastern region.
  • On the other hand, it will be very difficult to contain forces demanding radical change of the system, not just cosmetic adjust­ments, without total­i­tarian repres­sion. The oppo­si­tion forces are quite popular, they are not “marginal” by any reason­able standards. When protests were still allowed, street rallies for Alexei Navalny and others were more numerous than any of the systemic political forces. When allowed on the ballot, Navalny supporters and other viable oppo­si­tion candi­dates had easily shown ability to attain support of at least 20–30 per cent of voters, often well beyond Moscow. A key example here is the partic­i­pa­tion of Sergei Boyko, a close Navalny ally, in the mayoral elections of Novosi­birsk – the biggest Russian city east of Moscow in 2019:
  • Boyko finished second with almost 20 per cent of the vote, only narrowly avoiding a runoff, doing better than most candi­dates from the “systemic” parlia­men­tary parties. Forces demanding radical demo­c­ratic change are big in Russian politics even today – for instance, the reach of Alexei Navalny’s Youtube channels in 2022 rose to above 30 million unique viewers from Russia. These forces simply won’t let political liber­al­iza­tion end up as cosmetic window-dressing.

Because of this, a post-Putin govern­ment will most certainly face severe pressure for real political change and will most likely be faced with the choice of either quelling this with brutal force or to succumb to it, even against its will (a “Gorbachev scenario”). It remains an open question if the new govern­ment will be willing to begin its rule with the unre­strained use of force against society while it lacks Putin’s legit­i­macy, but one thing is very clear: it will be extremely difficult, both in terms of resources and legit­i­macy, to contain bottom-up demand for liber­al­iza­tion without extreme brutal force. Don’t forget that Putin’s author­i­tarian consol­i­da­tion came on the back­ground of enormous economic growth and the accu­mu­la­tion of huge financial surpluses and reserves – carrots much more than sticks – something a new govern­ment will be totally lacking.

The two much more realistic scenarios are:

  • “Cosmetic” liber­al­iza­tion getting out of control against the will of its initia­tors (Gorbachev scenario);
  • Agreement with more radical oppo­si­tion forces on peaceful tran­si­tion to democracy.

In short, an immediate tran­si­tion to democracy after Putin’s departure seems unlikely due to the system’s inertia. A more realistic scenario might be devel­op­ments like in Romania after Nicolae Ceausescu’s death in 1989, when the old elite essen­tially main­tained control until the 1996 Romanian general election, or South Korea after the departure of Chun Doo-hwan in 1988, when the ruling group initially main­tained power but ended up with full tran­si­tion to democracy in the early 1990s.

Scenario I – Radi­cal­iza­tion of the Regime

It is a very popular game to tickle one’s nerves with assump­tions that “whoever comes after Putin will be even more radical, more aggres­sive, more nation­alist”. To a signif­i­cant extent, such assump­tions have served as a basis for Putin’s political strength – many people remained loyal to him, because they were afraid of what comes next. Here are some thoughts explaining why the radi­cal­iza­tion of the regime after Putin is an unlikely scenario.

However impe­ri­al­istic some Russian political leaders may seem at this moment, they are capable of under­standing the cost-benefit analysis of hardline policies vs. liberalization.

First, history. After World War II, Russian politics have generally drifted towards more moder­a­tion – with Putin being the only exception so far. Stalin’s death was followed by Khrushchev’s thaw. Even the restora­tion of seemingly more conser­v­a­tive rule under Leonid Brezhnev was accom­pa­nied by the signing of landmark treaties – on arms control with the US, and the 1975 Helsinki accords, and char­ac­ter­ized by stag­na­tion (zastoy) – making it a much less repres­sive era than the 1950s and 1960s. The two attempts of restoring more hardline policies – the Andropov-Chernenko era of 1983–1984 and the August 1991 coup attempt by Communist party hard­liners (both episodes probably resemble Putin’s conser­v­a­tive restora­tion) both failed due to a visible lack of resources to sustain repres­sive policies.

The August 1991 coup is remark­able in this regard. This was a clear attempt to scrap the pere­stroika policy of liber­al­iza­tion and to sharply radi­calize the regime exactly in the same way that many pundits fear a possible post-Putin scenario. The coup failed miserably, to a large extent because most actors – including most members of the elite – simply did not believe that the self-declared State Committee on the State of Emergency could sustain the troubled social and economic situation in deep inter­na­tional isolation, and chose not to back it (to do nothing often is a very effective way to assist regime collapse).

Essen­tially, the period of relative tight­ening 1983–1984 was followed by liber­al­iza­tion and pere­stroika for similar reasons – the Communist party rulers under­stood that they simply had no suffi­cient resources to sustain the hardline policies, while changing course offered signif­i­cant benefits. The burden of protracted war in Afghanistan also played a role: it forced even hard­liners like Andropov to seek a way out as early as 1982, when the then freshly elected Communist Party leader sought talks with Pakistani leader Zia-ul-Haq during Brezhnev’s funeral. Gorbachev’s liber­al­iza­tion course, which began in 1985, was not an impromptu decision but had been brewing within the ruling circles for some time.

However impe­ri­al­istic some Russian political leaders may seem at this moment, they are capable of under­standing the cost-benefit analysis of hardline policies vs. liber­al­iza­tion. The rational choice is clear. The only thing which holds back the softening of policies is Putin’s personal worldview and his prej­u­dices after nearly a quarter of a century in power. Removing this constraint will be a signif­i­cant factor stim­u­lating liber­al­iza­tion, not further radicalization.

Second, there is almost no popular demand for radi­cal­iza­tion in Russian society. Parties with radical agendas never fared well in Russian politics during the past three decades. Even the ruling United Russia party, which dominates politics, presents itself as the “moderate” alter­na­tive to others. Public support for Vladimir Putin was always based on the notion of resisting the prospects of more radical forces coming to power. Even in the current envi­ron­ment, with all the anti-Western public attitude, the majority of Russians would say that they prefer normal­iza­tion of relations with the West over protracted confronta­tion – and such a majority has been solid over many years. While a majority of Russians say in the polls that they support Putin’s war against Ukraine (“special operation” in official phrase­ology), about 80 per cent of “supporters” use defensive, not offensive, narra­tives to justify their stance: either they claim that Ukraine was commit­ting genocide against the Russian-speaking popu­la­tion in Donbas, or that “Ukraine’s potential NATO accession was a military threat to Russia”. Both narra­tives are untrue, but state propa­ganda was quite successful in promoting them.

Even at the height of impe­ri­alist fever in society, openly impe­ri­alist parties like Nikolai Starikov’s Father­land or Yevgeny Fyodorov’s National Liber­a­tion Movement (known by its Russian acronym NOD) are neither visible in the polls, nor are they gathering signif­i­cant grassroot support – their rallies attract no more than hundreds of people – nothing compared to the six-digit turnout at oppo­si­tion rallies of recent years. Well-known impe­ri­alist pundit Alexander Dugin has tried for over 30 years to build a political party or movement, but never succeeded; his rallies never gathered more than 1,000–2,000 partic­i­pants, which can be easily tracked on Youtube.

Third, as said above, Putin’s elites are over­whelm­ingly oppor­tunistic, and hardline “ayatol­lahs” like Security Council Secretary Patrushev are a minority.

So, neither history, society nor the elites offer any serious indi­ca­tion that Russia is headed towards radi­cal­iza­tion in the future.

The Russian post-imperial syndrome is greatly over­valued and bloated by pundits. Of course, it exists to some extent, but in the early 2000s, Russians were visibly happy with their position in the world, public views of the West were predom­i­nantly positive, people were busy with enjoying unprece­dented economic growth and inte­gra­tion with the outside world. Some post-imperial resent­ment did exist, but arguably to a much lesser extent than in, say, post-imperial Britain or France. For until 2014 and the annex­a­tion of Crimea, restora­tion of empire was never a factor in public politics – even the moderate success of nation­alist Rodina party at the 2003 State Duma elections, where it received 9 per cent of the vote, was largely driven by its anti-oligarchic social agenda rather than by nation­alist slogans. The far-right “Russian marches”, usually held on November 4th, attracted signif­i­cantly smaller crowds than pro-democracy rallies – not to mention that maybe half of all Russian nation­al­ists are anti-impe­ri­alist and many of them have been fighting in Ukraine against Russia since 2014.

The current post-imperial sentiment is mainly due to 20 years of massive propa­ganda and while it has resulted in Russians being ready to repeat TV narra­tives, they are not likely to do anything to help “restore the empire”. Efforts to mobilize signif­i­cant volunteer manpower to fight against Ukraine since 2014 failed miserably; the “partial mobi­liza­tion” announced by Putin in September 2022 was the de-facto admission that attempts to recruit large numbers of volun­teers for the war had failed.

When speaking about potential future radi­cal­iza­tion of Russia, commen­ta­tors often mention the para­mil­i­tary units under the command of thugs like Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, or Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. But these people have no weight in the Russian decision-making system; the combined manpower of their armed personnel barely exceeds 20,000, which is not nearly suffi­cient to seize power, because it is nothing compared to the state security apparatus.

As a matter of fact, the emergence of this type of non-govern­ment ultra-conser­v­a­tive para­mil­i­tary units – so-called Black Hundreds (черносотенцы) – is usually the sign of a faltering empire, when the central govern­ment feels that it is no longer capable of main­taining control without the assis­tance of non-state para­mil­i­tary units terror­izing the domestic popu­la­tion and outsiders. Both in the early 20th century and in the late 1980s, Russian para­mil­i­tary groups proved unable to save the crumbling empire. The ultra­na­tion­alist Russian National Unity movement (known by its Russian acronym RNE) and its fore­runner Pamyat (Memory) never managed to establish them­selves as popular political forces. The conser­v­a­tive restora­tion in Russia under Putin happened as a top-down exercise pushed from the rulers, not as a grassroot bottom-up movement.

To sum up – while radical forces do exist in the modern Russian political spectrum, it will be extremely hard for them to (1) get a grip on power, given limited armed personnel and lack of incli­na­tion of the society to support radicals; and (2) lead Russia towards any kind of political, social and economic success — their headwinds will be enormous, while their resources for main­taining a radical regime are very limited. Even if they somehow manage to declare them­selves rulers of Russia, they will fall into an August-1991 style putsch trap – society will not believe in their success, and they will lack active support.

Scenario II – Demo­c­ratic Change

Most of the analysis suggesting that lasting demo­c­ratic change will be impos­sible in Russia is based on wrong assump­tions and actually ignores basic facts on the ground.

First, there are the refer­ences to the flawed demo­c­ratic exper­i­ment of the 1990s. It is very strange to assume that if a nation was unable to build a func­tioning democracy after just one attempt, it will never be able to do this again. Just one attempt is obviously not enough to draw fatal­istic conclu­sions. Moreover, on closer inspec­tion, Russia’s demo­c­ratic exper­i­ment of the 1990s was not at all that unsuc­cessful as widely perceived by critics. By histor­ical standards, it was rela­tively successful because Russia remained a partially free country for about 15 years (it was ranked “partly free” by Freedom House until 2005). Such a lasting period of democracy has never happened in modern Russian history. Russian democracy was built under extremely difficult condi­tions – the collapse of the Soviet economy was arguably the worst economic failure since the beginning of the indus­trial age, and the price of oil, Russia’s main export commodity, was just $16,70 per barrel on average during the years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

The current dicta­tor­ship in Russia was estab­lished as a swift and coor­di­nated power grab on the back­ground of strong economic growth in the early 2000s, not as a result of delib­erate un-demo­c­ratic choice by the Russian people. Russians have always resisted the restora­tion of autocracy, and the pro-democracy movement has over the past years been visibly far stronger in terms of street protest potential than all the country’s other political forces. The 1990s created spaces of freedom that were never fully elim­i­nated by Putin even after two decades of repres­sions. Pro-democracy politi­cians, intel­lec­tuals, and ordinary citizens remain in the country in signif­i­cant numbers, and their hour will come. Without the 1990s, the estab­lish­ment of a signif­i­cant pro-democracy movement in Putin’s Russia would not have been possible.

It is funda­men­tally wrong to make deter­minist conclu­sions about Russian society based on the diffi­cul­ties of the 1990s and the subse­quent impo­si­tion of authoritarianism.

Second, from a historic stand­point, Russian society has always sought democracy, only to be quelled by brutally oppres­sive dicta­tor­ships. The last decades of Tsarist Russia were dominated by demands for political liber­al­iza­tion, for a consti­tu­tion that limits the powers of monarchy, and for a tran­si­tion to a parlia­men­tary republic (bril­liantly summa­rized by historian Orlando Figes in his book “A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revo­lu­tion: 1891–1924”). After the monarchy fell, Russians enthu­si­as­ti­cally elected the Constituent Assembly with a non-Bolshevik majority, only to see it force­fully quashed by the losing Bolshe­viks, who subse­quently estab­lished the Soviet Union on the basis of terri­to­ries seized by the Red Army by force, not according to the free will of its peoples. When the Soviet system gradually moderated after Stalin’s death, signs of popular demand for demo­c­ratic change were obvious, from Khrushchev’s thaw to Gorbachev’s pere­stroika, ulti­mately culmi­nating in the majority of Russians voting for the pro-democracy forces in 1990–1991 and accepting the peaceful disso­lu­tion of the Soviet Union in 1991 without any mean­ingful protests.

There is consid­er­able evidence that Russians in general are in strong favor of a much more demo­c­ratic gover­nance system than Putin’s

Third, from a more modern perspec­tive, the genuine bottom-up demand for democracy from Russian society has never gone away. While the majority of Russians currently say that they do not favor Western-style democracy as a role model for their country (disclaimer: 20 years of propa­ganda also has something to do with this), there is consid­er­able evidence that Russians in general are in strong favor of a much more demo­c­ratic gover­nance system than Putin’s. For the past 18 years since Putin abolished direct guber­na­to­rial elections, about two thirds of Russians consis­tently supported the restora­tion of direct popular elections of regional governors, city mayors, heads of local districts without any admin­is­tra­tive “filters”. That is a strong public rebuttal of the very foun­da­tions of the system of gover­nance that Putin has built.

Whenever regional or local politics resulted in (rare) real electoral compe­ti­tion with unpre­dictable outcome, voter turnout in those regions greatly surged – meaning that there is a strong unsat­is­fied demand for compet­i­tive politics. Otherwise, with little or zero electoral compe­ti­tion, voter turnout at all elections plunged to historic lows in recent years – indi­cating that Russians do not approve of the totally admin­is­tra­tively managed political system created by Putin.

In 2020, people all over the far eastern Khabarovsk region protested in large numbers against the dismissal and arrest of the recently elected oppo­si­tion governor Sergey Furgal. Although Furgal had partic­i­pated in many elections before without ever becoming a partic­ular local hero, people in Khabarovsk voted for him in order to dismantle the dominance of Putin’s United Russia party in the region. Inter­est­ingly, the mass protests in Khabarovsk displayed zero imperial and anti-Western slogans, but there was a sizable presence of pro-Belarus (where mass protests erupted at the same time) and even pro-Ukraine slogans — so much for Russians’ “hopeless nation­wide imperialism”.

Anti-govern­ment protest in Khabarovsk, July 2020; @teamnavalnykhv, Wikicommons

Various polls asking Russians on whether they are satisfied or not with the current political order suggest that the majority of people are deeply dissat­is­fied with the fact that they have no say on how political decisions are made and that they long for basic rule of law, which was totally destroyed by Putin. In other words, they want democracy.

Despite brain­washing and repres­sion, Russians have not lost their basic demo­c­ratic instincts 

The wide­spread regional protests of recent years on various topics – often about envi­ron­mental issues – have shown a great ability of Russians to self-organize and defend their rights in defiance of tough pressure from the author­i­ties. Despite brain­washing and repres­sion, Russians have not lost
their basic demo­c­ratic instincts.

There are no notable political forces in Russia that advocate abol­ishing democracy. Some of those who do – like Starikov’s Father­land or Fyodorov’s NOD – are not visible in the polls, and their rallies gather hundreds of people at best, as said above. The Kremlin pays great attention to maintain the facade of “inclusive democracy” on all levels. The ruling United Russia party holds (absolutely unnec­es­sary) primaries just to make sure their voters don’t feel like the choice was already made for them. The Commu­nists, who openly sympa­thize for the total­i­tarian Soviet system and often run around with portraits of Stalin, are one of the most active partic­i­pants of campaigns and rallies for free and fair elections and against voter fraud. Direct regional governors’ elections were restored in 2012 as a result of the 2011–2012 protests and were never formally canceled again despite permanent rumors. The Putin system doesn’t look like it is capable of totally disman­tling the remains of demo­c­ratic insti­tu­tions – Putin knows that the popu­la­tion is not going to welcome this. People want to have their say – they’re not “slaves” and “serfs” as some of the hawks in the West want to portray them.

Of course, it is a long road from having just basic demo­c­ratic instincts to building a func­tioning democracy. Partic­u­larly given Russia’s very limited expe­ri­ence in demo­c­ratic gover­nance, its predatory elites and hard legacy of consec­u­tive oppres­sive regimes. But the material to build upon – basic demand for democracy and clear rejection of the usurpa­tion of power – is there. It is also worth saying that, generally, the majority of future-oriented Russians – those hoping to open a business, making a career, getting better education, improving living standards for their families and children – over­whelm­ingly support demo­c­ratic form of gover­nance (more details can be provided). Those who are indif­ferent or happy with the central­ized rule are quite passive polit­i­cally, tend to drift along with the rulers’ opinions, and are not inclined to inde­pen­dent behavior. In this regard, the position of the active minority can be critical to success – as was the case many times in other countries.

As was shown in the recent past, a dysfunc­tional state and economic diffi­cul­ties tend to create a major oppor­tu­nity for political change. That happened with Russia in the 1980s; the 1990s were another example, when a weak state produced yet another demand for a major reshuf­fling of the political system – although Putin used the public disap­point­ment with the 1990s to strengthen author­i­tarian rule, something the Russian public never demanded and that was a clear overreach. But for the second time in the past 40 years, domestic turmoil produced a major change of the Russian political system.

As unlikely as it may look in today’s circum­stances, any shift in top power circles will imme­di­ately produce an opening within society for another demo­c­ratic exper­i­ment. There is no guarantee for success; moreover, as said above, the ruling elite will contain demo­c­ratic changes for as long as it can. However, several factors can make the next demo­c­ratic exper­i­ment a success:

  • There is signif­i­cant bottom-up demand for democracy (and recon­cil­i­a­tion with the West) from society, partic­u­larly from its active, future-oriented part.
  • It takes enormous resources to contain pro-democracy aspi­ra­tions in society with isolation and repression.
  • There is vast expe­ri­ence from the 1990s demo­c­ratic exper­i­ment available, which will be very helpful in avoiding more fatal mistakes, and in correcting the wrongs.

Again, success is not guar­an­teed, but the ground for another attempt to build func­tioning democracy in Russia is clearly present. Moreover, if Russia remains isolated and deprived of the chance of re-inte­grating with the demo­c­ratic world, it will most defi­nitely try to regroup, replenish forces, and strike the free world again.

Most likely, as mentioned above, demo­c­ratic change in Russia will come in two stages, like in Romania after Ceausescu or South Korea after Chun Doo-hwan – first, the post-Putin elite will try to retain control, but after­wards, a larger pro-democracy movement will emerge, which the new govern­ment will find impos­sible to control.

Why Russia Won’t Disin­te­grate like the Soviet Union

There is a lot of spec­u­la­tion about the possi­bility of a future break-up of Russia into a number of smaller inde­pen­dent states, similar to what happened with the Soviet Union. However, such assump­tions are largely baseless for several reasons.

First, the situation is funda­men­tally different between the collapse of the USSR and present-day Russia. The national republics, whose demands for inde­pen­dence acted like a driving force for the Soviet disso­lu­tion, were dominated by their own unique non-Russian ethnic­i­ties, and most of them had expe­ri­enced their own inde­pen­dent statehood in the past, which they simply wanted to restore (the Baltic States, Moldova and Georgia). It is a very different case in Russia, where no region has had inde­pen­dent statehood in the recent past – and it will be an obvious challenge to establish one.

Most of Russia’s ethnic republics are dominated by the titular ethnic­i­ties in name only. For instance, in Buryatia, less than 30 per cent of the popu­la­tion are ethnic Buryats – the largest popu­la­tion group are Russians. In Yakutia, less than 50 per cent of the popu­la­tion are Yakuts, with Russians comprising 40 per cent. In Bashko­r­tostan, ethnic Bashkirs only very recently have slightly overtaken Tatars to move from being the 3rd largest ethnic group to 2nd position, with slightly less than 30 per cent of the local popu­la­tion (Russians remain the largest ethnic group with 36 per cent); in the capital city Ufa, about half of the popu­la­tion are ethnic Russians, while Bashkirs make up just 17 per cent.

That situation is very different from the breakaway aspi­ra­tions of Soviet republics in the late 1980s.

When the emergence of inde­pen­dent states on the basis of Russian regions is discussed, one potential breakaway region often mentioned is Tatarstan. Indeed, in the early 1990s, Tatarstan was flirting with the idea of estab­lishing its own statehood. However, if one travels to modern-day Tatarstan, it is very easy to see that the republic has managed to establish a signif­i­cant degree of autonomy and self-gover­nance under Russian rule – ranging from economic policy to even substan­tially autonomous foreign relations. The living standards in Tatarstan are signif­i­cantly higher than in neigh­boring regions dominated by ethnic Russians. There are simply not enough motives for Tatarstan to desper­ately seek inde­pen­dence – the republic has managed to establish contrac­tual relations with Russia that let it enjoy a signif­i­cant degree of autonomy. But should it try to break away, it will imme­di­ately learn about the diffi­cul­ties of sustaining inde­pen­dence as a land­locked territory within Russia, totally dependent on a many times larger surrounding country for transit and logistics.

That is the key argument that is often over­looked by those spec­u­lating about a potential break-up of Russia. Most of the country’s regions are land­locked and have no access to the sea (or at least to developed inter­na­tional marine routes – the Arctic Ocean is tech­ni­cally a sea, but it is a huge challenge navi­gating through it, there are hardly any major ports and transport routes). This will be an enormous obstacle to sustaining an inde­pen­dent economy. If Russia remains partly intact, it will create enormous logis­tical and transit diffi­cul­ties for new inde­pen­dent economies.

If Russia completely breaks apart, without free trade and transit treaties, the situation may spiral into complete protec­tionist chaos. Not to mention that regional borders inside Russia were arti­fi­cially drawn and are not inter­na­tion­ally recog­nized (as opposed to the borders of the former Soviet republics), which may add political and conflict chaos and wrangling about which village belongs to whom. There are countless locations where a vital transport or infra­struc­ture corridor between towns/​villages of one region passes through another region; not to mention power infra­struc­ture, where some power stations supply a number of regions without inde­pen­dent power gener­a­tion and so forth.

light­weight spec­u­la­tion about ’saving Russia from collapse in the late 1990s’ has been a corner­stone of baseless Kremlin mythology about Putin’s “unique role in Russian history 

In fact, there is surpris­ingly little detailed analysis both in the West and in Russia about the actual prospects of Russia disin­te­grating into inde­pen­dent states beyond just pure hollow spec­u­la­tion and light­weight compar­isons to the collapse of the USSR. Actually, such light­weight spec­u­la­tion about “saving Russia from collapse in the late 1990s” has been a corner­stone of baseless Kremlin mythology about Putin’s “unique role in Russian history”.

One of the few sober analyses in this regard is an article by US scholar Thomas Graham published in 1999 in “European Security” called “The prospect of Russian disin­te­gra­tion is low”. The title speaks for itself: Graham correctly argues, among other things, that the land­locked nature of most Russian regions and their lack of access to sea is the key obstacle for sustaining inde­pen­dence. His conclu­sion is that there is very little risk of sepa­ra­tion of most regions from Russia in the future, except probably for the North Caucasus and the Kalin­ingrad region.

Whether this actually may happen or not, the North Caucasus and Kalin­ingrad comprise only about one per cent of Russia’s territory, which means that even their sepa­ra­tion can hardly be qualified as the country’s “break-up and disintegration”.

Speaking about the North Caucasus, it is worth noting that gener­al­izing the prospect of sepa­ra­tion of local republics from Russia with just a reference to the expe­ri­ence of Chechnya in the 1990s is an exag­ger­a­tion. The North Caucasian republics other than Chechnya have always demon­strated different attitudes to relations with Russia. That is a lengthy topic, but in general, the popu­la­tions of these republics do not believe that they will be able to sustain inde­pen­dence without economic support from Moscow, which is why they have always been among the staunchest supporters of central­ized power. Both at the Soviet Union refer­endum in March 1991 and in various elections that took place since, the North Caucasian republics have demon­strated domi­nating soli­darity with the central govern­ment in Moscow (Chechnya was the only North Caucasus republic which did not partic­i­pate in the 1991 referendum).

There are various reasons for different North Caucasus republics to prefer remaining part of Russia: Ingushetia is afraid of being swallowed by Chechnya; North Ossetia is actually a predom­i­nantly Christian, non-Muslim republic; Dagestan, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria have complex ethnic make-ups and tensions, which risks major conflicts and wars once Russia ceases to be the connecting tissue holding the multi-ethnic balance together.

Efforts to extrap­o­late the 1990s Chechnya breakaway attempt onto the whole Russian North Caucasus seem overblown and ignore the actual context. Despite all cultural differ­ences with the rest of Russia, there are no viable sepa­ratist movements in these republics. Chechnya is also a very compli­cated case: there was signif­i­cant oppo­si­tion to inde­pen­dence in the republic before June 1993, when Dzhokhar Dudayev chose to crush those groups by force; many people in Chechnya would clearly not favor another attempt to turn the republic into a Sharia dicta­tor­ship (but that is a separate complex topic).

Another important factor is that, according to the author’s personal expe­ri­ence from traveling across various Russian terri­to­ries and inter­viewing their residents, the regions east of the Urals are very worried about the prospect of becoming inde­pen­dent states, because they believe that they will not have suffi­cient political and economic power to counter Chinese dominance and will inevitably become vassals of Beijing. This prospect looks horri­fying for residents of these regions, which is why they see remaining part of Russia as the only option. If this is taken into account, spec­u­la­tion about a breakaway of Russia’s eastern regions seems totally implausible.

There are some current trends among non-Russian ethnic­i­ties to publicly speak up against the war in Ukraine and lean towards larger self-deter­mi­na­tion and autonomy – which are good trends as far as the future goal of real feder­al­iza­tion is concerned. None of the influ­en­tial ethnic groups and NGOs, however, are seriously talking about anything beyond feder­al­iza­tion, more autonomy and more self-gover­nance – except few indi­vid­uals who do not have broad popular support.

Conclu­sion

To sum up: extreme scenarios like the radi­cal­iza­tion of the post-Putin regime, Putin’s succes­sors main­taining a similar hardline regime indef­i­nitely and a break-up of Russia do not seem plausible. There are simply not enough political resources nor popular support to make them sustainable.

Another attempt for demo­c­ratic change appears to be the most likely scenario of Russia’s evolution 

A fast and successful democ­ra­ti­za­tion of Russia also does not appear realistic: the post-Putin elites would want to maintain their ongoing grip on power Central-Asian style, while society is too weak and scared to speak up (and even under­stand what they really want). But they will have a hard time and will lack the resources to maintain Putin’s current course, which effec­tively leads to self-attrition. Once they make policy U‑turns, it is realistic to expect popular discon­tent and demands for more signif­i­cant political changes.

In this regard, it appears that the most relevant examples for compar­ison are post-Ceausescu Romania or post-Chun South Korea. Iran and North Korea, which are frequently mentioned, are probably not too relevant examples for two reasons:

  • Iran and North Korea are extremely repres­sive regimes to a degree unknown in Russia since the Stalin era. As a matter of fact, North Korea was founded in 1945 by Stalin’s generals, and remains the only living dinosaur of the Stalinist Jurassic Park in the modern world. Russia is very different from that. The Iranian regime faces constant mass protests, which are harder and harder to contain every year, and with dimin­ishing power of Russia as Iran’s key supporter, it will be harder to sustain the regime further – which means that we haven’t seen the end of the Iranian story yet.
  • Iran and North Korea were always rela­tively poor countries, and never expe­ri­enced such a major down­shifting that Russia is expe­ri­encing now due to sanctions and the with­drawal of Western busi­nesses. In this regard, the most relevant inter­na­tional example of a despotic regime cracking from the pressure of sanctions is probably not Iran or North Korea, but apartheid-era South Africa, where sanctions, despite having less economic effect than the current measures against Russia, had a strong negative psycho­log­ical impact of inter­na­tional isolation on the minority white popu­la­tion that helped to accel­erate change (see, for instance, “Sanctions on South Africa: What Did They Do?”, Philip Levy, Yale Univer­sity, 1999).

Overall, another attempt for demo­c­ratic change, following some years of tran­si­tionary post-Putin author­i­tarian limbo, appears to be the most likely scenario of Russia’s evolution. But it is essential that the demo­c­ratic West learns from past failures and supports Russia’s next attempt for demo­c­ratic change instead of snubbing it. Ignorance and isolation will only rein­vig­o­rate the most extremist impe­ri­al­istic forces and demo­ti­vate those seeking demo­c­ratic tran­si­tion – which will make Russia persist as a dark impe­ri­al­istic power. The Free World simply cannot afford that to happen.


 

Textende

This paper is part of the project Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s own.

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