Unabhängige Zeitung

Private Tageszeitung

Russia Coming to a Halt

Brief Notes About the Presidential Election and the Situation at the Beginning of Mr. Putin’s New Term

The Russian presidential election that took place last March was absolutely predictable in terms of both its outcome and the way the electoral campaign unfurled. Its main result, i.e. the number of votes garnered by Vladimir Putin, had been “programmed” almost a year before the election. As early as at the beginning of 2017, it became known that the goal set was to have over half of all the votes cast for the incumbent. The circumstance that at the time said goal was formulated no other campaign details (such as the list of contenders, their programmes, the electorate’s sentiments in the spring of 2018, etc.) were known is proof enough that they were of no particular importance. 

It is quite telling that none of the candidates offered any new ideas or solutions, nor a radically different perception of what and how the State and the society should be doing in the next six years. It would be fairly strange to expect any such thing from the outsiders who did not even try to pretend they were playing to win. However, the same could be said about Mr. Putin himself. Indeed, over the course of his entire campaign, it was only once, on March 1, that he delivered a comprehensive message to the public at large—only to tell them about new Russian weapons. All the other basic provisions of the president’s “programme”—such as Russia becoming one of the world’s five largest economies, reducing poverty in the country, and removing administrative hurdles faced by businesses—have been postulated as objectives for at least the past ten years. Developing a digital economy, which was actively discussed at all levels a year ago, now faded away as a second, and even third priority, and the reform of the system of governance is not even being mentioned any longer.

The presidential campaign amounted to a completely insulated process with no origins in the preceding events: it was done and over with on the day of the voting. The authorities regarded the campaign as a purely formal procedure that had nothing to do with the everyday realities of Russian sociopolitical life. Here’s a curious fact: 6 out of 8 candidates (except for Mr. Putin and the Communist Party’s Pavel Grudinin) openly stated they had no intention to win. Seeing that even such an important process as electing the head of State is denigrated to the level of a bogus procedure, events and occurrences of a lesser caliber (such as the «window of opportunity» following the election, constituting a parliament and party life, expert opinions and broad political discussions, etc.) are all the more insignificant for the authorities.

Yet another blow to the value of this election was struck by electoral fraud that, as admitted by many, including sources in the Kremlin itself, was fairly widespread. Naturally, no one disputes Mr. Putin’s victory as such; however, independent experts believe that the actual number of those reporting to the polls was some 10–12 million people fewer than the officially declared number, 73.6 million. This is indirectly corroborated by the data in Chart 1, which shows that in 2018, for the first time in almost 25 years, a direct link between the voter turnouts at the presidential election and the preceding parliamentary election appears to be broken(it is worth noting that the situation surrounding  the past campaigns was markedly different, yet the link between their respective turnouts remained intact).

This is in fact the most important result of the presidential campaign, however symbolic it may be. It constitutes a logical conclusion to the process of destroying government and societal institutions and turning them into something totally bogus. This process in Russia began quite some time ago and affected each  institution  at its own pace. Now one could clearly state that all  institutions (the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power, political parties, the media, NGOs, business associations, etc.) have  lost their original purpose. Most of them have not been destroyed and continue to exist; yet, they have  been incorporated into the presidential “vertical hierarchy” of power and serve a purpose that, as a rule, has nothing to do with reality. By analogy with a popular recent term, “hybrid war,” one could speak of a “hybrid democracy” having evolved in Russia;  all major democratic institutions have been preserved, and a semblance of the democratic process is all there, yet in reality, this is but a screen that obscures the real mechanisms of state and society governance.

This “hybrid democracy” has been deliberately built by Mr. Putin and his “close circle” and is well in line with their current interests. However, we believe that it will not only cause a future weakening of absolutely all  state and society pillars in the future, but indeed has already begun doing so, which will have a substantial impact on what and how will unfold  in the next six years (and, possibly, beyond). Below, we will analyze the essential features of this weakening of the major actors on the Russian political stage and suggest a forecasting model to anticipate their future moves.

Why the President Grew Weaker

By all the outward-looking signs, Mr. Putin’s position has not only avoided any deterioration, but, on the contrary, grown stronger still. He aced the election, there are no potential challengers anywhere on the horizon, he keeps everything happening in the country firmly under control and, despite a deep deterioration of Russia’s relations with the outside world, remains a major figure internationally.

In fact, the president now remains the only functioning element of Russia’s political system. Its other components (such as the government, the parliament, regional authorities, political parties, the expert community and even the media) interact with the society; respond to challenges and even deal with each other indirectly, via the president. It is no surprise then that whether the functioning of said components will have any real effect completely depends on whether they manage, in any particular case, to elicit a response of some sort from Mr. Putin.

In today’s Russia, for the first time since Stalin, an absolutist regime of personal power has taken shape. In the last days of the USSR and even more so in the 1990s, power in Russia was much more of a shared affair than it is today. Now though, Mr. Putin can resolve any issue whatsoever on his own; furthermore, he is not even limited by the need to explain and justify his decisions. However, Putin is no Stalin. He has no interest in holding all this tremendous power to rule the country as a harsh dictator. Furthermore, Mr. Putin does not need this concentrated power at all. It emerged as a side effect of his deep distrust of all other principles of state and society functioning, except for that of “hands-on” management. The outcome of this methodical, long-term implementation of said principle as a replacement for all others is that at the moment Mr. Putin is the sole holder of real power in Russia.

However, this is precisely the point where strength begins turning into a weakness. Mr. Putin has no desire to  use  his absolute power daily and to the full extent. Sources within the president’s entourage and many independent experts say that the president is paying less and less attention to Russia’s domestic problems. This would be easy to explain: unlike foreign policy, Mr. Putin’s domestic policy has remained essentially unchanged throughout the entire period of his rule. Such issues as high poverty levels, corruption, weak infrastructure, unfavorable demographics and threats to financial stability have been on the list of  top problems over the past 5, 10 and 15 years.

Only Mr. Putin now has enough authority and legitimacy to resolve them, butat the same time he has no energy or desire left to make the necessary decisions and see them through. Incidentally, this became particularly clear right after the election. At first, the president tried to distance himself from the Kemerovo tragedy in East Siberia where over 60 people, most of them children, died in a fire at a local shopping mall. For a few days, Mr. Putin refused to declare a period of national mourning and visit the location, and when he was finally forced to do that, he only spent a few hours in Kemerovo. Then he refused to react to a volatility surge in the country’s financial markets caused by a number of Russian oligarchs being put on the US sanctions list at the beginning of April. Finally, Mr. Putin shuns public participation in the ongoing discussion at the top about raising the retirement age—not only because it would be harmful for his image, but also because this is hardly a priority for the head of State.

As a result of such a development, the “mightiness” of the modern-day Russian State is increasingly that of one person alone—Vladimir Putin. Simply speaking, the Russian State is now incapable of doing more within any given period of time than what one man alone—President Vladimir Putin—could do. The State simply has no need for higher capacity for assessing the situation and developing and implementing policies since the issue is not even framed this way. It all comes down to responding to inquiries and directives coming from the top person. Consequently, any functions and links within the state machine that do not bear directly on such responding are being reduced or simply stop being used. In turn, this causes the president himself to become weaker because he is in no position (even if he wanted to) to either delegate some of his power or make full use of the State machinery for preparing and seeing his own decisions through.

Why the Government Grew Weaker

The way the government has been formed offers ironclad proof of its progressive weakening as an institution of power. Before the election, fairly radical options for a structural and personal cabinet reform were being considered at the presidential level. In particular, there was an idea  to create a number of “project offices,” each tasked with solving a particular high-priority problem (such as infrastructure development, innovation, social policy reform, demographics, the defense complex, etc.) The option of replacing Dmitry Medvedev with someone else in his capacity as the prime minister was also considered in all seriousness (the names  included those of the Central Bank Chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina, the president’s close personal confidant and Governor of Tula Region Aleksey Dyumin and even the head of the presidential administration Anton Vaino). Had such a replacement been made, it would have also caused a substantial change in the status quo among the regime’s top tier. Finally, former finance minister Aleksey Kudrin was about to be returned to a position of authority that would enable him to take charge of economic policy nationwide.

Yet,  none of that happened. On the contrary, what came about was a deliberately formal scenario under which the structure of the cabinet remained essentially unchanged, with a minimum of insignificant rotations among the office holders. Medvedev remained premier, and Kudrin received a nominally high appointment as the head of the Accounting Chamber that gives him no real authority. The vice-premiers Igor Shuvalov, Dmitry Rogozin and Arkady Dvorkovich leaving the government remained essentially unnoticed.

Indeed, the “new” government is hardly different from the one that was at the helm during Mr. Putin’s third term. Therefore, there are no reasons to believe it will behave any different. On the contrary, everything will continue to come down to isolated reactions to specific events or challenges with no attempts to develop, let alone carry out, a comprehensive development strategy for the country. The reason is that the structure of the government in Russia’s modern day political system is of no importance whatsoever. The cabinet of ministers is not an institution vested with certain powers to achieve specific objectives, but rather a playing field for individual actors and interests from among the president’s inner circle fighting for control over cash flows. This is the only real function remaining, while most others the government has been assigned out of sheer inertia are altogether bogus.

The already briefly mentioned above issue of raising the retirement age is indicative as an illustration of the government’s weakness and inability to function within the framework of a comprehensive strategy., Preparations for the pension reform in Russia have been ongoing for quite some time now, since the bankruptcy of the current system was all too apparent. Every year, the Pension Fund has a deficit of hundreds of billions of rubles, and the investment portion of people’s retirement contributions has been frozen, i.e. essentially appropriated into the government’s budget, since 2014. However, in the end the government shunned a comprehensive reform in favor of mechanically raising the retirement age. Although it is obvious that this is not a solution, but a postponement of the problem , one should not have expected anything else from the cabinet of ministers since they have no authority to make any decisions without the approval of the president, who, as we have already noted, avoids getting involved with this particular process.

Why Political Parties and the Parliament Grew Weaker

For the political parties traditionally called “systemic opposition,” the presidential election has also become a watershed moment that signified the definite loss by this component of Russia’s sociopolitical structure of any real purpose.

Systemic opposition has traditionally included three parties: the Communist Party (CPRF, led by Gennady Zyuganov), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and A Just Russia (SR, led by Sergey Mironov). The latter altogether eschewed nominating its own candidate and supported Mr. Putin, essentially taking itself out of the picture as a political organization. The communists supported Pavel Grudinin, a little-known until recently businessman and a stand-in for their permanent leader. Mr. Zhirinovsky alone ran himself, as he always had. 

Mr. Grudinin  showed the worst result for any other communist candidate in any of Russia’s presidential elections (11.8%). Furthermore, after March 18, he immediately disappeared from the public eye, foregoing any attempts to carve a place for himself among the CPRF’s leadership. It is probable that Mr. Grudinin will  follow in the steps of the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov who had a successful run in the 2012 presidential election, coming in third with 8% of the vote (which, in a country where oligarchs are one of the society’s main “irritants,” is a lot), but then abruptly left public politics altogether.  Mr. Grudinin could come back, say, for the Duma election three years down the road, but in this case he would be unlikely to tie his fortunes to those of the CPRF again. As a result, the Communist Party that fared badly in the last parliamentary election in 2016 essentially found itself leaderless (considering Mr. Zyuganov’s respectable age (he is already 74)) and lacking a clear strategy for the future.

Mr. Zhirinovsky’s result (5.6% of the votes) also proved to be substantially worse than expected; at the beginning of the campaign, some analysts believed the LDPR’s leader could go as high as 11–13% and come in second. Even though he tends to do  better at parliamentary, rather than presidential elections (thus, to compare, he garnered 13% of the votes in the 2016 election to the Duma), the LDPR’s prospects remain unclear. In 2021, by the time the next parliamentary election is held, Mr. Zhirinovsky will be 75, and the consensus is that in his absence his party hardly stands any chance of making it to the new Duma. 

Yabloko (Apple) is yet another party traditionally considered to be part of the systemic opposition, although no longer in the Duma, has suffered yet another, potentially final, defeat. Its permanent leader Grigory Yavlinsky, deemed to represent at least a portion of the liberal intelligentsia, has garnered just a tad over 1% of the votes and now has to give up any hopes of resurrecting  his party, which played a fairly noteworthy role in Russia in the 1990s.

Pro-Putin’s United Russia (UR) also had a weak showing in the presidential campaign. Mr. Putin decided not to run as the party’s candidate preferring to remain independent and once again signaling that the UR is not strictly speaking a party and could be reformed or even replaced with a different organization at any time.

Therefore, a deep crisis of the “official” party system in Russia is  evident. The primary reason for that is not so much the way the systemic parties acted during the presidential election but rather that this entire arrangement as such has lost any meaning. It was created in the middle of the previous decade when the situation in the country was altogether different. First of all, back at the time, everyone still clearly remembered the 1990s when the parliament played the role of a real counterbalance to the president. Second, despite the emerging trend towards more limited freedoms in the country, political pluralism did not only survive but was even deemed by the authorities  an important part of the  social order. Third, political parties served as the conductors of the initiatives proposed by specific groups among the authorities and big business, all of which had their own interests and competed with each other. None of that exists at the moment, and the systemic parties have acquired no new functions either.

The situation is additionally aggravated by the parliament having practicallycrossed over into the bogus zone. A substantial part of the society refused to recognize the outcome of the 2011 Duma election, and mass protests followed. In 2016, the situation was much calmer, yet the election had a record low turnout, with the official number being 48%, although many independent experts believed that in reality it hardly exceeded 40%. A substantial portion of the populace losing interest in the systemic parties and the Duma was inevitable. Over the recent years, Russian parliament has lost all  independence, and now the voters simply fail to understand what purpose it serves and what it is that it does that is so important.

Overall, what all of this means is that prior to the next Russian parliamentary election of 2021 one could expect a significant “shake-up” of the leading political parties, which some of them may not even survive. The principles of constituting the Duma and the Federation Council may change again, too. At the moment, it is still too early to tell how this may transpire; all such transmutations of the political party field in Russia occur six months before the election at the earliest, so any potential options envisaged now are purely preliminary. However, in and of themselves, such transmutations will come as yet another sign of the continuous weakening of the parties and the parliament as institutions, since any change will be initiated by the presidential administration rather than by themselves. It is only with that administration’s approval that any mechanisms could be set in motion to rejuvenate the existing parties or replace them with new ones.

Why the Non-Systemic Opposition Grew Weaker

The non-systemic opposition’s leader Aleksey Navalny declared his intent to run for president over a year before the election and over the course of 2017 essentially remained the only active public campaigner. However, he was not allowed to run (under the formal pretext of having a criminal conviction), after which he called for the election to be boycotted. 

It is hard to tell whether that was an appropriate move to make, since it would be impossible to accurately assess how many voters had taken Mr. Navalny’s call to heart. However, in the end, Mr. Putin’s decisive victory, regardless of how it was won, demoralized the opposition-minded part of the Russian society. According to official sources, Mr. Putin received over 56 million votes, i.e. more than half of the country’s eligible voters’ support. This is much more than in 2012 when he garnered some 45 million votes. Overall, this is the best winning score in the entire history of Russian presidential elections. Additionally, official media actively promoted the proposition that the voter turnout this time was unusually high—67.5%. This is simply not true (since the turnout was higher at the 1991, 1996 and 2000 elections). As compared to other countries, the number does not seem particularly high either (thus, the turnout in Germany and France in 2017 was in excess of 75%, and in Argentina, it was over 80% in 2016). However, the desired propaganda effect was achieved; the part of the electorate that does not support Mr. Putin is now altogether at a loss as to how they could possibly go about having the current Russian regime replaced. Among other things, this is corroborated by a very lackluster response to Mr. Navalny’s call for protest action on the eve of Mr. Putin’s inauguration. In Moscow, only a few thousand people showed up for a rally that was prohibited by the authorities; in other cities, attendance was  also insignificant.

Additionally,  after March 18 a widespread understanding emerged  that Mr. Putin would remain in power indefinitely, or  for as long as he would be able to serve. What’s important is that this kind of sentiment now dominates not only among the general public, but also within the elites that make their plans for the future based on the assumption that Mr. Putin will soon easily lay a legislative foundation for extending his presidency ad infinitum. While in late 2017 the political and expert communities were actively mulling the candidacies of Mr. Putin’s potential successors and the criteria applicable to their selection, all such discussions have completely ceased by now.

Yet another representative of the non-systemic opposition, Ksenia Sobchak (daughter of St. Petersburg’s first mayor A. Sobchak who had Mr. Putin for a deputy for a number of years), was allowed to run. It was she who tried to voice the interests of the part of the society that would be most interested in effecting change and, first and foremost, seeing Mr. Putin leave. However, the 1.6% of the vote garnered by Ms. Sobchak turned out to be substantially less than most forecasters expected (she was believed to be able to command  5–7% of the votes), which indicates that this  politician has not quite managed to hit it off with the opposition-minded electorate just yet. After the election, Ms. Sobchak behaved like Mr. Grudinin, i.e. almost completely disappeared from the public eye.

In cooperation with yet another young opposition politician, Dmitry Gudkov, Ms. Sobchak announced the creation of a new political party.  Mr. Gudkov intends to run for the mayor of Moscow (in the election scheduled to take place this coming September) and challenge the incumbent Sergey Sobyanin. However, if the “political depression” of the opposition-minded electorate continues, he stands virtually no chance of a successful run and neither does  Ilya Yashin, the candidate Mr. Navalny supports.

Overall, similarly to the “official” parties, the non-systemic opposition found itself lacking a clear forward-looking strategy at the moment. There are more than three years remaining until the next parliamentary election, yet the current agenda leaves precious little room for any real action. Additionally, the non-systemic opposition continues to remain organizationally weak; many of Mr. Navalny’s “election headquarters” in the regions ceased operations, having failed to transform themselves into a permanent network, while the Sobchak-Gudkov party only exists on paper for the time being.

To Preserve Themselves, the Powers That Be Will Have to Give Up on Any Real Change in the Country

And thus the Russian political and State machine is getting weaker and weaker. However, there are no reasons to believe that it will be substantially reformed in the foreseeable future, let alone cease to exist in its present form. On the contrary, the most likely scenario will involve its preservation for an indefinitely long period. 

It is preserving the current state of affairs not only with respect to the political system, but also in terms of the overall situation in and around Russia, is Mr. Putin’s unconditional priority for his new term. The authorities are proceeding from the assumption that any substantial change in the overall situation in the country involves more risk for them than preserving the status quo. Mr. Putin is well aware that any attempts at qualitative change (regardless of what that change is and which way it is going) will likely have a destabilizing effect, and at some point the weakening State apparatus may find itself unable to handle more instability.

The regime will do all it can to try and extend into the future the sole basis of its legitimacy, namely, the loyalty most of the population feels towards Mr. Putin personally. As the events of the past few years indicated, even such massive adverse developments as the souring relations with the world, economic stagnation, sanctions, and Russia getting bogged down in local wars failed  to diminish that loyalty. Therefore, Russian authorities became convinced that their one and only real threat is a deep and protracted economic crisis, including devaluation of the ruble, a sharp increase in prices, major banks going bankrupt, etc. One should note that this is a fairly reasonable assumption corroborated, for example, by recent data from public sentiment monitoring (see Chart 2 herein). Even a short-lived rise in the ruble’s volatility against major currencies in April 2018 visibly contributed to the public’s anxiety and doubts. Earlier, many a drop in the positive attitude towards the authorities shared by most of the populace also followed negative developments in the economy.

Russia has not had a deep and long-lasting crisis of this sort for quite some time now. Moreover, the current regime has become quite skillful at effectively curbing situations that could lead to such a crisis. Suffice it to remember that a sharp decline in the value of the ruble in December 2014 coupled with falling oil prices had no continuation, and the resulting burst of inflation was quickly stifled. Furthermore, despite the continuous stagnation and multiple structural problems in the economy, there are no domestic threats in Russia—and there will be none in the foreseeable future—that could ignite a full-blown socioeconomic crisis.

However, such threats may materialize from the outside, as was clearly demonstrated by the consequences of the recent inclusion by the US of the companies of Russian oligarchs Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg into its SDN List. Even though the companies affected by said sanctions are not Russia’s largest and play no systemic role, the US Treasury’s decision produced a true, though short-lived, crisis that involved the Russian stock market dropping and the loss by the ruble of some 7–10% of its value against USD and Euro over the course of just a few days. Should any such sanctions be introduced against entities that are of a higher importance for Russian economy, such as the largest government-owned banks, the consequences may be much more significant and unpredictable.

It follows that, in the absence of any domestic threats to Mr. Putin’s legitimacy, Russian authorities will focus their attention on nipping any risks from the outside in the bud. This means that in the near future, Mr. Putin’s foreign policy will take extra care to avoid any steps that could aggravate the country’s relations with the USA and the European Union any further. To be sure, he is likely to continue talking tough and demonstrating the country’s growing military might since all of that is primarily intended for domestic consumption. Yet his real policies will concentrate on keeping the current situation at bay, more or less, and avoiding any expansion of harsh sanctions against truly important companies and key oligarchs. 

However, even though Mr. Putin is most likely right in his assessment of this threat and his choice of tactics to prevent it, this does not mean that no other threats exist that could cause the level of support enjoyed by the Russian president to go down significantly. In fact, there are at least three other risks, and they are also directly related to what Russian authorities can do, and how they can do it.

The first is caused by the actions of the group within Mr. Putin’s inner circle that advocates for the maximum confrontation with the West and virtually putting Russia under siege. According to some, such a scenario was proposed as an option for the president’s electoral campaign and got rejected by him at that time. Said group may attempt (by way of launching a deliberate provocation, among other things) to cause a sharp deterioration of the domestic situation in Russia and/or in Russia’s relations with the outside world and then use it as an excuse for introducing large-scale restrictions on civil liberties in the country and putting curbs on any contacts with the outside world at all levels. Under such a scenario, the group itself will face relatively few risks since it is mostly comprised of «pure» enforcers (members of the uniformed services) who maintain no significant funds or property outside of Russia’s borders. Such a development would spell the end of relative economic stability in Russia.

However, Mr. Putin (who continues to disfavour this idea) has a counterplay that will define at least one other important trend in the coming years. The president cannot just reign his “hawks” in too harshly because he needs them. However, he can curb their craving for a “besieged fortress” by putting assets that are formally being nationalized under their control. In the past year, quite a few large businesses have come under the government’s control, one way or another. It would suffice to recall the private banks Otkrytiye and Binbank that used to be on the Top 10 list of Russian banks and are now controlled by the country’s Central Bank, the leader of Russian retail Magnet (acquired by the VTB),  the developer company O1 (now controlled by companies associated with the Russian Railways), etc. In the immediate future, their ranks may  grow—for example, on account of the Summa Group owned by the Magomedov brothers (deemed to be close to Mr. Medvedev), who have recently been arrested, and as a result of, as a minimum, partial nationalization of the companies hit by US sanctions. It is quite possible that this quasi-nationalization (i.e. the transfer of assets to Mr. Putin’s friends who informally control State-owned companies) will not stop there, and in 2018–2019 we will see the sector controlled by State corporations and entities owned by Mr. Putin’s friends expanding further. By giving the “hawks” control over some assets, Mr. Putin may, as a minimum, make the “besieged fortress” scenario much less attractive for them.

The second threat may arise out of the continuous weakening of all institutions coupled with the fact that, like most other long-term authoritarian leaders, Mr. Putin is becoming more and more dependent on the opinions of his entourage. Even now, one may assert that the president lives in a reality that has been deliberately created for him by his entourage acting in the best (and, in most cases, self-serving) interests of the members of this “inner circle”. This creates a growing risk that the weakened institutions (in this case, first and foremost, the analytical and expert community) may begin making more mistakes, whether deliberately or otherwise, when preparing specific draft decisions for the president. Such mistakes have already been made—for example, when the seriousness of the USA’s intentions was underestimated after the publication in February 2018 of the list of the “beneficiaries” of Mr. Putin’s system. Many in Russia, including those within the president’s entourage, believed that list to be a formality, and as a result, imposition of harsh sanctions on some of the persons on that list in early April largely came as a surprise.

Finally, the third threat stems from the growing role played by government propaganda and the possibility that it may morph into a State ideology and begin having an (adverse) impact on the economy. Even though today’s Russia has a weak economy, it has one substantial advantage over that of the late-stage USSR, namely its freedom from ideology. It is this freedom from ideology (and the overall absence of any State ideology as such) that has so far allowed the economy to quickly adapt to the changing external conditions and dampen any emerging crises. Should current propaganda develop into a full-blown “new Russia” ideology that will become mandatory, the economy will lose said advantage, which may give rise to processes similar to those that ruled in the Soviet economy in the 1980s.

The Sundry List: What to Expect from Russian Authorities and What May Transpire in Russia in the Nearest Future

To summarize all of the above, let us briefly describe the most likely steps the regime will take and the events and developments to be expected in the next two or three years.

The “quasi-nationalization” of assets that are now privately owned will pick up the pace. More and more businesses in different industries will be coming under the control of government entities and/or persons from Mr. Putin’s inner circle.

Russia will try to preserve the status quo in Ukraine (first and foremost, where the Crimea is concerned) and Syria. It is unlikely that any new hot military spots will develop where Russia would get involved . Mr. Putin and his entourage will try to improve their rapport with continental Europe as a counterbalance to the country’s poor relations with the USA and the United Kingdom.

Economic stagnation will continue, with the GDP growth remaining within the 0–2% range. Economic policy will remain  reactive , seeking to take ad hoc measures as necessary to avoid real reforms yet still maintain the general stability at its current level.

Limitations on civil liberties in Russia will continue . Selective use of the law will become widespread, to the extent that  laws may even be made targeting specific persons or groups.

Attempts at carrying out the “besieged fortress” scenario will continue, potentially leading to a repeat of events similar to blatant  interventions during the election or to the “Skripal case”. Mr. Putin will take a hard stance against such an approach, but his dependence on his “inner circle” may still make this option possible.

Propaganda will pick up speed, permeating previously untouched areas of the Russian society’s life. We may still see it encroaching upon purely economic decisions. This is one of the most serious threats Russia is now facing since “ideologization” of the economy will make it more vulnerable to crises and new challenges.

More and more high offices will go to those who have Mr. Putin personally to thank for their career rise.

By the end of 2020, a reform of the “systemic” political parties (possibly incorporating some of the current “non-systemic” opposition into the new arrangement) will have been prepared, but it will mostly be limited to changing names and titles.

The authorities may announce new large-scale programmes and strategies in different areas, but none of them will be carried out.

Naturally, this is not an exhaustive list since the Russian authorities often take ad hoc action to react to external events. However, the trend here is unmistakable: maximum possible preservation of the current state of affairs for an indefinitely long period of time, the desire to avoid any large-scale change and the objective of keeping Vladimir Putin at the helm for an indefinite period of time.