After several years of rising tension, hopes are being raised across Europe that Wednesday’s inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president will mark a significant improvement in relations.
The optimistic scenario is that Medvedev will turn out to be a liberal who uses his predecessor’s legacy of revived national self-confidence to usher in an era of democratic reform and constructive diplomacy from a position of strength.
A more realistic prognosis is that former president Vladimir Putin has created an authoritarian regime too corrupted by power to change, except reluctantly and under pressure of circumstance.
Medvedev owes his position to the managed part of Putin’s “managed democracy” and is not about to turn on the system that created him. Even if he wanted to, he lacks the independent power base to try. He will enjoy the title and trappings of office, but Putin will remain Russia’s de facto national leader. As prime minister-elect and leader of a party controlling two-thirds of the Duma, he is already unsackable.
But the real source of power is his ability to deliver the “men in epaulets,” the securocrats that have come to dominate the state office under his leadership. We can be sure that Putin will work hard to keep it that way. After all, he wouldn’t want to end up in London fighting an extradition demand from one of his successors.
He has, nevertheless, chosen a good moment to step out of the limelight, not least because the fragility of his achievement in orchestrating Russia’s national revival is about to be apparent. The nation’s demographic profile is awful, with average male life expectancy of 59 and a population set to shrink by up to a third over the next 40 years. For all the bombastic talk about Russia’s return to the top table of world power, Putin hasn’t found a way to stop large numbers of Russian men drinking themselves into an early grave.
A more immediate problem, and one entirely of Putin’s own creation, is the looming crisis in the Russian energy sector, newly restored to state control by means of intimidation and outright illegality. Productive enterprises have been forcibly taken over by inefficient state companies that have failed to invest in replacement production and will soon struggle to meet domestic demand, let alone export commitments. This means that even if energy prices remain high, the foreign earnings that have boosted Russian growth could start to dwindle unless corrective action is taken soon.
One way the Russian government plans to do this is to reduce consumption by raising domestic energy prices now that the elections are safely out of the way. Whether this can be done to the level required without provoking a political backlash is open to doubt. In a country of widening inequality and rising inflation, cheap gas is an important plank of social welfare. As Putin found when he tried to monetize pensioner benefits three years ago, the Russian people are capable of taking to the streets when their material security is threatened.
A popular protest movement that became a serious opposition would soon start to ask awkward questions about the kind of regime Putin has created and the extent of its mismanagement and abuse of national resources. Far from “liquidating the oligarchs as a class,” Putin has simply redistributed wealth from the “family” of late president Boris Yeltsin to his own cabal. This new oligarchy may conceal its identity behind public office, but it is motivated by the same desire for self-enrichment. Harsher economic times ahead would lay that bitter truth bare for the Russian people to see. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this opposition would assume a liberal and democratic character. A population fed on anti-foreigner paranoia and chauvinist revivalism could easily take a different course.