The emergence of a Kremlin leader, President Dmitri Medvedev, without a KGB background, combined with the economic crisis, has inspired talk that when US President Barack Obama visits Moscow, the US president will be seeing a country on the verge of a new political thaw, a revived perestroika. However, pushing the “reset button” on US-Russia relations may be harder than Obama and his team imagined.
Russian (or Soviet) leaders opt for perestroika or a thaw only when forced to do so by dire conditions that threaten the regime’s survival. An atmosphere of mortal fear, mutual suspicion and hatred among the Communist elite was the catalyst for Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin thaw. For Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, the catalyst for his perestroika was the Soviet Union’s growing economic paralysis.
For both men, the goal of clinging to power was a top priority. Changing the system and easing their grip on power was a risky move that could undermine their authority, but the risks of inertia seemed to be even higher. In the end, having opted for change, both were forced to leave their posts prematurely, against their will.
As he revived centralized Kremlin control over Russian politics and public affairs, former president Vladimir Putin was concerned primarily with minimizing challenges to state power, which he concentrated in his own hands. To this end, he stripped the political system of competition, emasculated state institutions, marginalized the opposition and basically eliminated public participation. His power-building project was facilitated by high oil prices, but came at the cost of a steady deterioration in the quality of governance and abandonment of the goal of modernization.
With policymaking fully nontransparent and reduced to a very closed circle, and implementation delegated to an unaccountable bureaucracy, the inevitable result of Putin’s political model was pervasive corruption. The desire to avoid public discontent and ensure social stability led to a suspension of reform.
Instead of creating incentives that would unleash public energies, the government pushed citizens farther from politics and policymaking, thereby deepening social apathy. Moreover, the opportunity provided by the oil boom was wasted. Indeed, today Russia risks lagging even further behind the developed world. Its economy has not been diversified and it remains uncompetitive.
Worse still, economic growth based on exports of natural resources has proved unsustainable. When oil prices were high and growing, the government could compensate for poor performance by throwing money at problems. Today, with oil prices dramatically reduced, this largesse is no longer available and economic experts agree that growth potential has been exhausted.
Despite all this, the situation is not sufficiently dire to push Russia’s leaders to open at least some channels of genuine public participation and yield any of their power. Nor does the Russian economy’s contraction and the expected deepening of poverty (the World Bank’s report released late last month was grimmer about Russia than its previous report) presage an immediate catastrophe.
Unlike in the late 1980s and 1990s, Russia is not indebted to foreign banks or international organizations, though it plans to resume foreign borrowing next year.