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Regular version of the site

Reconstructing a Real 'Putin Doctrine'

HSE Professor, Yevgeny Gontmakher explains exactly how the results of the last elections are reflected in the new 'Putin doctrine' – isolationism, a rejection of European values and resetting the relationship with society. 'In the near future', he says, 'we can expect a purge of the elite and the introduction of full-scale censorship.'

You can read the doctrine which has taken shape in Putin’s head if you analyse several significant events; until recently Putin’s critics generally agreed that he was a clever tactician but a hopeless strategist. We recall for example: The sorry fate of the Gref programme he commissioned; the “plan for long-term social and economic development of the RF by 2020” accepted by the government under Putin’s premiership in 2008 but patently unrealistic; “Strategy 2020” devised by dozens of the best experts in the country and again, commissioned by Putin but totally disregarded.

But the absence of any real programme of a social economic nature didn’t really seem to matter while the cushion of oil and gas revenues allowed problems to be solved on an ad hoc basis, usually just by throwing money at them.

It was the same for internal politics and international matters. Can you really call “Sovereign Democracy” coupled with “getting Russia back on its feet” a doctrine?

Now, however, after the startling events at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, observing the evolution of state power in Russia, concentrated in the person of Vladimir Putin, I have come to the conclusion that the president has made a conceptual, strategic choice. Of course nothing is written down on paper but the doctrine formed in his mind can be read if you look carefully at the mass of significant events which are unfolding before our eyes following last years “castling” manoeuvre with Dmitri Medvedev which brought Putin back to the role of president.   


East or West

First we need to clarify what it was that made Putin finally start to think about the meaning of the events in his country and in the world.

First it was the world economic crisis which began at the end of 2008. It exposed how vulnerable the seemingly ultra modern financial systems were. But while the West is paying for it with close to zero rates of economic growth and high unemployment, Russia suffered a more than 9% fall in GDP in 2009. Yes, we did manage to make up for it later but our dependence on world market prices for raw materials has only increased. And now shale gas and green energy are becoming serious competitors on the energy markets. The state of affairs is reminiscent of the last years of the USSR when a sharp fall in oil prices finally felled the soviet colossus.

I am sure that Putin is fully aware of the fact that this interesting situation, has only two, almost mutually exclusive ways out:

  • To integrate intensively both economically and in military-political terms with the world known as the West, and that way, to receive at least some guarantee of maintaining internal stability. Like Greece, which, having managed to jump into the European Union is now sucking hundreds of billions of Euros from it.
  • To turn our backs on the West and redirect our economic relations towards China and other Asian countries, and to activate integration processes in the post-soviet space.

The second option seems to have been favoured because there is no end in sight to the world economic crisis. The Americans just can’t crank up the motor to get the economy moving again and their foreign debt is growing astronomically. Europe is going deeper and deeper into the abyss of debt crisis. Spain, Italy and Portugal are following Greece in becoming problem countries. There are major discussions taking place about how it is impossible to modernise the institutions of the market economy formed in the late 20th century and that they need to be replaced with something completely different. But no one has come up with a viable alternative so far.

A very important thing from Putin’s point of view is that the world economic crisis exposed how feeble democracy is. This is evident in the following; populist leaders have come to power or increased their influence, the means to introduce harsh but necessary measures to revive the economy have been sharply reduced, and elections have been used to allow fundamentalists to triumph, as has happened in Egypt, for example. 

The fact that the US has not been able to bring the situation under control in the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan is also significant. The Americans are obliged to tolerate a whole array of left-wing populist and openly anti-American regimes in their own “back yard” in Latin America. Meanwhile China is getting more powerful and doing things its own way.

What kind of strategic partnership and integration does the West really have to offer?  Russia’s uniqueness, the deep-rooted sense that democratic values, a European style market economy and human rights are something alien are becoming, not just eloquent slogans to indulge the moods of parts of Russian society, but burning issues of the day concerning serious political choices.


An active minority or a conservative minority

But the world economic crisis is not the only reason for Putin’s strategic decision. The demonstrations at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 have played a crucial role. And it isn’t just the unexpected scale of them. It turned out that having enjoyed a significant rise in living standards in the years of abundant oil and gas, instead of showing humble gratitude to the “national leader” society demanded honest elections and respect.

Again, Putin was presented with two choices;

Make a deal with the 15-20% of Russians who are openly demanding change

Or, lean on the more conservative and even fundamentalist part of society, whose active representatives number no more than a few percent of the adult population.  

Putin’s chose the latter, evidently. And his choice has a kind of logic if we think again about the current economic and political situation in the West.

These views, which make up what we are calling “Putin’s doctrine”, may have far-reaching consequences in Russia’s foreign and domestic politics.


Wealth or one-size-fits-all poverty

In domestic policy, besides the already evident crack-down, and further restrictions in the field of free, independent political and social life, we may well see a period of austerity. Creeping economic decline is already raising doubts about whether the government will fulfil its social obligations which have been growing throughout Putin’s time in power. Their inevitable “optimisation” has already begun as we can see in the commercialisation of education and health-care. Next in line is a decrease in wages and benefit payments. This will be justified by the need to protect us from outside forces, and to sacrifice our modest means to pay for keeping the army able to defend us. To this day the propaganda machine is maintained on a war footing, especially the state TV channels.

I am convinced that such a turn of events will lead to the introduction of total control and censorship of the internet. The fate of the business community is unenviable. Those who haven’t yet taken their assets to the West will be milked mercilessly, for the purposes of “reinstating social equity”, of course.

This will lead us back almost to a state planned economy, and to resources and finances being allocated by government directives. Socially, we will see a rapid levelling down to poverty. Elections and the separation of powers will be kept but they will be much more faked than they are even today. They’ll be needed to maintain the semblance of a full socially active life among the population.

In foreign policy we will see further fraternising with countries which oppose the West and a gradual sliding under the influence of China.  


The problems of the “Putin doctrine”

This doctrine and the system constructed on the basis of it, despite its integrity, has two very serious flaws – which finally brought down the Soviet Union;

If even only 15-20% of society resists the propaganda then powerful social arguments against the system will emerge. It won’t be simply a question of a demand for honest elections by people who stood for a while on Prospect Sakharov and then went to sit in a cosy cafe. We are talking about the mood of tens of millions of dispossessed, who have lost even the minimally decent standard of living they’d grown to think was normal.

If the West, in spite of current difficulties, sorts itself out and goes on to a new stage of development based on democratic values, market economy and human rights...

Either of these would be enough to bring about the collapse of a system built on the “Putin doctrine”, but if both emerge (which I think highly probable) there will be such a powerful social upheaval that Russia as a country may not survive.

So what can we do to avoid this highly probable scenario?

Firstly, we should make a correct diagnosis and refuse to consider any excessive illusions

Secondly, we must use all our strength to support people’s low level non-violent activism – starting with purely social right through to purely political approaches. That means seeking out like-minded people, putting pressure on the government by all legal means on all possible grounds and gaining invaluable experience of civil initiative.

Thirdly we need to work together with that part of the ruling elite which for different reasons is not happy about the visible changes in policy.

The main thing is – don’t lose heart, and believe that democratic Russia has a bright future ahead.





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