Even in tough times, Russia tends to put on a show to welcome the New Year, and 2020/21 is no exception. But what may be on Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s resolutions this time round?
Most immediately, to test Joe Biden’s incoming administration. We have already had a taster, with alternating calls for renewed arms control talks and tough rhetoric about the need for Russia to field advanced new weapons.
Beyond a not-so-secret relief at having a White House that will at least be relatively stable and predictable, the Kremlin is not expecting an easy time from a Biden administration on a range of fronts, from sanctions to Ukraine. However, it also recognises that arms control is one of the areas where the new US government does want to make progress, so it is using it as the test case to see how far it can push.
Fortunately, Moscow also wants some kind of agreement, just not at any price. If nothing else, negotiations help reaffirm Russia’s status as a great power. So while they are talking tough now, in part this is like any market-stall seller, starting the price high precisely because they expect to be haggled down.
Nonetheless, a lot will rest on the new administration’s capacity to hit that sweet spot between being so eager for a deal that they embolden the Kremlin on other fronts, and so tough that Putin and his distinctly paranoid cronies conclude that there is no point making a deal with an administration that is out to get them.
On the domestic front, Putin’s focus will be September’s elections to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature. This may sound strange, given that the elections will be rigged and the Duma, while not entirely a rubber stamp, is certainly no serious check on the presidency.
The point is, rather, that the elections will nonetheless be – and be seen to be – a referendum on late Putinism.
Last time, in 2016, a questionable election awarded the Kremlin an absolute majority, with its United Russia bloc taking 238 of the 450 seats, on just over 49 per cent of the vote. This was, though, still in the era of post-Crimean enthusiasm, and before further economic pressure, COVID, the revision of the constitution to allow Putin potentially another 12 years in office, and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
Currently, polls put United Russia at just 29 per cent. Let’s be clear, there is no danger of the Kremlin losing the Duma. The main ‘opposition’ parties, the Communists and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democrats, are largely fake alternatives, which back the government on every significant vote.
Likewise, the Kremlin has many ways of influencing the vote beforehand – disqualifying dangerous candidates through spurious court actions or questioning their nomination papers, deploying propaganda, and so on – or actually on the day of the count. The question is not whether the Kremlin will win, it is how crooked it has to make the process to get the result it wants.
This matters because the more people see the rigging, the more it deprives Putin of the legitimating vote he wants. The 2011-13 Bolotnaya Protests resulted from a widespread belief that the 2011 Duma votes were rigged (and Putin’s decision to return to the presidency), and the current crisis in Belarus was likewise triggered by clumsy manipulation of election results.
It is not that the greatest fear is of street protests, rather of the slow erosion of the remaining faith in the government.
Much of that will depend on the economy, and Putin’s fourth resolution will be to make people believe things are turning round. At his annual marathon press conference, he admitted that real incomes would fall by around 3 per cent through 2020, after years of pressure on household budgets.
It is not that the economy is in crisis, even if 2020 did see Russia’s – like everyone else’s – suffer. There are signs of a real uptick, and for all the old snipes at the country being nothing more than a petrol station, 70 per cent of budget revenues now come from sources other than oil and gas.
To a large extent he has delegated this job to his new technocratic prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who is certainly trying to streamline the administrative system. If he can do anything as well as he did reforming the tax system – where, under his management, the total take was increased by 20 per cent, even though the actual tax burden only went up 2 per cent - then the country will be well served. Whether he can make any progress against the powerful entrenched interests of oligarchy and cronyism, though, remains to be seen.
But all this matters, because of the inevitable and likely unspoken fifth resolution: survive.
There is no imminent threat to Putin’s regime. However, it is still terribly dependent on one 68-year-old man and his health. Never mind the man, the regime itself is experiencing a slow decline in its public legitimacy, its capacity to respond to new challenges, and its willingness to adapt.
Putin is a product of the decaying Soviet Union. He was born in the ruins of post-war Leningrad; he joined the KGB in 1975, when Leonid Brezhnev’s state was in ever-more-obvious decline; he was serving in East Germany when that country simply evaporated; he was back in Russia where a tired and despondent Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Soviet Union out of existence. In the early years of the ‘wild 90s,’ before his rapid rise to power, he queued for food in shops whose prices were skyrocketing, or whose shelves were empty.
Of course, today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is a powerful state still, with considerable human capital and entrepreneurial dynamism. But for a veteran of those experiences, one who must feel his glory days are behind him, remaining strong on the world stage, projecting power in domestic politics, and keeping the economy humming are all crucial not just for the state, but for his own personal political survival.