“In my opinion, Russia has entered Perestroika 2,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the National Strategy Institute in Moscow. “Twenty-five years ago, Gorbachev initiated perestroika [rebuilding] because he wanted to strengthen the Communist system, not change it. But he lost control over the situation, it became turbulent, and all of Gorbachev’s reforms led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”
If Russia’s rulers relax their grip, they will lose power, Lilia Shevtsova, head of Russian political programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said last month. “They’re not ready for hara-kiri,” she said, referring to the Japanese suicide ritual. “They’re looking at Gorbachev’s experience when Gorbachev’s liberalization left the elite without a state, power and the Kremlin.”
Belkovsky said that if Putin offers reforms to shore up his legitimacy, he will unleash the same kind of uncontrollable forces. Doing nothing brings its own peril, Belkovsky said, because the current system has engendered incompetent government that relies on high oil prices for survival, despite talk about diversification. Economic reversals could set the entire country against Putin.
“He believes in oil and gas, nothing more, despite what is said publicly,” Belkovsky said. “He has only one idea. As long as oil prices are high, the Russian economy survives.”
Oreshkin predicts that Putin will start running into political trouble in the fall as elections begin for local mayors and city councils. Election monitors will be vigilant and voters restive.
“They’ll have to cancel elections or lose them,” he said.
A virtual vertical of power
Putin’s vertical of power has become virtual, Oreshkin said.
“In Soviet times, they reported great harvests and cows heavy with milk,” he said, “but there was no butter in the shops. Now they say the vertical of power has brought the country up from its knees and we won’t let the Americans build their missile defense. But it means nothing, and everyone knows it.”
Now Putin must find a way to build a new system of governance, said James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and director of the Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program.
“I don’t think he can count on the vertical,” Collins said. “No one’s afraid of them anymore.”
Pastukhov and others foresee only difficult years ahead. When Putin decided to return to the presidency, brushing aside Dmitry Medvedev, who had cast himself as the liberal standard-bearer, he lost the opportunity to leave office peacefully, they say.
“He could have left Medvedev president and let Medvedev put in a compliant prime minister,” Pastukhov said. “Putin could have been a shadow dictator. Everyone would have been happy.”
But Putin’s announcement in September that he would return awakened the opposition.
That leaves Russia facing uncertainty. Mark Urnov, professor at the Higher School of Economics, noted that Putin has prevented the development of opposition politicians, and Urnov fears who might emerge if Putin and his backers fall out. A nationalist or hard-liner could appear.
“So the situation is unstable and unclear,” he said, “and the only thing I can see is that the situation will be changed. I don’t know how.”
“The Soviet vertical lasted 70 years,” Oreshkin said. “It’s hard to say how long this one will last.”