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Andrew McKillop

21st Century Wire 

He is the most talked about man on the world stage today, and perhaps the most embattled too.

He could be seen at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi – with his buttoned-down black overcoat and fur collar, looking the part of the Russian Bear. A modern enigma if there ever was one, a strong leader for an emerging super-power. And this is exactly where the legend ends, and real politik begins…

The Would-Be Empire

Bookies and analysts will all tell you that Vladimir Putin’s presidency is likely to end soon. Putin himself has several times given hints that he is not interested in another term.

Other signs and signals point the same way. The proverbial ‘Olympic Headache’ – the Sochi Games and its financial wounds could take a while to heal. Planned as a festival of profit for handpicked, Kremlin vetted-vested interests, its circus of waste, fraud, abuse and double-dealing has even dismayed several powerful Oligarchs close to power, who are now increasingly far from Putin.

What was going to unite or reunite the country, and its Oligarchs, only underlines Putin’s de facto retreat from power. To be sure Putin’s political disappearance will be treated outside Russia as a major destabilizing event, simply due to uncertainty who will replace him. Inside Russia, the end-of-era spinoff will be more complex but the Kremlin’s unrealistic “wanna-be empire” project to remake the old USSR into a type of Eurasian Union project, is by most analysts’ account, a sure loser – too complex, and too many obstacles. Putin surely sees this, and so Putin is walking away from it.

Conventional views also back this reading. Stephen Sestanovich, this week on ZeroHedge argued that by hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia has brought a surge of international attention to the parlous state of its economy, its dangerous interethnic relations, its seething domestic politics, and its confused foreign policy. Already the majority of the scrutiny is unwelcome.

The staggering and unknowable, probably $50 billion price tag for the Games highlights Russia’s new dysfunctionality.

Recent terrorist threats and attacks remind the world that Russia’s southern regions are rampantly separatist, and also remind the world that independence-from-Moscow movements are spreading right across the Russian Federation. Shifting coalitions between splinter groups already exist -between the rainbow front of nationalist, Muslim, Communist, progressive, market liberal, gay and lesbian, anarchist, and Orthodox Christian elements, factions and parties. Their only common ground and point of contact is they are all anti-Putin and anti-Kremlin. Putin’s action to fight these different movements is inevitably repressive, anti-democratic and illiberal – winning him more enemies than friends, every time. Since the West control the narrative of ‘freedom and democracy’, anything the Kremlin does to plug its leaky shift will immediately be seized upon by foreign politicos and media – and this will only continue.

As a young nation of only 25 years, Russia’s 21st century challenges are immense. Whatever the beauty and style of Sochi’s firework shows and its sumptuous urban makeover, the Games have embarrassed Putin all kinds of ways. Just as Bejing’s Olympic facade of ‘Chinese-style glastnost’ only fooled the cameras, the Sochi Show of New Russian glory fools nobody.

Putin’s Lost Economic Bet

Putin promised fast economic growth, and until 2008 delivered it at nearly 7 percent a year for 7 years. If there is one thing which united most Russians behind Putin, this was it. Following the 2008-2009 crisis, it seemed, the Putin miracle would bounce back. It seemed that rates of up to 4 percent a year could be restored, then levered up. By 2011-2012 this fond hope fell apart, and by 2013 Russia’s economy was growing at an official 1.4 percent a year, and debt was on a steep upward track, like the rate of inflation, which in real terms is close to 10 percent. Russia’s two-only real sources of growth and economic power – oil and gas exports – had however rebounded in price soon after 2009, but Russia’s economy did not lift off back into growth with them. What happened?

Putin tried the blame game. Russia’s non-rebound was not his fault. He claimed the semi-stagnant European economy was a main cause. He claimed speculators and conspirators were attacking the ruble, raising the cost of debt, cheating Russia on trade and tariffs. He blamed the leaders of states in the Federation, he blamed Ukraine for stealing gas, as he often does, but to no avail. He had to abandon this blame-shifting and admit the problem is “internal, not external”, and begrudgingly accept the needed solutions would include exactly the same solutions touted in Europe. Market-based solutions allowing smaller and medium-sized businesses to grow, more labor flexibility, less intervention by the Kremlin, fewer and smaller state corporations, less corruption and tax evasion, more investment, less public debt, more innovation and research. The list is long.

Putin is simply not able to deliver on these, like his European opposite numbers. Like them, he can  embrace some of them, promote them for a while, and dump them when they trigger resistance somewhere else in Russia’s now complex and divided society. Like the Europeans, Putin can claim “there must be economic reform”, but he cannot deliver it. He has a Mission Impossible – like the European leaders of today, facing the same era and the same timewarp where nothing happens – but everything always gets more complex, and worse.

Like them, at least an increasing number of European leaders, but also Japan’s political elite, and growing factions in the US, both inside the Administration and outside, Putin has been forced into political dreaming out loud. His appeal for Russian Greatness inevitably calls for Soviet-era Stalinist thinking and action by Russians of today some 60 years after “the Father of the Peoples” disappeared, possibly by poisoning. In European countries such as France, for example, this same political rearguard action calls for Gaullist postwar nationalism and economic patriotism. In Turkey for example, it already includes a witch hunt against the Internet – treated as the cause, not the symptom of economic crisis and social breakdown. In all cases the floundering political elites are hopelessly outdated. All their economic bets are losers – even if they are tinted in bathos and highly predictable.

Russia’s Terror War Psychosis

Most western analysts and commentators do not rank the USSR’s nine-year war in Afghanistan (1979-88) as a pre-emptive terror war, that totally backfired in the same way as the American thirteen-year war in Afghanistan (2001-14). Certainly today however, inside Russia, many Russians see their Afghan war that way – and once bitten, twice shy. Soviet and then Russian reaction to Chechen separatism in the 1990s with no surprise quickly shifted to anti-Islamic terror war, reinforced by the 1988 defeat and retreat from Afghanistan. With the birth (or rebirth) of Russia and its new Federation, the 1990s also focused Russian wrath on Islamic and separatist terrorist activity originating, and spreading in the North Caucasus. Anti-terror war is therefore as old as New Russia. It was and is a dirty war, it necessarily causes large collateral damage and loss of life, and is deeply unpopular.

Usually under-reported by western journalists, the Russian “Caucasus problem” and obsession is like a Russian doll having at least 3 dolls inside the outer shell. In the Caucasus, both north and south, Russia faces Islamic, ethnic and nationalist separatism, with a strong historical basis stretching far back before the Soviet era. Fusion of these doll-strands has been significant. Factors as seemingly unrelated as Russia’s ever-declining birthrate, and increasing loss of national population year-on-year, played a major role in Putin’s early terms by encouraging Russia’s open door policy to economic migrants from ex-Soviet and current-Federation territories and nations.

The large workforce of economic immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus in Russia’s biggest cities is today seen as a Fifth Column permanent threat of urban insurgency. Today in Europe, with the same Fifth Column problem in many of the EU28 states, the same fear-rationale is growing.

Putin has to face this reality – and its political perception by Russians who massively say in opinion polls that the last thing on Earth they want is another Afghan-type war. Far more than in any EU28 country, although this sentiment is powerfully growing in the EU (and Switzerland!), Zero Immigration is a rallying cry for “ethnic Russians”. During Putin’s economic boom time, economic immigration was massive. The capital region and St Petersburg are estimated by analysts to have received anywhere up to 5 million migrants in less than 10 years. With the economic downturn and rising terror in the Caucasus the migrants, whether they are Russian citizens or not, are seen as taking jobs from Russians, raising the price of everything, overloading Russia’s rudimentary social security system, operating crime syndicates, dividing society – in sum, a Fifth Column for terror.

At any time, in any major Russian city including Moscow, the equivalent of Stalin’s “pogroms” or Witch Hunts can be triggered by an isolated incident. The death of a single white “ethnic Russian” at the hands of a Chechen, Azeri, Moldovan or other migrant can trigger the arrest of a thousand “non-ethnic Russian” immigrants. Public beatings, and deportations will ensue. This is a powder keg.

Putin has almost no freedom of action on this issue, as in others. He can try appeasing popular hostility to migrants, try to disavow the slogan “Russia for the Russians,” but the movement is powerful and growing – because of fear psychosis and the indelible effects of the Afghan war. The economic slowdown – as in Europe – can only accelerate this process. Putin, with his United Russia party is facing Russian nationalism today, as well as separatist and nationalist movements in the south, west, east and central parts of the Federation. He has a Mission Impossible.

Why Putin Will Not Stand

Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s joint performance on the world stage at the UN, G20 and Geneva summits – were masterful when compared to the clumsy, bungled war effort by the US-UK-French Axis. But winning at triple chess in the Middle East does not guarantee the same level of success at home.

Putin successfully blunted the impact of large street demonstrations against him, against the Kremlin, on the immigration, corruption and of course -the ‘gay rights’ issue, among other issues in 2011-12, winning some of these public opinion battles, but in no way winning The War of Opinion.

Apparent signs that Putin can breath free, notably the lack of new or different, organized opposition movements or groupings in fact underline how much and how fast Russia has “gone out of focus” and shifted to ungovernability. What was a relatively united opposition coalition, has shattered – but has massively grown in numbers and ability to mobilize where it counts – in the street. Putin’s action to hinder or outlaw the activities of political and other organizations that already exist has had the counterintuitive impact of accelerating the number of de facto associations and groups which are anti-Putin and anti-Kremlin.

Also not logical but a stark fact, this repressive action by Putin has in no way favored his party, United Russia. Putin in theory can hold on until late 2018, at which point he would be eligible to run for another six-year term, but the odds of that not happening are growing every day.

The argument that Sochi was a genuine reputational risk and challenge for Putin has been peddled hard – outside Russia – but inside Russia the Volvograd bombings (photo, above) had a more important meaning for public opinion. Inside Russia, there was no expectation the Sochi Games would be a platform for protestors, and probably not terrorists either, due to massive security. Focusing the Games as a “litmus test” for Putin ignores the always rising isolationism of ethnic Russians who have few problems criticizing the Games as Putin playing Nice Guy for the West – and wasting public money.

Russia’s Polls Don’t Predict the Future

The argument made outside Russia that Putin has worked a deliberate strategic choice to “distance Russia from the West” ignores the plain fact that Russians want this at a much faster pace than Putin. Anytime that Putin forces the cancellation of a major state visit, like President Obama’s cancellation of a Moscow visit in September 2013 pretexting the Snowden asylum affair, he is bowing to real public opinion, in Russia. Putin’s lackluster hosting of the G-8 meeting merely underlined the lack of faith by ordinary Russians in any serious improvement in domestic economic conditions arising from good relations with Paper Tiger countries facing exactly the same economic difficulties.

His action concerning Ukraine is of little or no interest to ethnic Russians, but this is another “unallowed subject” for Russian opinion polls and for Putin, poll results of the ballot box type are the only ones which count. Opinion polling in Russia can even be life-threatening, to pollsters. Questions such as “Do you think Putin should stand down?” are simply impossible to ask. Allowable poll questions and their answers say that a massive majority of Russians would vote again for Putin “if he stood for another term”, but the same polls say a massive majority “do not want Putin to stand”, without expressing any reason why and avoiding any expressed desire for Putin to stand down before the end of his current term. These are not-allowed questions on forbidden subjects.

One thing is sure insofar as polls in Russia mean anything. When the polls and Putin say out loud that Russians of today have changing aims (and identities), and this means international problem-solving is of ever-lower interest, Putin is acting like the highly skilled politician he is, and is staying ahead of public opinion on that count. He has morphed, and been forced to mutate the meaning of “sovereign nation”, for Russia, into meaning isolationism, hard borders, the pursuit of national interest only, and the flat rejection of any and all outside interference.

This is a dangerous process and Putin knows it. Russia’s Orthodox Christian tradition, a card that Putin plays more and more, has the ideological dimension of defending Russia against Western degeneracy and Islamic savagery. It is ultra isolationist.

Pursued to its logical ending, which we can guess is not a task Putin wants but may have to accept for as long as he stays, Russia may veer away from its apparent modernising, market liberal and multicultural trend of the past 20 years. Isolationism will dictate a let them sink-or-swim attitude to Ukraine, which ethnic Russians have no interest in “saving” – with public money. Isolationism will dictate a strategic retreat from the Caucasus geopolitical shatterbelt zone, and massive repression of Islamic activists inside Russia. The end of the “economic migrant era” in Russia may be very soon. Putin’s Eurasian Union project is a key example of what no longer works, is not wanted, and is impossible in Russia today.

The well-known refrain, or whine, of Western leaders that they want Russia to be a “normal country” will disappear from the scene – along with Putin. All this will be accelerated by continuing economic crisis. After Putin is a completely opaque question, and is absolutely unallowed for pollsters.

READ MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR AT: 21st Century Wire McKillop Files



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