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Political Crisis Sure To Follow Economic Slump
Vremya MN
13 November 2001
[translation for personal use only]
Article by Leonid Radzikhovskiy: "Test of Strength"

For two years, there was no question that Putin was the "president of all the Russians," and it was no wonder. When pensions are raised while Aleksandrov's music plays in the background, can any "Red" be unhappy? As for the "Whites," it would be ludicrous for them to object to liberalization and economic growth. Besides, there was nothing objectionable about the President himself: He did not slur his words, he could walk a straight line, he kept his promises, and his personal habits and family posed no threat to the country.

Now, however, even the stupidest among us seem to have realized that Putin has no policy "pleasant in all respects." He has no policy equidistant from Chubays and Kharitonov. He does have a policy that is quite rigid and immutable, corresponding to the familiar ideology extolling the liberal economy and alliance with the West. What is more, the very fact that this policy is being pursued by a former KGB colonel makes it more uncompromising than anything that Yeltsin, with his anti-Communist snarling, ever could have envisioned.

What has this realization produced? In this case, action has not evoked a symmetrical reaction! The events of 7 November, a "day of indifference and oblivion," proved that there is no serious opposition to Putin today. The "Boys Choir" from the "Limonka" People's Theater joyfully screeched, "We will turn the Afghan war into a world civil war" and shrieked, "Stalin, Beriya, bin Ladin, and the Taliban" (actually, this is a proper series, but it is a pity they forgot to add Hitler to the list). Is this supposed to signify political opposition?! They are standing on tiptoe, straining to reach extremist heights, but the result is the same old array of belligerent nationalism. Zyuganov and his latest "Yaroslavna's Lament" do not constitute genuine opposition, but just a performance for his "tribe." Even Kuban Governor Vanden, regaling his wounded Cossacks with tales of how he personally handles a broom ... oops, pardon me, I mean "wields a pitchfork," does not represent any real opposition. In Moscow, that hawkish governor tells completely different stories. All of this proves, of course, that there is not even a trace of a "vertical chain of command, and that Putin is just as defenseless against a popular governor as Yeltsin was. Nevertheless, this is still only the possibility of opposition rather than opposition itself--at least for the time being.

For the time being, everything is upside down. There is no need for long harangues about the strength of anti-American feelings in Russia. When Putin resolutely supported the American war in Afghanistan, it seemed that his approval rating would be bombed along with Kabul. What actually happened, however, according to all of the latest polls, was not that people were less likely to support Putin's policy, but that they were more likely to support the actions of the United States! Most of the population is hoping for a U.S. victory (on the condition, of course, that Russian soldiers will not have to go to war). The reasoning that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" did not work in the case of most Russians' feelings about the Taliban, but the idea that "the friend of my president is my friend" did affect their feelings about the United States.

Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility of serious opposition. It could be provoked by an American and worldwide economic crisis instead of by anti-American attitudes. No one knows exactly how severe the crisis will be and how long it will last. We only know that Russia may not be feeling its effects today, but it is certain to feel them tomorrow. If the low prices and low demand for oil, metals, and our other exports last for just a few months (or a year), we can forget about economic growth. They will keep telling us, of course, about the wonderful reforms, restructuring, and tax reform, and they will tell us that Russia is a completely different country from the Russia of just a few years ago. All of this is insightful, optimistic, and perhaps even true, but how ridiculous it is to imply that the growth of our reformed economy has coincided, purely by accident, with the rise of world oil prices! Will it be another accident when the drop in oil prices coincides with the decline of our economy? Andrey Illarionov is right--oh, so right--when he explains that our main problem is that our oil was a "gift," and that is why we lack the industriousness and business acumen of the Japanese and Koreans, and why we need the bitter medicine of a drop in oil prices. Even though we believe Illarionov, however, we have an even stronger belief in petrodollars.

This is a unified world, and we are 100-percent dependent on the international market, just as, incidentally, Japan and Korea, with all of their "national workaholism," frugality, and precision, are. In any case, the miracles of 1929-1932, when the West was in crisis and the USSR enjoyed economic growth, will not happen again. (Actually, even then, the USSR had to pay for those miracles with the lives of millions who died of starvation, in prison camps, on hazardous construction sites, etc.) If the standard of living starts declining, however, mass discontent is certain to rise. People voting with their stomachs will cut Putin's approval rating in half! Anti-Americanism will also wake up and start growling on an empty stomach. The identity of the person articulating this growl is absolutely irrelevant. An articulate voice can always be found when it is needed. The main attack on Putin will be mounted from the left, of course, but as soon as the tower of power starts tottering, the rightists will come rushing in to knock it down (starting, perhaps, with the party of those "altruistic liberals," Berezovskiy and Golovlev). In general, there is no point in trying to guess which will drown out the others' voices, but one thing is clear: An economic recession is certain to be followed by a political crisis. Furthermore, it will be more severe than the crisis following the 1998 default. At that time, there was no crisis of confidence in Yeltsin--simply because there had been no confidence in him for a long time. Today the level of confidence in Putin is quite high. The drop from that height will be loud and painful.

If Putin foresees this danger, what can he do? "Crisis aversion" in the United States is not within Bush's power, and certainly not within Putin's. Here in Russia, however, there are many things he can do--in the political sphere more than in the economy. It is possible that the current personnel shakeup is not a coincidence. On the one hand, Putin has elaborated a definite policy of his own, and he naturally needs his own people to implement it. On the other hand, sensing the oncoming storm, he is battening down the hatches.

Furthermore, "people never take precautions until disaster strikes." A time of economic crisis has always and everywhere (not just in Russia) been a time of serious reform. In a political and economic storm, there are two possibilities: The regime can either get flustered and retreat (Gorbachev in 1990-1991 and Yeltsin after the default) or it can display resolve and mount an offensive (Yeltsin in the winter of 1991-1992). Stagnation is impossible at these times.

If Putin can put together a strong team now, "on the shore," and grasp the helm firmly, he will be able to do the main thing--use the "lean years" to institute and consolidate the reforms that were only in the planning stage during the "years of plenty."

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