Where is Russia headed?

The people have trusted in Putin, and Russia has become more stable. But no politician can govern forever: leaders change and so do political models. Who knows what Putin's aftermath holds?

Asmall crowd had gathered in front of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) headquarters in Moscow to peacefully celebrate its closure. A vaguely recognisable face appeared amidst the throng, bursting with good cheer, and addressed us in perfect Italian: “Ambassador Salleo, don’t you recognise me? I was your interpreter for many years. I interpreted at official meetings with Italy. Now I can say what I want. At last, we’re a normal country. We can be like you”.

This incident took place towards the end of 1991. The military coup had failed miserably, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union within a few months. President Mikhail Gorbachev had just outlawed the Communist Party. Ferdinando Salleo, the Italian ambassador who had arrived in the USSR but would leave from Russia, is a man who believes that history is best understood in the streets rather than seated behind a desk. He always wanted to witness events with his own eyes, and I gladly accompanied him. That’s how we happened to find ourselves standing in front of a spontaneous demonstration, bidding farewell to the omnipotent CPSU. 

I left Moscow two years later, but often heard people repeat those phrases: “Russia is a normal country now”, and “We are like you” (meaning European Westerners). Today, they ring out like a lost opportunity. At the time, they revealed cracks in a regime that had appeared immutable. The Russians had turned their backs on the USSR and yearned for normality. Their expectation was naïve. But without a little naiveté, there wouldn’t be any revolutions.

But Russia is not a “normal” country. It has a unique history, geography and culture as well as political and institutional traditions. After all, what country is normal? Americans boast of their exceptionalism. And behind the fragile screen of the EU, European normality is just a mosaic of national identities. Normal in Germany is very different from normal in Ireland, Spain or Poland.

A quarter-century after rising from the ashes of the USSR, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has developed the formula of sovereign democracy, which produces state organisations as well as forms of wielding power, exercising sovereignty and creating consent that are very different from those of Western democracies. To what extent are they linked to the specific personality of Russia’s president? How much do they depend on the country itself? Can Putinism hope to survive Putin?

After the brief Dmitrij Medvedev interlude, Putin embraced and braided together various traditional branches of Russian political culture that view an authoritarian leader as a source of order, an essential element of national cohesion and projecting power to the world. Western critics have even found streaks of communist internationalism and an implicit rehabilitation of the figure of Stalin. But let’s not attempt risky analogies here. The foundations of a two-way system, in which power creates consensus and consensus grants power, was embraced by Putin in the early years of his presidency. But this dynamic was in place long before he was.

Putin blessed the model, fine tuned it, theorized it and applied it. In 2009, when shrewdly analysing the state of relations between Russia and the West, diplomat Maurizio Massari, another eyewitness of the transition years, remarked that the direction of Russian democracy was set by Yeltsin. Putin has made this refusal to be assimilated by Europe and the West even more explicit, as Massari explained: “sovereign democracy represents an attempt (to devise) an identitarian self-definition from the outside, separate from the West ... Because (as Putin claims) ‘Russia is a unique country’ … Sovereign democracy is a concept rather than a fully-fledged ideology, a linguistic expression of the new nationalist Russian state that wishes to stand out as a major independent power, no longer subordinate to the West”.

Massari quite clearly identifies the thread that connects the exercise of domestic power to “the independence of Russia’s foreign policy and the defence of Russia’s role and status as an international force”.This symbiotic relationship between domestic and foreign policy is the key to understanding how Moscow positions itself on the international stage: intolerance toward the coloured revolutions, blitzes in Crimea and Donbass as well as competition with the EU and NATO both in the Balkans and over military intervention in Syria. Wrongfooted on a regular basis, Western leaders can only envy Putin’s ability to enter and leave the fray in Syria in real time.

The direction that Russia takes after Putin will be crucial for its relations with the West. The impact will be even greater for the grey area countries on the Russian periphery, which cannot rely on support from the EU and/or NATO. Major figures in the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe, such as Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel (who has said as much) and Poland’s Lech Walesa, were always aware that their future would also depend on Moscow.

Sovereign democracy rewards government efficiency over the separation of powers. The model is not without its admirers in Europe, such as right-leaning populists Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen (and many others who won’t admit it). US presidential hopeful Donald Trump doesn’t conceal an instinctive admiration for the Russian president. Russia has a centralised, authoritarian and unscrupulous system, but it is not a dictatorship. Consensus views are issued from above, but the authority that creates them cannot operate without consensus. The system of power that Putin has built up in Russia is based on this very delicate balance.

Predicting Russia’s future is a fool’s errand. Regime changes by succession or revolution are abrupt, drastic and sometimes tragic. In less than a century, Russia has witnessed two such events. No one had foreseen them (until after the fact) Even when the political system remains unchanged, the succession of the leader, tzar, CPSU secretary general or president is always an unknown quantity. Very often, it is accompanied by a change of direction (if not a U-turn), and the new course only becomes evident in the aftermath. Russians accept this unpredictability with time-worn resignation. Western rationalism can attempt to theorize and predict it, but to no avail. Westerners tend to over- or underestimate changes in Russia. But the constants of Russian politics do not change. Instead, they adapt, often laboriously, to a changing world. As various incumbents come and go, the Kremlin, the fortified stronghold, the national symbol of power, assures continuity, even during such upheavals as those that took place in 1917 and 1989–1992.

Soviet Russia had missed the train of history and innovation. The rest of the world was moving on. US President Ronald Reagan’s West, the ecumenical leadership of the Polish pope, John Paul II, and the draining Afghan war had put the USSR up against a wall. Nevertheless, the system’s collapse was mainly due to internal matters and mistakes by its fading management. Russia doesn’t buckle, as Napoleon and Hitler discovered at their own expense. It can, however, collapse inwardly, if the spine that supports it during its trials and tribulations begins to break.

Russia decides when the time for change has come. The why, how and where are beyond the ability of anyone but the Russians to comprehend. At most, they sense it, if they are lucky. Russian history is laden with heroes, mistakes, redemption, genius, arrogance, pluck and a search for identity. The price of this cocktail of national excesses is very high: one need only think of Stalin’s purges and the Second World War. But Russia can also offer up surprises, and that won’t change with Putin’s demise.

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