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How An Economic Crisis May Be Putin’s Downfall

How An Economic Crisis May Be Putin’s Downfall

Russia’s recent activity in Syria in support of Assad’s non-democratic regime raises questions about President Putin’s dedication to democratic principals and to a democratic Russia. While he claims that the country’s actions in the Middle East are aimed at defeating ISIS and international terrorism, his statements are worth questioning. And while post-Soviet Russia is often referred to as a country in transition, it is also worth examining into what Russia is transitioning. In light of Putin’s policies in Ukraine, the Middle East, and domestically, can we expect a true democracy anytime soon?

    Russia has a long history of autocracy and an equally extensive history of revolution and revolt. Looking back at how the country has dealt with its tumultuous authoritarian past, we can see a historical precedent for the pattern of economic depression followed by revolution and  emergence of a new regime.

    The abolition of serfdom in the late 19th century led to massive debt and famine, and inflation exacerbated by the First World War gave way to worker strikes and peasant unrest. This period of economic and cultural malaise triggered the Revolution of 1905 and the subsequent revolution in 1917. It’s interesting to note that these revolutions were followed by a epoch of hope for Russia; the Romanovs had previously ruled over the country conservatively and brutally, while the provisional government that succeeded them was one of the most liberal in the world at that time, seemingly dedicated to the tenets of democracy and freedom. But there was no democratic model for Russia to follow, and the Bolsheviks, who eventually replaced the provisional government, were little more than a new variation of the old autocracy

This pattern repeated itself in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Slowing economic growth was made worse by the regime’s corrosive tendencies and huge amounts of money put towards military endeavors, most notably the war in Afghanistan and the arms race against the U.S. By 1990, their GDP was on the decline while prices were on the rise. While the conditions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s were unique and Gorbachev’s dedication to reform certainly contributed to the disintegration of the regime, economic problems led to dissatisfaction with the dictatorship that citizens had been able to put up with in more prosperous times. Preceding its collapse, a wave of democratization swept over Eastern Europe and left multiple fledgling democracies in its wake- the “fall of communism.” When communism fell in Russia, it was expected that democracy would stand up in its place. But as in 1917, the hope for a complete democracy was not realized.

    Today Russia is, at best, a “managed democracy,” one that holds free elections but greatly reduces the competition of the incumbent. Boris Nemtsov, one of Putin’s biggest critics, was shot dead in Moscow earlier this year, a jarring example of the fearful political climate in the country. The Russian state also owns or indirectly controls all three major television networks in the country- Channel One, Russia One, and NTV. So we have just another variation on autocracy, as we’ve seen in Russia’s past, and we also see an economic crisis looming on the horizon.

    The GDP per capita has increased from USD1,771 in 2000 to more than USD14,000 under Putin’s leadership. Putin’s tactics may get by with the Russian people as long as the economy is improving, but what happens when that upward trend stagnates? We may soon find out. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have caused trade sanctions to be put into place by multiple countries, and the fact that Russia’s economy is 85 percent export-based, mostly in oil, energy, metal, and wheat, means that these sanctions could devastate the country’s economic climate. Russia receives a large percentage of its food and medicine from Europe, and over 50 percent of the government’s revenue comes from oil and gas, mostly in sales to Europe. So attempting to respond to these sanctions by perhaps limiting their export of energy would only hurt them more. Of course, Russia’s economic problems are much more complicated than this, but overall The World Bank predicts a 3.8 percent drop in their economy this year.

    So what’s in the cards for Russia? If we look at it from a historical point of view, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Putin fall from power if this period of economic recession continues, like the Romanovs and the USSR before him. From there, it’s anyone’s guess, but it may be smart to anticipate that an equally questionable democracy may follow this one. The foundation of Russian history in its entirety has been that a strong state is a successful state, and for so long a strong state has been synonymous with an autocracy. While a fair and free democracy is what Russia should strive toward, it’s unreasonable to expect it to change centuries of ideology over the course of a few decades. A “managed democracy,” “sovereign democracy,” competitive authoritarianism- whatever you want to call Russia, it is a country with a tragic and authoritarian history and one that we should expect will inform its people’s decisions for years to come.  

- Alexie Schwarz

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