Russia, or when war conceals misery

Author : Guillaume LANG. Translated by : Chloé BLANCH.

Make Russia a great power again. Vladimir Putin’s program was conceived based on this idea for his first election in March 2000. At the time, Russia was considered by Westerners as a power on the decline with no real influence in new post cold-war world. For this, the candidate Putin wanted to rely on the important fossil resources he had, to increase the power of the Russian army and return and among the key countries of the geopolitical world. In parallel, he managed to recreate a strong nationalism among the Russian population, using a very sharp communication policy, combining widespread state propaganda, muzzling oppositions with a very strong personality cult, while playing on the nostalgia for the USSR and the past power of this ancient empire. This policy is still today the one he uses to govern Russia 18 years after his first election and, at first sight, his objectives seem to have been achieved. Indeed, Russia, along with China and the United States, is a staple of world geopolitics. Some countries seek its favors, while others consider it as their enemy, but in each case, no country has remained insensitive to the rise of the Russian power. However, since the Ukrainian events of 2013, Russia has started to adopt a much more aggressive foreign policy. While the Western media was talking about reclaiming USSR territory, the Kremlin was talking about protecting minorities, and Americans, through NATO, began to strengthen their presence in Eastern Europe. This reinforcement of the military means on both sides only aggravated the tensions to the point of recreating a state of quasi-cold war. The enemy of the Russians thus became the Americans and vice versa. Since then, Russia’s domestic policy has been entirely focused on the development of Russian defenses, and the political climate in Russia today depends on the external situation rather than the situation in Russia itself. That is why, if one of Vladimir Putin’s major achievements is Russia’s return to power on the international scene, its biggest failure is, in fact, the widespread impoverishment that has affected Russia since his arrival in power and the failure of the anticorruption campaign he promised.

First and foremost, we need to define what the Russian state is. As its name indicates, the Russian Federation is a country composed of 85 federal entities under the more or less direct control of the central government in Moscow, according to the status of each subject, previously fixed by the constitution. These entities are composed of the three federal cities of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Sevastopol, controlled directly by the government, 46 oblasts and 9 krais (the only difference between these two entities being their names), two autonomous districts and 22 republics. Each of these entities has the same rights and responsibilities towards the federal government, republics having the additional right to have a flag and a national anthem. The Russian state as such is therefore more federalized than the American state, and one can truly speak of a Russian entity only at the international level, each region having a particularity specific to its identity. Consequently, the autonomy left to federal subjects allows each region to manage a significant part of its economy and its domestic policies in general. The economic climate can therefore vary enormously between two neighboring territories. Thus, the Kaluga oblast is very open to foreign investment and benefits from a very favorable economic environment for the reception of capital, thanks to the policies implemented. The region is therefore one of the least corrupt territories in Russia. An example of the policies implemented by the regional government is, according to Le Figaro, that « The governor of the region, Anatoli Artamonov, systematically gives his mobile phone number to investors who can call him in case there is a problem”. This kind of measure thus makes it possible to avoid « entry barriers » in a country known for the heaviness of its administration. Beside this economically exemplary region, is located the city of federal importance, Moscow. Despite its status as the capital of the federation and its large domestic market with a population of 11 million, the city is one of the worst federal subjects, when it comes to the general corruption of the regional state apparatus. As a result, Moscow is on the black list of regions to invest in Russia despite its specific status. We therefore have two regions with different domestic policies side by side, with widely visibly different results on both sides of the border. Actions by regional governments are consequently essential to the economic development of federal subjects, although, of course, federal domestic policy must encourage action by regional governments.

However, even if in some cases, as in the case of the Kaluga oblast, the federal system of government functions and allows a development of the territory, the federation based on this model cannot prosper in its current state. Indeed, the system of patronage so unique to Russia prevents these territories from being properly governed.

Thus the truly competent men are removed from power so that, instead, are placed oligarchs close to power and large Russian companies. This is how the governors of the regions of Volgograd, Astrakhan and Arkhangelsk managed to be appointed heads or chairs of regional governments despite their unpopularity among the populations of the regions concerned. These improvised statesmen have in no way the skills to properly manage a region and this reflects in the economic situations of the regions concerned. Moreover, in order to secure their posts, the majority of the governors rallied to the party of Vladimir Putin « United Russia », a completely artificial party created from scratch for the presidential election. These oligarchs share the regional powers since their first elections. Although governors are generally not supported by a large company, in any case they were individuals who were highly placed during the post-Soviet regime of Boris Yeltsin, were very close to power and in rare exceptions have the skills required to govern.

Vladimir Putin is aware of the state of the federation and this was the subject of his first reforms. Indeed, in order to put an end to the era of federalism, during which a different degree of autonomy had been granted for each federal subject according to the agreements reached, he eliminated all the specificities of each region, thus reducing their autonomy and allowing the government to regain control of regions tempted by secessionism or refusing to pay federal taxes. He created therefore seven federal districts managed by men of trust and in charge of supervising the acts of the governors. He repealed the elections, to have room for maneuver in the negotiations; they have since been put in place, however, the presidential party being omnipresent, they are shunned by the Russian population. During the first years after he came to power, Vladimir Putin’s main goal was to strengthen his control over Russia and recreate a strong and centralized state. This policy came to an end in July 2017, when a presidential decree removed from Tatarstan the last semblance of autonomy it still had.

To recreate such a strong state, he had to rely on federal officials. In her book « The Russian Administration », Françoise Daucé explains that the message sent by the government at that time was clear, « help us restore the authority of the state in Russia, but as we do not have the ways to finance that, take small extras « . This policy has worked, Russia is now at a level of hyper centralization similar to the USSR, however the extras taken by the officials have become current currencies and plummets the Russian economy, costing him every year a third of its GDP. If for a long time this situation had no major impact on the development of Russia, the oil crisis started in 2014 has changed the situation. Since this year, Russia can no longer rely on its large fossil resources to finance its development, while assuming the general corruption of the country. Various reforms have already been implemented to remedy this problem, however, today the bodies responsible for tracking corruption in Russia are themselves corrupt and are therefore of no use in solving this problem. The fall in oil prices has considerably weakened the Russian economy.

By a combination of circumstances, it was at this moment that the Ukrainian crisis reached its peak. Russia was massively involved in this crisis, as much to follow its policy of protecting minorities as to give the Russian people a reason to support the government and, with the appearance of the first sanctions, an enemy responsible for the current state of affairs. In the background, Putin continued to complete Russian federalism, while minimizing the phenomenon of corruption that affects Russia.

His domestic policy from 2014 to 2017 failed to revive the Russian economy and the straitjacket of corruption in Russia continues to block Russian development today. Meanwhile, Russia continues to intervene internationally and the only budget that has increased since the crisis is the army’s budget. There is today in Russia an ubiquitous nationalism fueled by the power in place. Russian development is stalled, almost no new infrastructure is coming out of the ground, and although inflation remains stable, the gray economy forcing Russians to pay unjustified sums has led to a significant reduction in purchasing power in one decade. However, for this election again, there will be no credible candidate against the current president. The act of burying the old federation was an act of realpolitik and not an ideological act. Nonetheless, this act has led all Russian domestic politics since the year 2000, and Vladimir Putin has managed to achieve what he was elected for: despite the disastrous state in which his country is, Russia became again an influential country on the international scene. Now, he bases his future election on the fight against widespread corruption and the resumption of economic growth in Russia and intends to achieve his former goal of increasing GDP per capita in 2008 while the opposite is produced between 2008 and 2012.

In conclusion, Russian foreign policy draws the world’s attention to the warmongering of the current regime on the international scene. Nevertheless, the state of Russia is often left out. Current conflicts coincide with Russia’s foreign policy goals and allow the government to attract public opinion to problems outside Russia while exacerbating Russian nationalism, leaving the government to deal more or less successfully with the Russian crisis, without losing the confidence of the population. The Russian society is able to evolve and the problem of corruption inherent in Russian society can be overcome, which is an obligation before any widespread attempt at development in Russia. Only now that Russia has become a superpower, will an improvement in Russia’s internal situation be synonymous with the end of Russian warmongering politics?

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