Both Russian and foreign experts are increasingly becoming skeptical about the country’s prospects in 2015-2017, predicting the rise of protests, falling ratings of President Vladimir Putin and more economic difficulties. 

Experts believe that President Putin could use his high ratings and the powerful bureaucratic apparatus to resolve domestic challenges. Photo: AP/RIA Novosti

No expert discussion at the 2015 Gaidar Economic Forum was more skeptical and pessimistic about Russia’s future than the one that dealt with politics: “Political Trends: Evaluation, Analysis, Forecasts.” On Jan. 16 it brought together eight prominent Russian analysts in the Russian Presidential Academy (RANEPA). 

These pundits – among which were Russian sociologists, political experts, academics and journalists – warned against the grave implications of the Ukrainian stalemate, Crimea’s annexation and the current economic crisis. According to a poll conducted among them before the discussion, almost none predicted an exit from the crisis in 2015. In contrast, about 35-40 percent forecast economic collapse, and nearly 43 percent political repressions. 

At the same time, few of them expect territorial disintegration and nationwide revolution. However, about 30 percent expect violent protests to happen more frequently. A controversy was in the assessment of the approval ratings of Russian President Putin. Before the discussion, about 40 percent of the pundits said there would be the mobilization of society around the president, but most predict the headlong drop of Putin’s ratings in 2015. 

It is worth mentioning that all of the experts don’t rule out the possibility of the appearance of “black swans” events – impossible-to-predict events that could contradict their expectations and assessments. 

“We have entered in the zone of fantastic unpredictability,” said one of the participants of the discussion, Georgy Satarov, the president of the INDEM Foundation, Russia’s respected NGO promoting democracy. “And we don’t yet grasp the boundaries of this unpredictability and this chaos.”

His forecast includes very different and contradictory scenarios that range from “the gradual decay” of the current regime and peaceful “perestroika 2” to revolutionary chaos and collapse. 

Beyond Putin’s high approval ratings 

At the same time, other panelists focused on the approval ratings of Putin. Among them is Russia’s prominent sociologist, Aleksei Levinson, head of Levada Center’s Analytical Department. He explained why Russians support their president and what is the nature of this support. According to him, the phenomenon of Putin doesn’t deal with a cult – it deals with the sacrosanct nature of his political image.   

“There is no phenomenon of the cult, there is the sacred nature of his political figure,” he said, pointing out that most Russians treat him not as Putin the human, but rather as Putin the sacred symbol who “is not responsible for economic crisis, but responsible for Russia’s greatness” and unity. That’s the reason why the “besieged fortress” mentality political narrative penetrates its way into Russians’ hearts and minds.  

However, another panelist – Andrei Kolesnikov, a board member of the Gaidar Foundation and famous journalist – argues that Russians’ attempts to depict Putin as a sacred symbol looks like “a totalitarian characteristic of an authoritarian regime.” Kolesnikov proposes another explanation for the President’s high ratings.  

“The rating of Putin is not the rating of support [from the population],” he said. “This is the rating of [people’s] political apathy: Leave me alone – and I support the authorities!”

However, Levinson warns about the fragility of such ratings because “we live in the zone of very high risk,” in the state of “the inverted pyramid that rests only on one point” and might collapse at any moment. 

Likewise, most participants of the discussion – including Harvard University Professor Timothy Colton – argue that Putin’s ratings might drop dramatically in 2015, while few experts believe the rating will remain the same in the face of economic challenges. Among them is Tatyana Vorozheikina, an independent political expert and a former researcher at the Levada Center. 

'There is only one current scenario: the plane in a tailspin'

Vorozheikina mentions the high level of volatility and, particularly, points to the plight of the Russian economy that threatens the Kremlin.  At the same time, Vorozheikina questions the effectiveness of Russia’s political system and calls for reforms. 

“Obviously, any political reforms will pose a threat to the regime, the goal of this regime is self-preservation. The power exists for the sake of power,” she added, predicting that there will be “the erosion of the political regime” if the crisis persists.  

Meanwhile, Russia’s famous political expert Dmitry Oreshkin sounds more ambivalent about the country’s future prospects. While admitting that Putin can save Russia’s territorial integrity and unity over the short- and mid-term, he assumes that the long-term scenario of the Russian development is gloomier from the point of view of social disorder, protests and great disappointment. Even though the population of Russia sees Crimea’s incorporation as a big success in his foreign policy, this move may create a false, “virtual” sense of euphoria that might backfire in the future. 

“[Russians are] going up in the air and experiencing mental victories with great pleasure, but there will be not any pleasure at all when we need to pay for this in reality,” he said. “And the authorities, by the way, start understanding it not only on the theoretical level like we do, but also on the practical one. If four months ago, there was a tug of war for Donbas, now there are attempts to shove it back.”

Likewise, Kolesnikov warns that the “sobering” reality will be very hard to endure for those Russians who were exhilarated by Crimea’s incorporation and have been living in “a magic fairy tale” that represents the sacrosanct nature of Crimea. In the same way, Nikolai Petrov, another panelist and professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, argues that Russia is now in an extremely vulnerable position and “there is currently only one scenario: the plane in a tailspin.”  

“The country is the hostage of the regime. The regime is the hostage of Putin. Putin is the hostage of his decision [and policy to Ukraine]. He is unable to change the [downward] trajectory of the current movement,” Petrov said. 

What is to be done? Advice from the Kremlin’s critics

Whether they will come true or not, these gloomy forecasts raise one important question: What is to be done? Some experts (Kolesnikov, Colton and Vorozheikina) argue that the rotation of Russia’s political elites will be the most effective measure that will help the regime to survive in the long run. 

“No regime can survive without a rotation [in the upper echelons of power],” Colton said.

Meanwhile, Vorozheikina warns against “being trapped into increasing political repressions” and censorship, both of which might be very tempting for the regime now, but can “exacerbate the situation” in the future. “In this regards, let the people talk!” she clarified. 

At the same time, Oreshkin calls on the Kremlin to “step aside from the system of expansionist values” and pay more attention to Russia’s domestic problems. 

“[It is necessary] to make an attempt to leave one’s mark in Russia’s history not as the man who incorporated Crimea in Russia, but as the one who resolved domestic challenges,” said Oreshkin, proposing that President Putin use his high ratings and the powerful bureaucratic apparatus to change the judicial system.