We have seen growing speculation about President Vladimir Putin’s health over recent weeks. A break in his foreign trips and reports of a sports-related injury unleashed a torrent of rumors, and even suggestions that the severity of his condition could be being concealed. Unflattering comparisons were made to leaders of the late Soviet period and the ailing Boris Yeltsin.There are few facts to back up this heated speculation. After all, Putin has not disappeared from the public eye, though he has become a little less active. But the intense focus on Putin and his health speaks to the leader’s major, if not overstated role in Russian politics and foreign policy.
This year began with stormy political events that cast doubt over the government’s stability and even sparked talk about the end of the Putin era. His victory in the presidential election showed that his opponents’ talk of his decline was preemptory. The government outwitted the opposition in various ways, and by the end of the year the protestors’ enthusiasm had dwindled. They were irritated by missed opportunities and disappointed in their own leaders.
The gossip about Putin’s health provided new hope for frustrated opponents of the regime both in Russia and abroad. Although this hope is unlikely to materialize, the government can hardly afford to relax or rest on its laurels.
Every five years Russian politics tests the strength of the government. This cycle dates back to 1993, when the question of where power resides in the new Russia was resolved – the forceful dismissal of the Supreme Soviet put an end to the chaos of the first two years after the collapse of the USSR and signified the renunciation of Soviet institutions and the triumph of the new elite.
Five years later, in 1998, Russia suffered an economic collapse that left the state’s viability in doubt and threatened to sweep away the elite that emerged in 1993. The tide turned again in 2003, when the state used the Yukos case to limit the political influence of big business and rewrite the rules of the game. Later, in 2008, Russia reached another turning point: its first post-Soviet war against a foreign country.
How does this affect Russia’s position in the world? At first glance, it appears that relations with foreign partners strengthen when the government displays confidence and competence, despite foreign indignation. Thus, Western powers condemned, in absolute or relative terms, the shelling of parliament, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the invasion of Georgia, but none of these events had “fatal” consequences.
In fact, the weakening of the government in 1998 led to a profound crisis in relations with the West. Just recall the massive anti-Yeltsin campaign in the Western press in the late 1990s, the Bank of New York case, and the general view of Russia as a disintegrating, kleptocratic but aggressive monster.
Relations began to improve with Putin’s rise to power in the early 2000s. Once again, the government’s show of strength in the bloody Chechen war brought Russia back into the world’s focus, despite the scathing criticism it received from the international community.
In 1998-1999, articles with titles like “The world without Russia” became commonplace; in 2001 the West started looking at Moscow as a potential partner. This attitude had nothing to do with the West’s double standards or cynicism. It was a simple calculation of future prospects: the more stable a government is, the more sense there is in making plans that take it into consideration.
This rationale suggests an obvious solution to the hypothetical, cyclical problems of 2013. The Kremlin must prove that it is in the driver’s seat. This is especially important for Putin. He has largely built his foreign policy on his personal reputation as a tough manager who is all-powerful in Russia’s political system and, therefore, capable of making whatever decision is necessary.
Few seem to like Putin’s authoritarian ways, but compared to the dysfunctional European Union and the paralyzing party polarization in the US political system, his ability to follow through on agreements sparks envy in his counterparts in other countries.
In other words, it is very important for Putin to prove he is robust, as he did in the previous cyclical crises. The problem is that what defines him as robust has changed, because the domestic opposition and the external circumstances have changed.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Russia and its leaders were simply trying to prove that Russia is a coherent state economically, geopolitically and psychologically. The Russian government, as the successor to the Soviet Union, had to remind the world both that they halted the destructive trends triggered by its collapse and that Russia should not be written off. In practice, this meant that they had to suppress various destructive forces to demonstrate their power and will.
Today, the period of recovery is over and the goal is different: not to suppress but to integrate disparate social groups into society, each with its own interests and demands. They are not as destructive and egocentric as past opponents (such as the revanchists of 1993, the oligarchs of the late 1990s, separatists and the like). They seek positive change, or, at least, most of them do, there are always radicals on any political spectrum.
To the outside world, the ability to suppress the opposition is no longer viewed as proof of strength and competence. Moreover, the inability to resolve problems without resorting to political violence is seen as a breakdown in government rule.
Arguably, in many parts of the world, this is a time of social revival. Against this backdrop, any attempt, however well-intentioned, by a government to cement the status quo and thwart these organic processes, is seen as a sign of the government’s fundamental weakness.
In 2013, we will see a confluence of challenges: permeable borders, mounting chaos abroad, and resolute action among the population at home. Post-Soviet Russia has seen more dangerous and deeper crises than this, but it was clear how to respond to them. The future crisis is likely to be much more complex, and Russia’s leaders will certainly need to be in good health to cope with it.
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