As the Russian economy flounders due to the low price of oil, the possibility of social unrest has risen, leading Putin’s government to clench its grip on the media and the political system. But will its approach backfire as the tension builds? IMR analyst Ezekiel Pfeifer spoke with Dr. Robert Orttung, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, about the Kremlin propaganda machine, Putin’s sky-high approval rating, and the likelihood of revolutionary change in Russia.
Ezekiel Pfeifer: The Russian economy is doing terribly by most measures, with GDP expected to drop by almost 4 percent in 2015. What do you think has played the biggest role in the economy’s current decline?
Robert Orttung: The main reason the Russian economy is collapsing is because of its overall structure—its dependence on oil and natural gas and a lack of innovative technologies. Russia doesn’t really export anything besides energy and weapons. The Western sanctions have been effective on the margins, and I think they’re effective in sending a signal to the Russians that the West isn’t going to accept further encroachment into Ukraine. I think Putin’s advances have stopped to some extent—he’s realized that he isn’t getting anywhere and people outside the country are going to push back against him. It also makes the possibility of other kinds of sanctions, like cutting Russia out of the SWIFT system, like the West did with Iran, seem like more of a real possibility.
EP: Do you think the West’s sanctions have been effective?
RO: I think the sanctions are useful in the sense that Western governments felt like they wanted to do something, but obviously they didn’t want to engage Russia directly in military confrontation. They also forced Putin to make his own mistaken policy: blocking European food imports. Prices are going up in Russia, and that’s the thing people care about most—much more than who’s the president or what’s going on in Syria. It’s difficult to get medicine, to get Western products that people had grown used to. I think that is what might undermine Putin’s ability to maintain control.
EP: As the economy gets worse, do you think the Kremlin’s propaganda machine will continue to serve its function of drumming up support for the government?
RO: The difficulty in answering that question is that we don’t really understand why the domestic propaganda machine is so effective in the first place. Ellen Mickiewicz wrote a book called No Illusions, where she looks at members of the younger Russian generation—elite students who have access to the Internet and speak multiple foreign languages (English, French, German), so they have access to all kinds of unfiltered information. And still, even though they have all this other information, they still basically support the Putin government. This might change as the economic situation gets worse and they can’t afford to live at the standard they’ve become used to. But they might simply believe the idea that the West is out to get them.
For the majority of people, what’s on TV is what they think, and since there’s nothing else on TV, they don’t think about alternative explanations. But in the case of young, smart, educated people who speak foreign languages and have access to the Internet, they still support Putin. So, something’s going on that we need to get a better grasp of.
EP: There is a general consensus among observers that Putin and his team lack the will to implement major economic reforms. Do you think it’s possible that he will come around to a reform agenda?
RO: Putin hasn’t really passed any economic reforms since 2004, and I think the basic idea in Putin’s mind is that once you start reforming, you end up like Gorbachev: it all breaks apart and you just get chaos. He would rather stick with what he has and what he knows than take a chance on reform. But, at the same time, I think we’re starting to see a little bit of a crack. The corruption has gone too far—I think that explains the removal of Vladimir Yakunin as the head of Russian Railways—and there are not unlimited supplies of money the way there seemed to be in the past, like with the Sochi Olympics, where they spent vast quantities and there didn’t seem to be any consequence. Now it’s clear that every ruble they send to eastern Ukraine is depriving Siberian cities of development projects. So, people are starting to see that there are tradeoffs. You can’t have everything and assume that life is going to go on as usual anymore.
The problem is that the Russian system can’t reform, because Putin has blocked every available option for the opposition. They can’t compete in local elections; they can’t compete in the State Duma elections; they can’t really voice their criticism of the system to a broad audience. There’s no way for the system to reform, so the tension is going to build up until you have a revolution.
EP: So you see revolution as a more likely scenario than a kind of Brezhnev-style stagnation until Putin dies?
RO: Certainly nobody wants to engage in these kinds of revolutionary activities in Russia, because they realize that it’s going to be violent and bloody. But Putin blocks any kind of reform—even the smallest opposition from winning even the most inconsequential local elections, as we saw in September [in Kostroma]. There’s no outlet, there’s no change in the system, and there’s no way for anybody to voice any kind of political opinion. So it is hard to see how there could be any kind of other response. Putin’s current model seems to be threatening everybody with terrorism, warning, “There’s going to be terrorists from Islamic State, from Afghanistan, so if I’m not here it’s only going to be worse.” That might be a convincing argument for most people, but the tension is building.
EP: Do you see any potential for protest activity as the economy worsens?
RO: You would predict under any sort of normal circumstances that as the economic situation gets worse, people get unhappy and start protesting. One way to find out about that kind of activity in Russia might be looking at strikes and work stoppages in the regions. In China, you have a lot of those things going on at the very local level, and often the anger is expressed against local officials, so it doesn’t really threaten the regime. The strikes are directed at factory managers or people like that and stays below the federal level.
But activity like that creates a higher level of social tension in the country. As you start to see things like barter coming back—where factories can’t afford to pay their workers anymore, so they just give them some products—that would be a sign of the return of a more chaotic period in Russia, the kind of thing that Putin has always denounced from the Yeltsin years but which might start up again as the economy declines.
“If Putin were really popular at the level of 80+ percent, the Kremlin wouldn’t have to control the media to the extent that it does. The effort it puts into controlling the media and preventing any kind of opposition from materializing, much less addressing a national audience, shows that Putin and the people around him do not believe he is really that popular.”
EP: Russia has started to crack down on free speech on the Internet, but it is nowhere close to the level of China, for example. Do you think Russia will increase its crackdown online?
RO: I think Russia is using the Internet to its advantage at the moment, since when people go online in Russia, they often go to the main state-controlled websites—those of TV stations and other properties—instead of seeking out [different] information. There’s a small group, maybe 15 percent of the Russian population, that is interested in alternative political views, and they go looking for that kind of information. But in general, the Russian media has more or less gained control over the Russian Internet.
It does still provide a place for opposition-minded people to get together, to exchange information, places like Facebook. But they are places where conversation happens but it doesn’t really extend beyond that. The authorities are extremely effective at preventing any kind of political talk from turning into street demonstrations or campaigns or anything else. You do see some small examples—Sam Greene wrote a very interesting book called Moscow in Movement, where he looks at some of the different civil society organizations, and in some ways they are able to organize. While the overall criminal justice system is corrupt, in some cases if people speak out they are able to protect certain individuals from being incarcerated. But in general, if you’re talking about the overall political situation, then the Kremlin seems to be dominant even online.
EP: So even though the Kremlin hasn’t created an overpowering censorship machine like in China, you think it nonetheless has established dominance there.
RO: Yes, I think so—it’s just a different model. More subtle, but it’s still very effective. You also have to note that in the last couple of years, they’ve started denying access to certain websites inside of Russia. So the Russians are definitely learning from the Chinese example. It’s a very selective, uncertain, inconsistent policy, where they knock some websites off but others remain, so it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is they’re doing.
EP: What is your take on the current ceasefire in eastern Ukraine? Do you think it will hold, or do you envision Russia renewing its aggression?
RO: I think at this point and in general, Russian foreign policy is driven by domestic concerns. So I think the decision to go into Syria was driven by the fact that people in Russia were getting tired of the Ukraine story, that it no longer was holding their interest, and Putin needed to come up with something else. What happens next in Ukraine probably depends on what happens inside of Russia, how the economy is doing, how vulnerable Putin feels to opposition political forces, and how much mileage he’s getting out of the Syria campaign. I think it really has little to do with what’s going on inside of Ukraine and much more to do with what’s going on in terms of domestic politics.
EP: You have a book coming out next year about the 2014 Sochi Olympics. What do you see as the main legacy of the Games for Russia?
RO: You have to divide the legacy into two different audiences, because I think the main audience was inside Russia, the domestic audience. For them, if you just look at the 17 days of competition, the Games were relatively successful—there were no major problems, other than a little slushy snow, and Russia won a lot of gold medals. I think that people were generally proud of that. But I think the legacy was also that they were the most expensive Games in history—Russia spent a huge amount of money on the Games themselves and on all the infrastructure in Sochi—and it’s not clear that that was a really good investment. The Olympics are designed to attract tourists to your city, but as soon as the Olympics were over, Russia invaded Ukraine, so people forgot about it domestically because attention had shifted to another topic. Internationally, any kind of goodwill that Putin might have gained having pulled off a successful Games was lost, not to mention the fact that Obama and other European leaders did not come to the Games—meaning that even before the Ukrainian invasion, Putin was relatively isolated.
EP: Given the current rift between Russia and the West, do you think Russia will retain its rights to host the 2018 World Cup?
RO: Unless the situation really deteriorates in the Middle East or in Russia itself, I would imagine that the World Cup will go on. But it will be the same situation for Putin: world leaders are not going to come to his big party. He will have spent a lot of money and tried to promote Russia internationally, but it’s not going to have much of an impact abroad. I think it will have some impact at home, as people are of course proud to host the World Cup. But the contrast is going to be much clearer than at the Sochi Olympics, and you might get a situation like you see in Brazil today, where the economy is collapsing but all this money is going into new sports infrastructure [for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics]. People might start to wonder: Why did we have to make these sacrifices when other people are benefiting?
EP: Putin’s sky-high approval rating, which currently stands at 88 percent, is the subject of much discussion among Russia observers, some of whom speculate that it is inaccurate. What is your opinion?
RO: Chris Walker and I have written about this, and our argument basically is that the numbers you see do not reflect reality. If Putin were really popular at the level of 80+ percent, the Kremlin wouldn’t have to control the media to the extent that it does. The effort it puts into controlling the media and preventing any kind of opposition from materializing, much less addressing a national audience, shows that Putin and the people around him do not believe he is really that popular. If people were allowed to express their real opinions, they wouldn’t necessarily support Putin. I think that the approval rating number is probably the biggest piece of propaganda Putin has going for him, and it is completely fabricated, because without the control of the media and the squelching of any kind of possible alternative, he would never be able to reach that level of popularity.
EP: A focal point for Russia’s opposition is next year’s State Duma elections. Do you think protests could crop up around the time of the vote, as they did in 2011-12?
RO: Elections in Russia are completely controlled, but when you have an election, there’s always a chance for something to happen. And that last Duma election was a sort of spark to bring people out on the street, and we saw some of the biggest protests in recent history. But if you look at all the gubernatorial elections and all the local elections that have taken place since 2011-12, they’ve been completely controlled and [the authorities have] blocked everything. Clearly, the main technique seems to be to knock the opposition candidates off the ballot from the very beginning so they don’t have any access to the airways and they aren’t really able to complete. In that sense, the elections become pointless. They also changed the electoral law again, bringing back single-member districts, so that the unpopularity of United Russia won’t be quite as big a factor as in the last election, where it only got 49 percent of the vote.
But even though the elections are completely controlled and it’s unlikely that the opposition is going to win, there’s always a chance that something will happen. That’s why people pay a lot of attention to them and carry a lot of expectations with relation to them. On the other hand, look at the example of the Belarusian presidential election: in the past, those elections have led to some protests, but this year it was more quiet. Now, Lukashenko has a fifth term and there doesn’t seem to be any consequence. That’s what I would imagine would happen [in Russia]. But elections are a focal point in political development—it’s a time when you would expect to see something interesting happen.