20 years under Putin: a timeline

In mid-December, the currency crisis in Russia resulted in the ruble’s landslide tumble. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, Russia’s brewing economic crisis will not change the policy orientation of the Kremlin, which can only look for enemies and designate scapegoats, instead of solving real problems.


Some retailers openly predict that in the new year, food prices will grow by up to 50 percent. Photo: ITAR-TASS


The collapse of the ruble is the main topic of discussion in Russia today. The current situation affects everyone in the country, since the only currency people use there is rubles, meaning they can afford to buy less and less. No one is predicting any light at the end of the tunnel. On the contrary, there is talk of price increases. Retailers openly predict that in the new year, food prices will grow by 15 percent. Those who comment anonymously talk about rises of 50 percent. People are spending their increasingly cheaper rubles to buy anything they can, while retailers are naming their prices in U.S. dollars or halting sales until the situation becomes clearer. Some of them are closing their businesses, offices, or stores and leaving the Russian market for good.

The government, meanwhile, is sluggishly imitating concern and decisiveness. The Central Bank held a nighttime emergency meeting at which it decided to raise the key interest rate (the rough equivalent of the refinancing rate) from 10.5 to 17.5 percent per year, which, in theory, should have slowed down inflation and the fall of the ruble. But in practice, the following day, the U.S. dollar and the euro were selling for 80 rubles and 100 rubles, respectively, on the currency market.

That day has already been dubbed “black Tuesday.” Russians are fond of such nice-sounding names: taken together, the number of “black” days that we have had in the last few years would add up to a couple of weeks. Indeed, the whole of the past year might be called “black.” It was a year of failures, miscalculations, and political follies. Putin’s adventurous policies have brought the country into confrontation with the entire civilized world, dealt a blow to the oil-dependent Russian economy, shattered what remained of public confidence in state institutions, and closed the door to foreign investors. No external enemy could have caused greater damage to Russia than President Putin did.

It should be high time to think about a radical change in political course, the dismissal of the government, and the impeachment of the president. At the very least, it should be time to think about a “palace coup,” which would be unlikely to bring about serious changes by itself but could create conditions favorable to such changes in the future.

Putin has probably already considered such a scenario. He is constantly dishing out blame—either to Americans, who he claims are conspiring to overthrow the current regime in Russia, or to currency speculators, who he claims are undermining Russia’s financial stability. Mikhail Fradkov, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service and a former prime minister, has declared that foreign investment funds are participating in a speculative attack on the Russian ruble. Putin and his associates will undoubtedly resort to the old Soviet tactic of looking for scapegoats and enemies—both foreign and domestic—instead of solving real problems.

As a last resort, the government headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev or certain government ministers responsible for the economy could be used as scapegoats. Following an old practice, the Kremlin could make certain ritual, and mostly rhetorical, concessions to the West, such as declaring that Russia respects the sovereignty of Ukraine and that President Poroshenko is the best chance for the Ukrainian people. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already stated as much.

Why should one expect that the West will not believe these words and will shed no tears over such painful repentance by the Kremlin? Why would the West not believe in the Russian government’s pure intentions? The truth is, this has happened so many times already! This gambit is not new, but it has been used successfully again and again.

The Kremlin’s “master of the forest” ideology deprives Russia of any chance of solving its many problems in a peaceful way. The regime is demonstrating its total inadequacy—and, what is worse, its insanity.

At his recent press conference, Putin confirmed that his political course remains the same. This course consists in preserving the status quo and not taking any serious steps that would contradict the Kremlin’s ideological paradigm—a paradigm that has not yet been clearly defined, but that is well understood by everyone. It is expressed in an emotional rather than a philosophical manner. Its main pillars are beliefs in Russia’s great-power status, the uniqueness of Russia’s way of development, the Russian soul, and the “Russian world,” as well as an aggressively paternalistic attitude toward weaker countries and a hostile and envious one toward stronger ones. Since this ideology cannot stand any serious scrutiny, it is expressed not in terms of political analysis, but in poetic metaphors and epic comparisons.

Putin confirmed this tendency once again when he compared Russia to a bear who is master of the forest and must always keep his teeth and claws in good shape. The bear is Putin’s favorite symbol, and the recent press conference was not the first time he had used it. Even the Kremlin’s United Russia Party includes a bear in its emblem.

The Kremlin’s “master of the forest” ideology deprives Russia of any chance of solving its many problems in a peaceful way. The regime is demonstrating its total inadequacy—and, what is worse, its insanity. Putin does not even consider Russia’s present economic condition to be a crisis. In his view, the current events are merely temporary difficulties, and a victorious resolution is “inevitable.” He lacks any motive for seriously considering the situation—let alone for taking steps to overcome it. Is it surprising, then, that the Kremlin has no plan of action? It does not need one!

The Russian people have already begun paying for Putin’s failed policies with price increases, the falling value of their savings, and growing inflation. How long they will suffer in silence depends on the extent to which they have been affected by the “master of the forest” ideology.

As for the bear, he may get very scared—and may sometimes deposit a large pile—if someone makes a loud noise or shouts next to him. Anyone who has lived in the forest knows this. The only question now is, who will shout at the bear?