Resilient Russia

There is a particular breed of Russia watcher who likes to predict the country’s imminent collapse. For such ‘experts’, Russia is perpetually on the brink of social unrest, instability, and possibly even revolution. The apparent popularity of President Vladimir Putin and the seeming strength of the Russian state are just facades hiding a seething cauldron of discontent which is likely to boil over the moment that the state opens up the lid by relaxing the forces of repression. The ‘Putin regime’, in other words, is doomed. It’s just a matter of time.

You’ve no doubt read this sort of thing. It’s pretty common. So too is another type of analysis which maintains that Russia is stuck in terminal economic decline. The only way out of this is ‘deep structural reform’, but the ruling regime is incapable of carrying out such reform, as it would undermine the interests of the oligarchic clans which prop it up. Barring regime change, the only way Russia can do is down.

The fact that the Putin regime stubbornly refuses to collapse or even show any tangible signs of serious weakness doesn’t deter pundits from repeating these ideas. An example is an article in today’s copy of The Guardian. Written by French academic Marie Mendras, the article’s content is pretty much summed up by its title, ‘Putin’s Russia is a sinking ship’. Don’t be fooled by the World Cup, Mendras says:

The overwhelming majority of Russia’s 140 million people worry about declining living standards, falling health and education levels, material insecurity, and corruption. A few weeks ago, protests erupted in many regions and across social classes against a government plan to raise the pension age … this demonstrated a swell of mistrust in the authorities … sociologists at the independent Levada Centre in Moscow point to a rising pessimism. … Domestic social anger, civic demands, youth opposition, and ‘temporary diasporas’ [caused by the ‘brain drain’] may converge to create difficulties for Putin. … Putinism as a formula for stability has run its course.

Let’s take a quick look at Mendras’s evidence. For sure, Russians worry about ‘material insecurity’. Living standards did decline substantially in 2014-2016, but since then they’ve begun to rise, albeit slowly. I don’t know about education levels, but health certainly isn’t declining. On the contrary, Russian life expectancy continues to increase. As for the other stuff, let’s have a look at what the Levada Centre actually has to say about social attitudes. Mendras’s article links to what Levada calls the Social Sentiments Index. This has indeed taken a sharp dip in recent months, probably because of the negative response to the proposed pension reform. But if you look at the Index over the longer term (as shown among some other charts here), you can observe that while it goes up and down in the short term, over the past 18 years the general line has remained remarkably stable. It’s possible that the current dip could turn into something more substantial, but as yet it’s far too early to say that. It could just be a temporary phenomenon related to the pension issue.

Another Levada index (the Consumer Sentiment Index – to be found just under the Social Sentiment Index) suggests a much more positive picture. Consumer sentiment has risen quite dramatically since 2016. This suggests that Russians are much more optimistic about their economic situation. In the long term, that it is likely to translate into more general social satisfaction.

As for Russians’ overall attitude to their country’s development, yet another Levada Index (entitled ‘Assessment of situation in the country’) shows a sharp decline in positive attitudes in the last couple of months (again, most likely connected with the pension issue), but even now more Russians think that their country is going in the right direction (46%) than the wrong direction (42%). Again, one can’t easily predict what the future holds and whether the recent drop will continue further downwards or prove temporary, but the data at present doesn’t justify alarmism.

Indeed, it may indicate that the Russian state is in a rather stronger position than its critics make out. The need for pension reform has been clear for years. But until now the Russian state has felt too weak to enact it. The pension issue is precisely the sort of ‘deep structural reform’ that many insist Russia has to carry out. The problem with such reforms is that they tend to be very unpopular. This is why governments often avoid them. But in the aftermath of Putin’s decisive re-election as president, and after Russia’s successful weathering of economic recession, the Russian government apparently now feels that it is strong enough to get away with it. And the evidence would suggest that so far it is. As the Levada data shows, the government has taken a hit as a result, but it’s not a massive one. As for the protests which Mendras mentions, it is noticeable that they have been far less substantial than those over a previous attempt at pension reform in 2005. The Russian state looks as though it will be able to weather the negative reaction to its current plans relatively comfortably.

At a conference I attended last year, a group of experts from Russia and the English-speaking world almost unanimously agreed that Russia was far more resilient than generally portrayed. In the past four years, it has endured a collapse in energy prices and consequent collapse in the value of the ruble, economic sanctions, and war (in Ukraine and Syria), and yet has emerged remarkably unscathed. That suggests that the Russian state possesses quite deep reserves of strength.

Over the past decade, I’ve read so many variations of Mendras’s thesis that I’ve lost count. All sorts of reasons have been put forward to explain why the ‘Putin regime’ is doomed – demographic decline, economic failure, Western sanctions, the supposed alienation of Russian youth, and so on. So far, none of them have amounted to anything and all the predictions of impending collapse have proven untrue. That doesn’t mean that they can’t come true in the future, but I’m not betting on it.

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Questions for the Russian government

While a few die-hards may be staying on for Saturday’s somewhat meaningless 3rd-4th place game against Belgium, the mass of England fans in Russia are probably heading home right now after their team’s defeat at the hands of the Croats. Despite their disappointment at failing to reach the World Cup final, the evidence suggests that the great majority of English fans have had a thoroughĺy enjoyable time in Russia. The same goes for the fans of all the other participating teams. There is almost universal agreement that World Cup 2018 has been a great success: the football’s been good; there’s been no trouble that anyone has noticed; and the general atmosphere has been fun and friendly. Tens of thousands of foreign football fans are going home and telling all and sundry what a great time they had and that all the scare stories about Russia are a load of nonsense. From Russia’s point of view, it’s a soft power triumph.

The lesson is that when foreigners visit Russia, they tend to like what they see. So here’s a question for the Russian government. Given that Russia benefits when people come and see it, why do you make it so damned difficult for them to do so?

For citizens of most Western countries, getting a visa to travel to Russia is a veritable ordeal – complicated, time consuming, and expensive, and subject to the vagaries of consular officials who might always reject your visa application for some bizarre reason which they will never reveal to you. It’s not surprising that a lot of people decide that it’s not worth the effort.

For the World Cup, the Russians abandoned all the normal visa nonsense. Instead, anyone with a game ticket could get a FAN-ID, which doubled as a multiple entry/exit visa. Getting the FAN-ID was super simple. All you had to do was fill in a very short online form, giving your name, nationality and passport number, and within a couple of days you got a message saying that your application was approved and your ID would be mailed to you free of charge forthwith.

The fact that the huge numbers of FAN-ID holders have not caused any significant trouble for the Russian authorities shows that whatever security checks were done before issuing the IDs was quite sufficient. The plethora of intrusive and sometimes impossible to answer questions on the seemingly ever longer visa application form aren’t necessary at all. Nor is the complicated application process. Russia has shown that a much simpler system works perfectly well.

So, here’s another question for the Russian government? Why not draw the obvious conclusion and abandon the current visa system and just move to something closer to that used for the FAN-ID?

As it happens, I know the answer to this one as I’ve been told it by an official source. The reason getting a Russian visa is so troublesome for us is that it’s troublesome for Russians to get a visa to visit our countries. The Russian authorities don’t actually need all the rubbish they demand from foreigners. They demand it just because we demand it of them.

I understand the logic, but I don’t see what Russia gains from it. After all, Western states aren’t exactly lining up to liberalize their visa regimes just because Russia is playing tit-for-tat. All the policy achieves is that it deters people from visiting Russia. In this way, the Russians are shooting themselves in the foot.

As I said earlier, the World Cup shows that Russia benefits when people come and see it. Russia should make it easier for them to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

England v. Russia

O-o-o, England’s going to Russia!

O-o-o, Drinking all your vodka!

O-o-o, England’s going all the way!

When I was watching Belgium B play England B in Kaliningrad last week, the English fans were happily singing about drinking Russian vodka, but there was also a particularly loud Russian guy in front of me who was cheering the Belgians along, while occasionally throwing in chants of ‘Rossiya’ and ‘Baltika’ (the local team). Every now and again, as part of his abuse of the English, he would add in a reference to the ‘Skripals’, that is to say Sergei and Yulia Skripal, who were notoriously poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury. Quite what the Skripals had to do with football was beyond me, but it was clear that the Russian guy thought that their story was proof of ‘perfidious Albion’ and thus reason enough to support Belgium. In short, he obviously wasn’t buying the story that the Skripals were poisoned by the Russian secret services.

I doubt that he’s any more likely to think that way following the revelation of a new Novichok poisoning, this time in Amesbury, not far from Salisbury. The affected couple have no connection to Russia, and the speculation is that they came into contact with some residue of the nerve agent left behind after the original attack. This, of course, is not impossible, but given that even persistent chemical agents are affected by the elements (sun, rain, etc), sceptics will no doubt consider it a little odd and somewhat implausible.

My man in Kaliningrad was a bit of a loudmouth, but I suspect that his views on the Skripal affair are not unrepresentative of Russian public opinion – i.e. most Russians don’t think that their country is guilty, and if anything consider themselves the wronged party, while also regarding the British government as thoroughly nefarious. The latest news is likely to reinforce that point of view, and not just among rowdy football fans. For instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad declared today that the news from Amesbury ‘points to London’s direct participation in the “Skripal affair”.’ ‘How can Russia exploit the situation to finally put an end to suspicions in this regard?’ the newspaper asked.

But if the Amesbury incident is likely to confirm Russians’ belief in their innocence, it will probably also strengthen the British government’s anti-Russian position. For in British eyes, the incident underlines the irresponsible nature of the attack on the Skripals, involving the use of a weapon which not only struck its initial targets but also possibly contaminated a wide area, turning tens of thousands of innocent English citizens into potential victims. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid thus accused the Russian government today of being ‘reckless and callous’, and commented that the use of chemical agents was ‘barbaric and inhumane’. ‘It is completely unacceptable for our people to either be deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison,’ said Javid.

Given how strange this entire story is, I await the results of further investigation before coming to any judgement about what has actually happened. In the meantime, the latest twist in the tale will probably serve to reinforce existing positions – those who blame the Russians will be even more convinced of the evil nature of the Russian government, while sceptics (including most Russians) will become even more sceptical. In the days to come, expect positions to harden, and if we end up with a Russia-England World Cup semi-final, look forward to some chants about Novichok in Moscow on 11 July.