One of the most frequent questions I am asked about Russian politics is what it will take for new leadership to take hold in Russia. President Vladimir Putin has been in power for 20 years, and he has proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution that would keep him there for many years still. He enjoys consistently high popularity ratings that most world leaders probably eye with envy. He has seemed to be on the brink of demise before, but has managed to navigate every challenge. Now it looks like there is no political horizon to the Putin regime. Is there anything that can stop him? Will the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic problems in Russia cause Russians to want to move in a different political direction? Let’s take a look at the history of political change in Russia to see what lessons may be learned.
Most people are familiar with the demise of the much-storied Romanov dynasty. Nicholas II and his family were killed in July of 1918, more than a year after the last czar had abdicated the throne. Before his abdication in March 1917, Nicholas II faced a number of crises in Russia. He was a deeply unpopular ruler. He was reviled for starting a disastrous war in Japan and for his equally disastrous leadership of the Russian military in World War I. He ruled during a time of extreme and prolonged economic hardship. He had lit the fuse of revolution years before in 1905 when hundreds of peacefully protesting laborers were shot by his guards in front of his palace, but still he stayed in power.
What’s more, his grandfather, Alexander II, was assassinated by insurgents who believed that once the czar was dead, the people would automatically rise up and autocratic rule would end in Russia. But that didn’t happen. The dynasty remained in place 36 years after Alexander II’s death, and through many years of extreme hardship under Nicholas II. So what finally brought an end to Romanov rule? It wasn’t until the Russian Army high command joined striking workers that Nicholas II saw he was no longer protected by his inner circle. After fighting off years of public outcry for his resignation, but when he finally lost the support of his elite military guards, he knew he had to step down.
It was, of course, the beginning of a new era in Russia: the age of socialism and the rise of the Soviet Union, whose eventual collapse would also be sudden and spectacular. Historians still disagree about why the Soviet Union collapsed. Many believe that economic stagnation led the people to rise up and demand Western-style economies and democratic freedoms. But Russians have suffered prolonged economic hardship and injustice throughout their history, and the Soviets were just as used to economic suffering as were the Russians under Romanov rule. The economic situation was bad in the Soviet Union, but it was not catastrophic. As such, it is not likely the unique factor that broke the Soviet Union.
More plausible is the theory posed by many historians, most notably David Kotz, that the USSR collapsed only after the Communist party elites decided that they wanted to improve their own material and financial well-being and embrace Western-style free-market economies. Even the New York Times, when it reported on the collapse, contended that Gorbachev’s “attempts to reform the economy perished on the same shoals as all previous reforms -- the thick and privileged Communist party apparat.”
Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and the worldwide coronavirus pandemic is causing another economic crisis in Russia. But even this crisis isn’t enough to worry Putin too much. In fact, much has been made lately of Russia’s lack of a financial rescue package similar to those passed in the United States and countries of Western Europe. Putin won’t concern himself with economic stimulus just now. He knows no matter how much the average Russian suffers economically, he is still safe in his position. Putin doesn’t have to worry until the crisis starts to hit his inner circle - in this case, Russian oligarchs.
Putin’s relationship with Russian oligarchs is perfectly symbiotic. They can’t survive without him, and Putin can’t survive without them. Oligarchs got rich in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They stay rich under Putin through a system of kickbacks and governmental preferences that give them the first bite of the Russian economic apple. They have access to resources, financial credit, and government tenders that are not available to the average Russian enterprise. Furthermore, protection from the Russian government allows corrupt and fraudulent oligarchs to do business in Russia with impunity. Their companies would never survive the scrutiny that the harsh light of a free market economy would shine on them. They rely on Putin and his administration, and they most certainly do not want to do anything to undermine the ruling system in Russia.
In return for his protections, oligarchs protect Putin. It’s no secret that political candidates rely on the financial support of very rich people to get and stay in office. In the West, these billionaires donate large sums of money to candidates and pay to run ad campaigns to blanket the airwaves with support for their candidate. In Russia, it’s the other way around. Their refusal to support oppositional candidates or any other person who speaks out against Putin means the opposition will never compete on a level playing field with Putin. The opposition in Russia is starved for resources - if an oligarch in Russia were to provide support to an oppositional leader, it would change the political game in Russia. (Provided, of course, that the oligarch in question would remain in possession of his assets and not be jailed or exiled).
It seems to me the key to any possible change in leadership in Russia is in the hands of the ruling elite, as it has been throughout Russia’s long history. But so far, as in most countries, the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic in Russia isn’t hitting the elites directly. As most economic crises do, this one too is affecting mostly the middle class, small business, and blue-collar workers. That’s why Putin hasn’t passed an economic stimulus bill to provide relief to his citizens. That’s why he’s hiding out and leaving most of the dirty work to his cabinet. But rest assured if the pandemic starts to hit the pockets of the Russian elite, Putin might have something to worry about. Then he might consider doing something to help spread the wealth.