How ironic it is that I am writing a piece about Russia’s outlook for 2018 from a prison cell. Once again I have been arrested for conducting my electoral campaign. Since I announced my intention to stand in the presidential election in 2018, I have spent every fifth day behind bars.
Two trends will shape Russia’s prospects in 2018: a continuing fossilisation of the small group of people who pull the levers of power; and the development of the new generation of Russian citizens. In this the era of low oil prices, it has become clear that the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin cannot do much to promote sustainable economic growth and increase living standards. In 2012 Mr Putin promised that by the end of his presidential term in 2018, GDP per worker would rise by 50%. In fact it has been less than 10%.
Faster growth can come only from deregulation, a decrease in state ownership of economic assets, a real fight against corruption, and independent courts and law enforcement. But such reforms are considered unacceptable, as they would weaken the regime. It is obvious that the authorities’ main objective is their own survival—and continuing ability to pilfer the country’s coffers—rather than any idea of national interest.
The regime prolongs its power by proclaiming Russia and its president to be the world’s defender of family and morals, while accusing the West of renouncing them. Accordingly, requests for economic and political modernisation may be rejected under a plausible and even noble pretext. Compare the following: “I do not need independent courts, because they will recognise that I am manipulating elections”; and “the court system should be directed by a state which protects Russia’s eternal soul.” The latter is more pleasant and dignified. There’s just one hitch: Russia is not a conservative country and definitely does not fit the role of a Christian theocratic state. Less than 15% of people attend church at least monthly.
The Kremlin speaks about daily insults to the nation’s spiritual foundations, whether the offence is to veterans and the memory of the Great Patriotic War, to saints and the tsar’s family, or to traditional art. Such slights are mentioned especially loudly by officials who benefit from offshore property and financial assets. Any word against the authorities, or in defence of common sense, is distorted and attached to one of a rich collection of insults.
Mr Putin will also use foreign policy as a tool to hold on to power. It will follow the same divisive agenda and will be even more hypocritical: simultaneously supporting all the far-right and far-left politicians in Europe and America. Any pressure-point in Western politics will be prodded through tacit financing, covert operations and media coverage.
The fable will be the same: the Western establishment has lost its morals and rejected traditional values. It will turn the Western narrative upside down, saying that, in a multipolar world, our Western partners must accept that we know how to buy Facebook ads, and use them for our purposes. The agile meddling in the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Emmanuel Macron has inspired the Kremlin. The rules of modern media, where the number of clicks and retweets matters much more than truth, are perfectly understood. Mr Putin believes this is his soft power.
Not back in the USSR
Liberalising Russia should be left to Russians. But the West could help contain the regime by applying its own rules in investigating corrupt money flows out of Russia. All Mr Putin’s cronies have assets in the West, which would be painful to lose. Stemming and exposing these flows would weaken the corrupt regime and expose its hypocrisy.
The fake conservatives are not guaranteed to defeat the Russians who support change. In 2018 we will see the formation of a new political class. Its core will be young people under the age of 35, whose entire life has passed under Mr Putin. In their memory there are no shortages and food queues, which were prevalent in the Soviet Union. That means their minds do not contain a “but there were even worse times” slogan, which is typical for those over 40. For them, the current Putin term, with four years of falling real incomes, is the worst period of their lives. And most important, they clearly understand the lack of prospects. The words from a 1970s Sex Pistols song, “No future for me, no future for you”, have become a description of their reality.
Such people are not inspired by fake conservatism. They want to get jobs and an income corresponding to their level of education and the European standard, because they do not doubt the obvious: they live in Europe. It will be tough. In Russia, to read the normal news, you will need VPNs and Tor. The crackdown on anonymous messenger services and “extremism” in social networks will inevitably lead to the invention of new forms of interaction and information. In 2018 this new class in Russia will realise its role and power.