The future of Russia and Russia’s future role
The future of Russia and Russia’s future role
Recent events surrounding Russia and the future of its government have saturated the headlines. Dr Paul Vallet, GCSP Associate Fellow and historian shares his insights.
What do we need to know?
Twenty years since the assumption of power by Vladimir Putin, Russia enters the new decade within an evolving geopolitical environment and a familiar yet intriguing mix of change and continuity. At the new year’s annual State of the Federation address, Putin proposed 10 amendments to the constitution revolving around the powers of the executive branch, followed by the surprise resignation of Dmitri Medvedev as prime minister. The proposed changes to the constitution have raised more questions than provided straight answers as to how the system is to evolve. Reducing the presidential powers on paper is not a guarantee of a more accountable or checked and balanced executive. The choice of Mikhail Mishustin, former head of the tax office who has led its digitalisation and increased reach, to head the next cabinet may not be indicative of a council of ministers that is less of a technocratic set of executors than it was in Soviet times.
How did we get here?
Putin’s longevity in power has allowed him to steer the country through significantly changed circumstances, especially a renewed international influence. Yet Russia’s original economic reconstruction, enabled by high commodity and fossil fuel prices early in the century, has not maintained momentum, and Western sanctions adopted after the annexation of Crimea have hindered economic development. Russia’s raised diplomatic and military clout and international assertion in its neighbouring spheres in the Middle East and Africa may be a source of pride, but Russian aspirations to a normalised or closer relationship to the West, and even with potentially close neighbours, are elusive. Much of this revolves around the position that Putin occupies within Russia’s system of governance. For 20 years, whether as president or prime minister, his role has been central and paramount, and the lack of alternatives to his rule fuels defiance from some within Russian society and mistrust from many Western governments.
Some in the West regret that there isn’t a more constructive and cooperative relationship with Russia to address global issues. Yet, can a Russian policy fully geared to assert simple might, both regionally and globally, and the paramountcy of the ruler since 1999, constitute the right foundation? The assertion that Russia as a sovereign has a right to this role and dominance may also be contradicted by an internal ruling system that neuters popular sovereignty and allows for an unaccountable and unchecked executive dominance. On several occasions, in 2000 and 2008, Russians were promised an efficient state ruled by law, and the now-ousted Medvedev’s ascendancy had even been presented as evidence of this evolution. Now the promise is renewed in 2020, should it be viewed in similar light, with our knowledge of past, unachieved goals?
As has often been the case in past historical Russian power successions, this could herald change or further cement continuity. All of the principal ministers of the outgoing cabinet have been reconfirmed in their positions. No answers have been given as to the future role of Putin, who has already overcome term limits by switching powers between the heads of the executive, and may yet do so again for the benefit of the more recently created incarnation of the presidential administration, the State Council, in order to continue in the role of a “paramount leader”, not nominally in charge, as was the case of Deng Xiaoping for the People’s Republic of China. As with China, Russia is often presented as craving the stability of an orderly, assertive government, but this clashes with the notion of a Russia that considers itself part of the “European civilisational sphere”. Can Russia play a constructive role towards global governance if its own system locks in the paramount authority of a single man and his circle? Much of the Russian project, domestically and abroad, seems firmly set on restoration, with the international status of the USSR at its peak as the principal guiding reference. Does this truly represent a forward-looking approach?
A clear, positive sign of Russia’s international evolution would be a truly effective conflict resolution process at work between Russia and its independent neighbours, most of all with Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic States. This would probably demand greater Russian concessions than are on offer, but it remains, rather than some wishful thinking in some Western circles, the pathway towards a normalisation of Russian-Western relations. This, in turn, would open the possibility for Russia and the West to cooperate on the stabilisation of the common geopolitical environment, as well as working on global issues and emergencies. Yet, all these evolutions cannot be taken for granted and left to the will of a sole ruler.
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