2015: The Year of the Downward Spiral


Recent reports in Vedomosti and RBK dovetail nicely with the editorial I’ve translated below from the folks at OpenLeft.ru. Vedomosti predicts that in 2016 Russia’s economy will only worsen—the price of oil will be cheaper, inflation higher, incomes lower, and the ruble weaker. Along these lines, RBK evaluates the growth of social protests in 2015 and suggests that the trend will only continue after the new year. These social actions are a different animal from the protests of 2011-2012. Then Putin could simply wait out angry urbanites with only yielding to a few minor, and mostly cosmetic, concessions. The subsequent tightening the screws effectively neutralized the more radical remnants.

But Putin did something else in 2012 that was no less important to neutralize the threat from the streets. He shifted his constituency away from the cosmopolitan urban classes to the so-called “silent majority” of the working classes in the provinces. This Nixonian move incorporated heavy doses of populism, patriotism and conservative identity politics. Putin’s “populist turn” never contradicted elite rapaciousness. It was never meant to. Elite acquiesces was the other side of coin, and in many ways only continued, not contradicted, the tenor of his first two terms. And until recently, this unity of opposites worked.

As the editors of OpenLeft.ru write below, the social protests of 2015 symbolize the potential fracturing of the “Putin consensus.” It is this splintering of “national unity” that poses the greatest threat to the system. This is not to say that the Putin system is teetering on the precipice as many would like to imagine. Rather it looks to face challenges that expose one of the “third term’s” inherent weaknesses—the system’s lack of political and economic flexibility and dynamism. One of Putin’ successes has been his ability to sell “stability” as legitimization for his continued rule. Now legitimacy is under pressure as “stability” slides into ossification. As the editors suggest, in the context of the economic downward slide, attenuating those pressures might require pitting the two inherently contradictory elements of the “Putin consensus” against each other.

2015: The Year of the Downward Spiral

Editors, 25 December 2015
Summing up the past year

The system Putin built wants to appear unchanging: it is based on “stability”, that is, the illusion that there is no alternative to its policies and authority. Analysts’ numerous apocalyptic prophecies signaling the impending collapse are the flipside to “stability.” This past year has witnessed the end to “stability,” but the collapse has not occurred. Instead, a third option between stasis and disaster has prevailed: The quickening oscillation of a downward spiral.

The main elements of the Putin system remain in place, but it’s clearly obvious this very system cannot cope with the deep and extensive crisis. It’s a crisis of incomes of the population (their unprecedented fall since the 1990’s); the crisis of the social sphere (the authorities’ rousing populist statements are not able to conceal their deadly policies of austerity: pervasive “optimization”, budget cuts and the increased pressure on the public sector, and the freezing of pensions); the crisis of regional budgets, upon which the federal center unloaded the main burden of social spending; and the crisis of the Putin economy and its inability to find new engines of growth.

In the context of contracting incomes Putin’s politico-economic system can no longer conceal its predatory nature. The novelty of the past year has been the attempts to resolve budget shortfalls while at the same time filling the pockets of officials and businessmen close to the government with the help of new taxes and fees. It’s not just the Platon system, which provoked the most significant social protests this year, but also tax increases on small businesses, the introduction of paid parking, and additional charges for utilities. The population will pay, that is those who still have something to pay with, for the crisis and so that state corporations and Putin’s friends will have “a very large amount of money.”  The conflict is unequivocal: the minority of haves are against the majority of have-nots.

This conflict is becoming more pronounced. It’s not just about the truckers’ protests. The number of labor protests is rapidly growing. According the Center for Social and Labor Rights (TsSTP), the number of protests has increased by more than a third, 37percent, compared to last year, and more than half, 53 percent, to previous years (2008 – 2013). Petr Biziukov, an analyst at TsSTP, concludes that the quantity of protests has transformed into quality. “Physicians’ protests across the country, as well as the truckers’ protests comprised dozens of regions, and showed that the new kind of protests will be connected by a network rather than by local actions. Interregional, multisectoral and even intraregional actions arise more often. It seems that in this instance, the transition from local (isolated) protests emerging in disparate industries to networked actions uniting workers and organizations from different industries, cities and regions under the same slogans is a qualitative shift in the Russian protest movement.”


The “patriotic” consolidation over the last two years, the only purpose of which has been to mask the fundamental conflict of Russian society—the minority haves against the majority have-nots—has stopped working. The “Crimean Consensus” presaged this rift. Surveys show a decline in the public’s confidence in the media which throughout the “third term” has played a major role in maintaining the illusion of national unity against numerous internal and external enemies.

Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the perpetual “Bolotnaya Case” has completely demoralized the urban White Ribbon movement. However, though today’s urban middle classes are forcibly denied political rights, it doesn’t mean that they will not try to go back into the streets. This return, however, won’t be a simple replay of 2011-2012 but will be tied to the current crisis. Only time will tell what form it will take: part of a broader social coalition against austerity or an attempt to mobilize around the 2016-2018 election cycle.

The “Putin majority’s” potential collapse contributes amazingly to Russia’s cynical and unprincipled foreign policy which experts prudently call “the predominance of tactics over strategy.” Faced with a deadlock in the Donbas, Russia “has shifted the theater of war” and rushed into Syria to restore relations with the West. For the Kremlin, the bombing of Syria is a trump card in the “Great Game”, but it is by no means a game for Syrians: it’s a horrific civil war, the end of which Russia’s participation only delays, and whose bombing results in civilian deaths. Russia’s bombs are no less deadly than those of the United States, England, and France.

It’s unknown how much longer the authorities will be able to spin their adventurous imperialism for “restoring Russia’s place in the world.” To keep its own citizens eyes on the illusion that the Syrian adventure is “a war without consequences,” the ruling elite has resorted to regularly falsifying the numbers of military casualties. Another glaring example of this information strategy was the two weeks of deliberate deception about the true cause of the passenger deaths in the A321 Russian airliner over Sinai. In Russia itself, the mass production of external enemies has acquired the traits of a petty and despicable farce. The harassment of Turkish citizens in the last weeks of the year are an especially disgraceful page in this history.

The accelerating economic and social crisis exposes the existing regime’s limited room for maneuver and its stunning lack of flexibility. At the present moment it is practically incapable of reforming itself, or at least, significantly restraining the elite’s appetites. The regime with the country in tow can only barrel downward and bitterly defend “their own” from public criticism, intensify repression, defiantly refuse to make concessions to demands from below, and cut off any possibility for unauthorized political participation from above.

The country enters a new year fearful of the still hidden future, but the “grapes of wrath” are clearly ripening.