Voters faced a difficult decision last March, Vladimir Putin or Vladimir Putin. On March 18th, Putin won the Russian elections for the fourth time and following this unsurprising victory, SIB organized a lecture to discuss the future of nation. To aid our lecture, we invited Tony van der Togt. Besides being a former member of our association, Van der Togt works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute. He established the first Dutch Embassy in Kazakhstan and is extremely knowledgeable about Russia and its leader. Our second speaker of the day was Andre Gerrits, a former colleague of Van der Togt, as a Senior Researcher Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, and currently active as a professor of International Studies and Global Politics, based in The Hague.
Tony van der Togt gave an overview of the current situation and internal affairs of Russia, referring to the 2018 elections as a “peculiar” one. Even though there were eight candidates, there really was no alternative to Vladimir. However, Van der Togt highlighted the future potential of Ksenia Sobchak, the young star, who was out campaigning in the U.S. and other western states to increase her foreign credibility. Nonetheless, she only received around 2% of the votes. Putin aimed at 70-70, getting 70% of the votes and a 70% turnout. The majority he got indeed, with over 77% of the votes, however, the turnout was not as good, and Van der Togt linked this to Putins strategy, which was really focused on international affairs with the West, military strength and perceived victories abroad, especially in Crimea. Moreover, Putin only very late announced that he was going to run again, potentially trying to not raise the public’s expectations to high.
Still, Putin won without any problems, so, what’s next? Van der Togt highlighted two scenarios. The first scenario would be a period of stagnation coupled with renationalization because of a fear of instability. The second scenario focuses on modernization, following a generational change and coupled with better relations with the West. Currently, Van der Togt argued that this need for a change can already be seen in the Generation P(utin), a group of youngsters who grew up under Putin’s reign and are becoming “a-political” and “fed up with the current political system.” Furthermore, due to the stagnating economic growth they could potentially be a force for change. Currently, this group is a very small minority and hence causes no fear amongst the sitting government. Moreover, Van der Togt highlighted the fact that the Putin administration aimed to modernize its technology industry using a top-down approach. For example, their efforts to heavily investing in their own Silicon Valley, Zelenograd, which has definitely not yielded the same results as its American competitor.
Andre Gerrits followed up Van der Togt’s talk and immediately stated his reservations about the potential of the second scenario and argued that the current Russian economy is not doing bad at all. He strongly argued that we shouldn’t look at Russia applying a Western lens. Gerrits focused more on the external affairs and foreign relations regarding Russia, the West, China and the Middle East. The election results, he argued, “are a poor indicator of the political conditions” in the nation. The barrier against any democratic change does not necessarily come from above, as the reality is that in Russian society there is very little widespread ambition for western reforms; “an unspoken agreement between the elite and a large part of society. Most Russians are in favour of the decisions that Putin has made and his
foreign policy decisions. Gerrits, furthermore, argued that Putin uses his foreign decisions to create and maintain a Western “evil” to keep the Russian distracted from the internal struggles of the nation.
However, Putin might have taken this strategy too far. His relations with the West are at an all-time low. Even though Putin won Crimea, he lost Ukraine and since 2014 his relatively pragmatic approach to foreign policy seems to be getting the best of him. Following the debacle with the UK, many EU member states have shown their teeth and moved out Russian diplomats and increased sanctions. So, what is next for Putin? Gerrits explained the importance of having power in Russia and linked this to one of Putin’s first decrees as acting president by granting Mr. Yeltsin immunity from criminal or administrative investigations, including protection of his papers, residence and other possessions from search and seizure. “If you lose your power you lose your wealth.” You can also see this in the main political figures and the current Russian elites, most are friends of Putin holding a vested interest in the continuation of the current system. It seems likely that Putin will appoint his own successor behind the scenes to insure he receives the same immunity he granted to Yeltsin.
Gerrits also highlighted some options Putin has to increase his relations with the West, without losing his internal power. Where Van der Togt argued that Russia should focus on promoting free media, Gerrits states that scaling down the anti-western propaganda seems an unlikely decision to take for the Russians. He argues that Russia can retract its interventions in the internal political affairs in Ukraine, however he also stated that it is still uncertain whether Moscow actually overpowers the separatists. Another option is Korea, where Russia fears being marginalized by China, where by working together with the West they can increase their relations without becoming marginalized.
Both Van der Togt and Gerrits agreed that the current situation in Russia is stable, but externally Russia is stepping on many toes and its own population does not seem to attribute a lot to the global power position of Russia anymore. What’s next remains to be seen, but Russia has many options to increase its relations with the West and vis-versa there are opportunities as well. Nonetheless, the future of Putin’s Russia is still to be seen, but seems unlikely that Putin
will hand over his power anytime soon.
Next month we organize another lecture: The Future of Space Exploration, on May 14th . This lecture will focus on the current and future developments in the great beyond and the ways in which nation states and multinational actors are shaping our future.