19 Mar Vladimir Putin and the Old Empire Nostalgia
Vladimir Putin’s wide margin for his reelection as President is partly due to its great popularity among Russians. But the main reason for it is that the country does not yet enjoy a free, open elections system. Russia can still be considered an authoritarian regime or, rather, an intervened, apparent democracy. The obstacles set by the electoral committee for accepting certain candidates is always a crucial hurdle. Also, government keeps a definite influence in mass media, especially television. In addition, the judicial system has intervened this year in order to prevent Putin’s strongest rival, Alexei Navalny, from participating.
Putin’s first two presidential terms, between 2000 and 2008, led Russia to achieve strong and sustained economic growth. His fiscal reform helped obtain tax revenues by reducing evasion rates, and his boost to the energy industry at a time of rising global demand allowed GDP to grow by over 5% every year during those two terms. After Medvedev’s transitional mandate, Putin won the presidency again in 2012. The 1.3% and 0.7% growth rates of the Russian economy in 2013 and 2014 augured a change in the economic cycle, which finally materialized due to a high inflation rate and to the sanctions applied against Russia as a result of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Economics and Geopolitics
The 2017 GDP growth figure is again positive, but weak: 1.5% in order to achieve an annual economic production similar to Spain’s. But its 12th position worldwide by economic size actually hides an unequal and still very unbalanced country, since its GDP per capita is well below the world’s average: Russia ranks 64th among all countries, because many of its 144 million citizens make an average of $10,200 per year, well below the levels of all developed nations.
The presidential elections have been postponed a few days in order to celebrate them at the fourth anniversary of Crimea’s annexation. Because Vladimir Putin is aware that his aggressive foreign policy has a positive effect on his internal popularity, apart from being a powerful mechanism of distraction from the daily problems suffered by Russians. Not in vain, Putin has recently boasted about Russia’s new hypersonic missiles, showing a video portaying a fictional attack against an area that looked like Florida, in the US.
Richard Haas of the Council of Foreign Relations wonders if all this aggressiveness could not also derive from the lack of Western economic support for Russia in the 1990’s, when in turn NATO began to propose its enlargement towards the East. This may have been the main cause for the emergence of this strong, aggressive leader. Of course, Haas’ analysis has an historical resonance that the author may have risen subtly but unintentionally: this situation seems as a by product of an error similar to that committed by Europe and the United States towards Germany in 1919. An unsupportive policy vis a vis an old adversary who feels humiliated by an alleged “Diktat”, which in turn provokes the appearance of a strong and vengeful leader who generates even greater problems due to his calculated and growing hostility. It is difficult to know for sure if this has been the case, but the fact is that Putin’s attitude in recent years far exceeds the West’s thresold of acceptable behaviour between foreign rivals.
Tensions with the West
It is now clear for European nations and the United States that Russia has recently meddled in all relevant electoral processes, as well as in the Catalan Independence bid and in Brexit’s referendum, through the propagation of distorted and false news. And all with the apparent objective of creating discord and weakening these nations. Putin publicly denies it, but many think his meddling is so obvious, that the logic for him may be that it is better that both Russians and foreigners are aware of the transgressive activity the Kremlin carries out around the world. And such would not be a strange modus operandi in the mindset of a former KGB agent who in 1998 became director of the FSB, the institution that succeeded the legendary Soviet intelligence agency.
This is therefore an important challenge for Europe, which in the last week has witnessed all the tension that this return to the Cold War brings. The poisoning in UK soil of former Russian spies who once betrayed Moscow looks like a warning message to all Russian intelligence services by an emboldened Putin. But having acted this time far beyond Russia’s own borders has put to the test the mechanisms of solidarity among nations that Putin himself has helped weaken lately. Theresa May seemed firm but, very probably, she asked herself if her European partners were going to react also with enough diligence. And they all did. But in turn, it may have hurt her deeply the President of the US’ sluggish reaction. It took the President so many hours to finally support the British, that they seemed an eternity. However, Trump has finally approved the retaliatory measures against Russia which Congress already passed months ago. So for now, the essential Western unity necessary to confront a threatening Russian President seems guaranteed.
Manuel López-Linares is author of Pax Americana.
SOURCE: Expansión, – print edition – Spain’s leading business newspaper, on March 17, 2018.