The previous issue of Novaya Gazeta carried the first part of an article by Lilia Shevtsova of Carnegie Moscow Center entitled "Russia: the logic of decline". It argued that great civilisations that were unable to react in a timely manner to world and internal challenges and stubbornly reproduced themselves in their former shape inevitably perished. The author concludes the first part with a question: how can Russia endure such death and what will be the price for the ordinary citizen?
There are specific factors that precipitate the demise of a system. Above all, it is the ruling team that cannot be replaced. If there is no political competition, there can be no development. How important is it who personifies power? Judge for yourselves: Putin, who is associated with certainty (we know what to expect from him) may accelerate the processes of decay. For his part, Medvedev, with his diffuse position and penchant for mimicry, might slow them down. But what is better for Russia: rapid or slow decay? Putin's regime, relying on security structures and their control of property, is inherently repressive and incapable of modernisation.
Another factor of decline is the obsession of the power apparatus, above all security men, with their personal enrichment. All civilisations perished when their elites started thinking about their own purses. Sparta and the Ottoman Empire were invincible until the Spartans and the Janissaries engaged in trade.
The collapse of the Soviet technological infrastructure is a reflection of decline. It is one of the ironies that we still survive thanks to the USSR. But now the planes, trains, ships, coal mines, roads, enterprises - all that legacy is becoming not simply a burden but a threat to people's lives.
The "Kushchevskaya syndrome", which has been repeated many times all across Russia, i.e. the intertwining of the mob, business, government and repressive bodies, is further proof of degradation of a system that cannot function even according to its own rules.
Why cannot power clean its own Augean stables and put a stop to this mayhem? Why are the authorities prepared to save the "foot soldiers" who have been involved in the Magnitsky case, even at the cost of tremendous damage to the regime's reputation? It is not that the elite is involved in any crime and is therefore afraid to start untangling the threads. The reason is that any purge undermines the "vertical power structure". It violates the principle: the loyalty of the apparat is guaranteed by its impunity. Today, that principle is supplemented by the criminal mutual support arrangement between the authorities and the structures that cater to it, which means that the system is entering the final stages of its degradation.
The Khodorkovsky-Lebedev case signals the existence of another rule of the system: "show a strong fist". So Putin, having made Khodorkovsky and Lebedev a systemic criterion of his omnipotence, cannot free them: releasing them would be perceived as the end of the Putin era.
Today, Russia does not know what to do about militarism, which is part of the genetic code of its system. The elite, which has become integrated in the West on a personal level, does not want to engage in clashes with its old opponent. But, with no other mechanism for consolidating society, it has to stick to the militarist-great power mantra and look for an external enemy. The purchase of the French Mistral aircraft carriers (to be used against whom?), the anti-NATO rhetoric (turning the CSTO into a counterweight to NATO), the flexing of the nuclear muscle, militarisation of the budget (in 2012, the expenditure on defence and the repressive agencies will go up by 57.7%) - all these are parts of the old arsenal for survival. But invoking the spirit of militarism has always triggered national suicide.
One can discern the looming dead end in the authorities' obsession with mega projects, from the Sochi Olympics to the APEC Summit and the World Football Cup. To quote Arnold Toynbee, when a society in decline seeks to put off the day and hour of its demise by directing its vital energy to gigantic projects, this is nothing if not a desire to cheat inevitable fate.
Finally, the borrowing of Western technologies has also exhausted itself as an element for propping up the autocracy. The introduction of new-generation technology requires a free society and a free individual. An example of successful technological borrowing is South Korea, but technical modernisation only got into its stride there after the country switched to the rule of law. The pitiful attempt to create a closed "modernisation zone" in Skolkovo confirms that the former model for survival of the autocracy does not work.
The Russian ruling class not only deprives society of its viability. It is setting a trap for itself. The most successful mechanism that humanity has developed for self-preservation (including of the elite) is free competition. As soon as the East European elites agreed that they would not cling to power, they guaranteed development for their societies and security for themselves. The fact that the Russian ruling team is trying to secure an infinite monopoly for itself attests to its lack of confidence and inability to run a free society. Monopoly implies the need constantly to protect it and it makes it impossible to relinquish power without fearing for one's life. So far, only Mikhail Gorbachev has managed to break out of this vicious circle without fearing for his personal safety. The fate of Arab rulers who have lost power or are desperately clinging on to it cannot but prompt anxious thoughts in Russian rulers. If they hope they will be able to avoid sharing the fate of other "autocrats" they are in for a disappointment: the last twenty years have not seen a single instance of a happy end to one-man rule. One could use a pause under Medvedev to look for a mechanism that would guarantee personal safety and a chance to leave Russia to the ruling team. The ruling team decided to play the game to the end, thus dooming the country to a dramatic scenario.
How far away is the end?
Everything is beginning to fall apart. The once all-powerful institution of leadership is losing its influence. There is a growing awareness in the midst of the political class that relying on Putin as guarantor of security may soon pose a threat to the very survival of that class. The state and its security structures are perceived by the population as a hostile force. When 73% of respondents believe that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened over the last ten years and 52% that the government has more thieves and corrupt officials than in the 1990s and finally, when more than half the respondents are sure that the coming elections will not be fair - that is a sign of alienation of the population from power.
Admittedly, there still are some compensatory mechanisms keeping the system afloat. Commodity resources supplant a working economy. The nuclear weapon is seen by the Russian elite as a means for shoring up their great-power ambitions. Atomisation of society impedes the emergence of social alternatives and organised protest. Moreover, people deprived of social taboos and unification mechanisms can launch a Darwinian struggle for survival. The huge apparatus that services the stagnant monster and simply people who are afraid of change are trying to support its waning life. Even establishment people admit that a catastrophe is impending. They differ only over when it will occur and what it will look like.
What is the way out proposed by the establishment "alarmists"? They propose Restoration-2, calling on the Leader (Putin, Medvedev or somebody else) to launch economic reforms. The more advanced among them urge the Leader to start building democracy and are advocating "entry into Europe" (sic.) Numerous "strategies" that Russia's leading experts are hurriedly preparing are also addressed to the Leader and not to Society. One gets a sense of d?j? vu, as if, twenty years on, Russia is back in 1991 without realising that personal power cannot commit suicide, i.e. renounce its monopoly. Without it, all the reform "strategies", however sensible the specific proposals, are doomed to turn to dust.
In the meantime, 22% (!) of the adult population want to leave the country and 28% of young people are ready to leave Russia forever. Consequently, the most dynamic part of society is not seeking to revive the country. This is the most alarming symptom that might signify that Russia has approached the point of no return.
Some may argue that, on the face of it, Russia shows no evident signs of decline, such as appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s: non-payment of wages, collapse of production, collapse of power and a "criminal revolution". But the impression of stability is deceptive. The system is already falling apart or, if you like, decaying. Here are the key words that show how far advanced that process is: "Kushchevskaya", "Sagra", "Ramzan Kadyrov", "Bulgaria", "the Gelendzhik palace", "the Magnitsky case", "the Prosecutor's casino". The list goes on and on.
Further decay will be a dramatic test for society. As long as we cannot reform this system from within and cannot dismantle it from without, it is necessary to at least be aware of its inevitable end and prepare ourselves for it. We cannot afford a repeat of 1991, when the collapse of the state led to restoration of one-man rule. We should also think about mechanisms for peacefully dismantling the "Russian matrix" and forming new rules of the game.
The main thing is not to find ourselves in a situation when a collapse occurs sooner than we are ready for it. So far, the agony has been approaching faster than our awareness of its inevitability has been growing.