While it is impossible to predict the future, we can nevertheless anticipate certain outcomes. Writing the book Russia’s Futures, I was aware that professionals in the field of what used to be called Soviet studies were heavily criticised for failing to predict the dissolution of the Communist system and the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. I always felt that this criticism was unfair, since most specialists worth their salt had talked about the problems of the system and the stresses in the country, and had thus anticipated the possibility of some sort of crisis, especially once the reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev took hold. The same applies today. There are no easy answers to the many problems facing Russia today, ranging from demography, economic competitiveness, social integration, national identity, leadership and generational turnover, climate change, and relations with the world outside. The fundamental question is whether there is an evolutionary outcome to the various problems confronting the country.
There are many in Russia who argue that the country is once again heading towards some sort of revolutionary breakdown. In the twentieth century Russia already had two major moments of state collapse, in 1917 and 1991, but a third one in the near future is unlikely. In fact, the whole system established by Vladimir Putin is dedicated to putting an end to Russia’s revolutionary cycle. This creates problems of its own, since the maintenance of stability at almost any cost generates rigidity and a lack of dynamism, which are precisely the conditions that provoke resistance and possible breakdown. However, so far the system has retained enough innovatory potential, effective governance and delivery of public goods to ensure its survival into the medium term. Russia is not the kleptocratic dictatorship of myth.
We can anticipate a number of futures, and although a crisis generated by foreign pressure and internal opposition cannot be excluded, the more likely option is the continuation of attempts to fulfil the potential of the democratic revolution of 1991. In subsequent years a constitutional state was established whose normative foundations remain firmly committed to the rule of law, balanced government and civil freedoms. Practice, of course, does not always meet these standards, accompanied by the emergence already under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s of an administrative system that stands above the constitution, claiming certain prerogative powers to push through reforms, maintain stability and to defend Russia’s sovereign independence in an intensely competitive international system. The democratic revolution will be complete when the administrative system is brought under the control of the civic institutions of the constitutional state. The book suggests that this is not excluded, but neither is it guaranteed.
Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury. His new book Russia’s Futures is now available from Polity.