Russia’s Duma elections this December are almost certain to cement the power of forces loyal to Vladimir Putin. That outcome is likely to confirm Russia’s emergence as the most divisive issue in the European Union since Donald Rumsfeld split the continent into “old” and “new” Europe. In the 1990’s, EU members found it easy to agree on a common approach to Russia. They coalesced around a strategy of democratizing and westernizing a weak and indebted Russia.
That policy is now in tatters. Soaring oil and gas prices have made Russia more powerful, less co-operative, and less interested in joining the West. Today, Europeans cannot even agree on the nature of the Russian regime, let alone what policy to adopt towards it.
Part of the confusion lies in Putin’s skillful political positioning. On the one hand, he needs to maximize his control of the economy and society in order to raise wages and pensions and to keep opponents down, while nourishing the long-tail of patronage that keeps him in power. On the other hand, Moscow’s elite – who fear that their assets may be expropriated by a future government – wants to avoid international pariah status so that they can see out their sun-set years in the safety of the West if the need arises.
A tightly knit group of political consultants has helped Putin resolve his conundrum. Rather than establish a dictatorship, they helped Putin use the trappings of liberal democracy to consolidate power. By establishing fake opposition political parties that are under the Kremlin’s thumb, creating pseudo pressure groups and organizations such as Nashi (“Ours”), and recasting the rule of law as an instrument of political power, Putin has tightened his control in a more effective and subtle way than many autocratic regimes. The possibility that he may run for prime minister in order to prolong his rule when his presidential mandate expires is a logical continuation of this approach.