Russian Federation 2014: A Difficult Year Ahead?

This post is authored by Viacheslav Morozov and Karmo Tüür, UT political scientists who led an expert network that produced a new collection of short-term prognoses of Russia’s political, economic, and societal development in 2014.  

Ballet Gala in Sochi 2014

What will Russia offer the world and its own people in 2014? In the photo: Ballet Gala in Sochi on 8 February 2014. Image credit: Ivan Klimychev / British Council Russia

In recent years, Russia has not been static, monolithic, and uniform. Russia’s economy has grown to become the sixth largest in the world, fuelling a corresponding rise in its ambitions. Russia’s desire to build a Eurasian Union around itself is a captivating puzzle for political scientists and everyone interested in current international developments. Domestic processes in Russia are also constantly changing, whatever our opinion of these developments might be. The long search for a ‘national ideology’ in Russia is finally taking shape around the idea of the nation state aspiring to become a regional power with a solid internal structure, stressing conservative and traditional values.

At the same time, the most notable feature of this year’s collection is undoubtedly the rather pessimistic tone of most forecasts, particularly those dealing with the domestic situation.

While the government seems to be more confident than ever about what kind of Russia it wants to build, and has been relatively successful in achieving its goals, experts argue that the country is muddling towards an uncertain future. The political regime is becoming increasingly authoritarian and traditionalist, and the economy is languishing. To avoid stagnation, Russia would need to make education and science a key priority, but the reckless reforms in this sphere only produce bureaucratisation and increase brain drain. Russia also badly needs a stable judicial system to guarantee the rule of law, but it seems that the abolition of the Supreme Commercial Court is likely to create the opposite effect.

Against this background, massive public investment into sports mega-projects does not look promising as a means to promote development, as the money is being soaked up by corrupt bureaucracy colluding with big business. In the end, it seems that the state’s success in implementing its newly found conservative ideology is limited to constructing a ‘patriotic’ façade of the officially endorsed culture and supported by the Orthodox church. Barely hidden behind it lies the real world of clan struggle, dwindling institutions, and unfettered private interest.

Even the façade, however, is rather shaky. The regime has been trying to ensure national consolidation by promoting patriotic education and strengthening the role of the church. This policy has backfired: This year’s authors are unanimous in emphasising growing xenophobia as a major challenge, in the face of which the government looks entirely helpless. In a multi-ethnic state, constituted as a complex, multidimensional federation, such an outcome was probably inevitable, especially given that the policy of consolidation was implemented in a formal and inflexible way.

Thus far, it seems that the consolidating authoritarian regime has been able to deliver on its promise of relative stability, which many Russians appreciate. However, this comes at the cost of alienating the most active part of the population, further undermining the existing institutions, and thus completely discarding any hopes for modernisation under the current leadership. The key question which many authors ask in this context, in one form or another, is how long can this stability last before the country plunges into a systemic crisis?

In the foreign policy, at first glance, things look much more promising. Russia has achieved substantial progress on its main priority – the Eurasian integration project – and scored important diplomatic victories over the West on Syria and Ukraine (as well as in the less surprising case of Armenia). Relations with key partners remain stable. Even if one could foresee potential tensions with some of them over Russia’s human rights record and its policy towards the Eastern Partnership countries, there is also an obvious trend in many West European countries towards greater pragmatism in relations with Putin’s government.

The EU as a whole seems to be at a foreign policy crossroads. Its internal cleavages certainly help Moscow to carry out its favourite ‘divide and rule’ tactics, securing strong support on the part of some EU governments, such as those in Lisbon and Rome.

The EU probably will not be able to stop Russia’s diplomatic and economic offensive in the post-Soviet space, although Brussels certainly sees the Ukrainian case as a major challenge and will do its best to come up with a consolidated response. At the same time, Moscow’s attempts to copy European institutions in its own ‘near abroad’ are as formalistic and ostentatious as its attempts to promote internal consolidation. It is obvious that the elites both in Russia and in the Eurasian ‘target states’ perceive this as a zero-sum game, rather than as a win-win situation.

As noted by the book’s authors, the Kremlin’s attempts to construct a Eurasian Economic Union as a counterweight to the EU lead to a dead end. Instead, it would make sense as a response to the serious challenges Russia faces in Asia. It is unable to catch up with China’s geopolitical advances in Central Asia, while at the same time it faces the prospect of US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the need to balance immigration control with security-related and geopolitical priorities.

Nevertheless, Russia and China closely cooperate on a broad range of issues, and the potential problems in this relationship are balanced by the steady improvements in relations with India, South Korea, and even Japan. Similarly, recent tensions with Turkey have given way to a new cautious rapprochement, while Israel remains a key partner in the Middle East. Further afield, relations with Latin America are also developing successfully, although they might need some diversification both in terms of the partner countries and the range of projects.

All in all, none of the authors expect any major foreign policy breakthroughs for Russia in the coming year. Moreover, some of the contributions question last year’s achievements in terms of their sustainability and costs for the increasingly fragile Russian economy. In view of the recent agreements between Moscow and Kiev, one begins to wonder whether this short-term geopolitical victory will not turn into a defeat in the longer run.

Political prognostication is a difficult craft, which involves at least as much intuition as rational calculation. Societies are infinitely more complex than natural objects, and their development never follows any simple general laws. This, however, is what makes looking into their future such a fascinating exercise.

Our readers are welcome to assess our predictions, perhaps – why not? – to make their own, and to see who is proven right in the coming months. Yet, as any political scientist knows, while making predictions, it is wise always to be ready for the unpredictable.

The collection of short-term prognoses for Russia is part of a series that was initiated by the Academic Centre for Baltic and Russian Studies back in 2000, when Russian Federation 2001 came out as a small online collection, written in Estonian and mostly by Estonian authors. Over thirteen years, the publication has grown into a 200+ page book whose authors come from a dozen different countries – and of course, the fact that it has switched to English has greatly expanded its readership. Another factor for its success has been generous support from the UT’s Centre for EU-Russia Studies.

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