Russia After Putin:

Cathy Young has an interesting summary of the state of Russian politics in the wake of President Vladimir Putin's replacement by his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev. Although Putin's authoritarian policies have rolled back much of the liberalization that occurred in the 1990s, Russia is still a much freer society than it was under communism. Indeed, as Young shows, it has become a fairly typical Third World pseudo-democracy with partly fraudulent elections, a corrupt government dominated by cronyism, and significant, but far from totalitarian, repression of political dissent. As in many other Third World countries, the government tries to divert the people's attentions away from its own shortcomings by spouting nationalist rhetoric and blaming all problems on Western interference. At the moment, the Russian ruling elite is actually enjoying some genuine popularity - largely as a result of economic growth driven by high oil prices, as well as successful efforts to harness Russian nationalism into support for the regime.

Obviously, the big difference between Russia and the many other similar societies is that Russia just happens to have huge quantities of oil and nuclear weapons. The big question for the future is whether or not continued economic growth will lead to pressure for liberalization, or whether the Russian political elite will succeed in maintaining a semi-authoritarian system in the long run. Another key question is what will happen when oil prices fall and Russia's economy suffers a downturn. It's possible that the resulting anger at the government will redound to the benefit of supporters of liberal democracy. But I fear that it will instead lead to increased support for the Communists or for ultra-nationalists and anti-Semites, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In Russia, as elsewhere, most of the public is rationally ignorant about politics, and has little incentive to evaluate what they do know in a logical way. As a result, Russia's next economic crisis could result in a much worse government taking power, not a better one.

As Young points out, Russian extremists of both the right and the left can tap into a long tradition of nationalism and belief in the notion that all problems can be solved by a leader with a "strong hand." On the other hand, Russia also has a long counter-tradition of pro-Western liberalization. Former world chess champion and political opposition leader Gary Kasparov represents that tendency today. When the current government eventually runs into trouble, much will depend on whether the ultra-nationalists or the liberal democrats are better positioned to take advantage of the situation. Unfortunately, Putin and Medvedev have targeted democrats for repression far more than the communists and nationalists. However, that very fact might give them greater credibility with the public when and if the current regime becomes unpopular.