I just remembered I’d made some in 2012. It’s time to see how they went, plus make predictions for the coming year.
Of course I failed to predict the biggest thing of them all: The hacking that made me throw in the towel on Sublime Oblivion (remember that?), but with the silver lining that I could now split my blog between my interest in Russia and my interest in many other things. After all tying my criticism of the Western media on Russia with topics like climate change and futurism and HBD was never a very good fit. Overall I am very satisfied with the new arrangement.
Predictions For 2013
(1) Russia will see slight positive natural population growth (about 50,000) as well as significant overall population growth (about 400,000). Do bear in mind that this prediction was first made back in 2008 when a Kremlinologist who did the same would have been forced into a mental asylum.
(2) The life expectancy will reach 71.5 years, the total fertility rate will rise to 1.8. The birth rate will reach a local maximum at about 13.3-13.5 (it will then remain steady for a couple of years, and then begin to slowly decline) while the death rate will go down to about 13.0-13.2). Net immigration should remain at about 300,000.
(3) Putin will not be overthrown in a glorious democratic revolution. In fact, things will remain depressingly stable on the political front. As they should!
(4) Currently Russia is one of Europe’s most corrupt countries. While it’s certainly not at the level of Zimbabwe, as claimed in the Corruption Perceptions Index, it’s not like having the Philippines, Romania, or Greece for neighbors on an objective assessment is anything to write home about. I believe that Russia missed a great opportunity to undermine the rotten culture of official impunity that exists there by refraining from prosecuting former Moscow Mayor Luzhkov with his Montenegrin villa, billionaire wife, and his VP Mayor Resin who wore a $500,000 watch following his dismissal in 2010. Today a similar opportunity presents itself with blatant evidence of large-scale corruption on the part of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his female hangers-on (see the comments threads here, here at the Kremlin Stooge for details). There are conflicting signals as to whether charges will extend to the very top, i.e. Serdyukov himself. Having incorrectly anticipated a Luzhkov prosecution, I am now once bitten, twice shy. So I’ll take the lame way out and call it a 50/50.
(5) Needless to say, the economy remains as uncertain as ever, and contingent upon what happens in the EU and the world. In the PIGS the economic contraction is finally starting to slow down, but Greece is something of a disaster zone, and Spain is raiding its pension fund to keep afloat. If this becomes unsustainable this year then the EU member states will have to make some fundamental choices: Fiscal union? Or its division into a “Hanseatic” core and Mediterranean periphery? Which of these three things will happen I find impossible to even begin to foretell… As applied to Russia, under the first two scenarios, it will continue plodding along at a stolid but unremarkable pace of 3-4% or so GDP growth; if things come to a head (as they eventually must) and Germany decides to toss the Latins overboard, then the divorce I assume is going to be very, very messy, and we can expect Russia’s economy to fall into recession.
(6) No special insights on foreign policy. Ukraine may join the Customs Union; however, I suspect that’s more likely to happen in 2014 or 2015, as Yanukovych faces re-election and has to make a choice between continued prevarication between it and the EU, and encouraging his Russophone base. The creeping influence of the Eurasian Union will likely keep US-Russian relations cold; whatever the current disagreement that’s talked about (Magnitsky Act; Dima Yakovlev Law; Syria; Libya…) I lean to the “Stratfor”-like position that at heart the US just does not want what it sees as a “re-Sovietization” of the region – which the Eurasian Union is, in geopolitical terms, if under conditions much softer than was previously the case – and will thus be driven, almost by force of instinct, to oppose this trend.
Lost in the furor and liberal butthurt over Depardieu’s defection has been a development of far greater import: Russia is going to cardinally change its elections system.
According to Putin’s directive to the Presidential Administration and the Central Elections Committee, they are to come up with a bill that transforms Russia’s current proportional system to a mixed one based on proportional and majoritarian representation.
In other words, it is returning to the system in had in 2003 and earlier, or adopting the system now in place in Hungary and Ukraine.
This change is very clever. First, it will massively favor the dominant party, i.e. United Russia. In 2003, it got almost half the seats despite only getting 38% in the proportional race and a mere 24% in the constituency races (plus a lot of UR-friendly “independents” to seal the deal). This system allows United Russia to “artificially” (I put apostrophes around it because this system is not after all considered inherently anti-democratic) bolster its results during a period when its ratings are likely to decline further. The recent example of Ukraine’s Party of Regions shows how a party with only about 30% popular support can seize virtually half the seats with a split opposition and the usage of admin resources including pro-PR “independents.”
Second, it will also massively lower the incentives for direct falsifications, which are a very prominent and undeniable stain on Russia’s elections in the past decade. After all while in a proportional system falsification will have a direct and immediate impact on the result, in a mixed system United Russia or UR-friendly candidates will be sweeping the constituency elections anyway. Ergo much smaller degrees of fraud or even the absence of fraud would still result in better results for UR than the c.8% falsification in its favor in the 2011 elections everything else being equal.
So, if played right, United Russia in 2016 can still get its parliamentary majority or close to it despite (1) a likely decline in support and (2) allowing for much lower levels of fraud. Hence also much less scope for criticism on the part of various elections watchdogs and Western governments. Even though (as in Ukraine) this system will be inherently less democratic than the current proportional one, ironically enough.
Latest contribution to the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel on the question of which US Presidential candidate is best able to meet the challenges ahead:
When predicting election outcomes, I prefer to listen to those who put their money where their mouths are. As of the time of writing, the Intrade predictions market gives a 66% implied probability of an Obama win. The major betting websites are even more optimistic about Obama’s chances, with most of them giving him implied odds of about 80%. He is even considered more likely than not to win the popular vote, though because of the peculiarities of the US electoral system, it is also quite possible for him to lose the popular vote but still win the Presidency (about a 25% chance of this, according to Intrade). I will now most likely lose the symbolic $10 I placed on a Republican candidate win back in May 2010, when a sharp but unsustainable spike in favor of Obama accruing from Osama bin Laden’s assassination created very good odds for the contrarian gambler. Still, I don’t regret the investment. Always bet against your preferred candidate – that way, you will never be wholly disappointed.
We know that Obama is phlegmatic on the ill-thought out Magnitsky Act, and is likewise lukewarm about missile defense in East-Central Europe – to the extent that he pledged “more flexibility” on this issue to Medvedev in an unfortunate open mic moment that the Republicans later spun for all it was worth. (The Poles seem to have come to terms with this, and are now preparing to spend $4 billion of their own money to modernize their AA systems in the next decade). This is probably driven not so much by a desire to enlist Russia as an ally, as to give the US room to deal with the more pressing issues that will dominate Obama’s second term: The withdrawal from Afghanistan; the military pivot to Asia; a sluggish economy plagued by chronically high budget deficits; the accelerating climate crisis. Another alternative is that Obama’s people take seriously the CIA/Stratfor theory, hinted at by Biden in 2009, that Russia’s “shrinking population base” will nullify it as a Great Power in a couple of decades; hence, it is no longer worth aggressively confronting it as natural trends will doom it to eventual irrelevance anyway. But whatever the true motivations, we can reasonably expect the Reset to survive under a new Obama Presidency.
The GOP position is rather less compromising:
… we urge the leaders of their [Russia] to reconsider the path they have been following: suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society; unprovoked invasion of the Republic of Georgia, alignment with tyrants in the Middle East; and bullying their neighbors while protecting the last Stalinist regime in Belarus. The Russian people deserve better, as we look to their full participation in the ranks of modern democracies.
Needless to say, the only part of “the Russian people” who would look on these urgings with sympathy are the small gaggle of pro-Western liberals like Lilia Shevtsova (who brought this to my attention). They slavishly side with America against their own country on every issue they disagree on, so long as it helps undermine Putin. While she is right that such policies would “send a strong signal of support to Russian liberals that America does care about the values and principles it preaches”, it would also likewise alienate not only the Russian government but ordinary Russians too (41% of whom prefer Obama to 8% for Romney in a recent Levada poll). Coupled with his equally confrontational attitudes to China, and the aggressive neocon foreign policy advisers he has surrounded himself with, Romney would appear to be dead-set on provoking into existence that nightmare of Cold War planners – a Russian-Chinese alliance. This would be first and foremost a disaster for America itself.
Then again, as many have already pointed out, Romney is a flip flopper, and his bellicose rhetoric may well dissipate should he somehow find himself in the White House. Though Romney might describe Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe”, that did not prevent his son Matt from recently flying to the evil empire to promote his real-estate company and purportedly assure influential Kremlin advisers that his dad does want good relations between their two countries. If money and the practical exigencies of Presidential office trump his campaign rhetoric, there is good reason to hope that the Reset can survive even under a Romney Presidency.
My latest for US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel on whether to view the recent Georgian elections, in which Saakashvili’s United National Movement lost a lot of power, as a Kremlin coup or a triumph of democracy. My view that it isn’t really either:
Two dominant themes prevailed in media coverage of the 2012 Georgian elections
It is possible that Georgia will get one more chance. In that one short moment, when a confused people will look on with astonishment as the band of thieves returning to power brings back its lawlessness – but at a point of time when the army and police are not yet wholly purged of respectable people, who care for the fate of their country – in that moment, Georgia will get another window of opportunity. Like the one, for instance, that Pinochet got on September 11, 1973. But maybe, this chance will never come.
(2) The elections were a genuine victory for Georgian democracy, with Saakashvili’s very defeat vindicating his historical status as a democrat and reformer. Two headlines from democratic journalist Konstantin von Eggert summarize this viewpoint: “Georgians are no longer a mass, but a people“; “Saakashvili accomplished the authoritarian modernization that Russian liberals only dreamed of.”
The Kremlin is in confusion: A state, which they practically denounced as a fascist dictatorship just three years ago, has become a democracy… And the oft-ridiculed and cursed Georgian President, known for his chewing of ties, became practically the most successful reformer in the post-Soviet space, barring the Baltics.
I think both viewpoints are substantially wrong, but to see why we have to consider this history in more detail.
In his first elections in 2004, Saakashvili won 96% of the votes. It was fairer than it looks, but only because of a complete absence of credible candidates at the time. In his second election, in 2008, not only did turnout correlate positively with the Saakashvili vote, but its graph had what is called a “long tail”, becoming suspicious after the 80% mark and registering quite a few stations with 100% turnout. This is remarkably similar to the pattern of falsifications in Russian elections under Putin (though needless to say, Georgia doesn’t attract a fraction of the same attention).
Natalia Zubarevich’s concept of “The Four Russias” is one of the most reasoned and perceptive political analysis from the liberals, and as such I think it important enough to translate it (mostly I disagree with its core assumptions and conclusions though I do think it is a useful way of envisioning Russian politics). As such I am translating Четыре России from Vedomosti (there is also a longer version, translated here).
The Four Russias
The events of 2011 demonstrated that the authorities’ habit of looking at the country through a “vertical incision” played a cruel joke on them. In reality, there is not one Russia, but rather three or even four. And this is a reality with which both the government, and the opposition, will have to come to terms with.
The Four Russias: First Russia – urban, educated (white); Second Russia – urban, industrial (blue); Third Russia – rural, apolitical (green); Fourth Russia – ethnic, poor (red).
The First Russia is a country of big cities. They aren’t great in number, but the 12 city-millionaires as well as Perm and Krasnoyarsk, which have close to a million residents, constitute 21% of the country’s population, i.e. every fifth Russian, while Moscow and Saint Petersburg by themselves account for 9%. In the past 20 years, the biggest cities cities ceased being industrial – only in Ufa, Perm, Omsk, Chelyabinsk, and Volgograd do Soviet industrial enterprises continue to dominate the economy. Although the fastest post-industrial transformations are observed in Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Rostov-on-Don, all the city-millionaires have seen a change in employment patterns: The percentage of qualified “blue collar” workers rose, there appeared more employees of small businesses, and even the public sector attracted more qualified workers. There is quick adoption of the metropolitan model of consumer behavior, even though earnings are 1.5-2x lower than in Moscow. It is precisely in the bigger cities that we see a concentration of those middle class “disgruntled urbanites.” Migration flows in Russia are directed towards these bigger cities, so their share of the population is growing. The only difference is that the two federal cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and their adjoining agglomerations, attract migrants from all over the country, accounting for up to 80% of net migration in Russia, while the other big cities for the most part draw migrants from their own regions.
One of the main theses of this blog is that in many respects, Russia is far more similar to the the “West” (and vice versa) than various democratists would have you believe.
Case in point (h/t Jon Hellevig):
When GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited an Ohio coal mine this month to promote jobs in the coal industry, workers who appeared with him at the rally lost pay because their mine was shut down. The Pepper Pike company that owns the Century Mine told workers that attending the Aug. 14 Romney event would be both mandatory and unpaid, a top company official said Monday morning in a West Virginia radio interview. … Moore told Blomquist that managers “communicated to our workforce that the attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend.”
“Mandatory” but “no one was forced to attend.” Hmm… how does that work?
This episode of Ohio coal workers pressured to attend a Romney rally does in fact neatly parallel anecdotally numerous cases in the run-up to the Russian elections. I even accept that these cases are far more prevalent in Russia, though the reasons for this are structural. Whereas single industry towns with singular political allegiances – e.g., coal towns, for whom Romney is far preferable to Obama – are the exception rather than the rule in the US, there are hundreds of such “monograds” in Russia. These monograds tend to have authoritarian political cultures at the local level.
But its not like you never stumble across analogues to them in the West.
According to the press release (PDF) regarding the recent judgment, the issues considered by the ECHR as regarding complaints about the 2003 Russian Duma elections were the (1) the opposition’s access to an “effective remedy” to complain about media bias in favor of United Russia; and (2) that the media’s aforementioned bias prejudged the fairness of the elections. The ECHR ruled both claims to be invalid as shown in the extended quotes below:
“However, the applicants had had the possibility of requesting invalidation of the results after the elections, which they had used. The Supreme Court had had the powers to annul election results; it had examined the applicants’ claims and delivered a reasoned judgment. The independence of the Supreme Court had not been questioned, and the Court did not consider that its impartiality was an issue. … It therefore concluded that the proceedings before the Supreme Court had to be considered an effective remedy in accordance with the Convention.”
“The Court first addressed the applicants’ claim that the TV companies had been manipulated by the government. … Thus, the applicants had not presented any direct proof that there had been abuse by the Government of their dominant position in the TV companies concerned. The TV journalists themselves had not complained of undue pressure by the Government or their superiors during the elections. Indeed, formally speaking, the journalists covering elections had been independent and, under Article 10 of the Convention, had had wide discretion to comment on political events.”
Yet another oft-repeated Western trope about Russian politics is that Putin has “lost the middle classes” (Brian Whitmore, paging Kudrin), that it is liberals who speak for the middle class (Fred Weir), or even that it is not just the middle class who are against Putin but the masses too (Masha Gessen).
Let’s look at some numbers, figures, statistics, etc.
Putin appears to be as popular as ever. After reaching a multi-year of 63% approval in December 2011, he is now back at his typical 69% (Levada). Another poll indicates that 52% of its respondents would vote for Putin if elections were held tomorrow, compared with 9% for Zyuganov, 7% for Zhirinovsky, and 6% for Prokhorov (FOM). Likewise United Russia remains by far the most popular party, at 44% versus the second place Communists with 12%, despite the propaganda against it and well-publicized recent electoral losses in a few cities. So obviously there is no “mass movement” against Putin.
Now what about the more minimal form of this argument, that while Putin might retain support among blue-color workers (disparaged as uneducated, unenlightened, etc) the middle classes have deserted him?
But in that case, why did a plurality of even the richest Muscovites vote for Putin?
Apart from direct falsifications, which were extensively discussed here, the other really big criticism of the Russian elections process is that it isn’t a level playing field. As said by an OSCE bureaucrat, “The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia.”
Well wait a second. First, uncertainty isn’t the point of an election at all; otherwise, why not make it into a lottery? It’s to get the person who most represents the people into power. Second, there is no country where each candidate gets equal airtime, ad money, debating invites, etc. Cases in point: Ron Paul, Nader, Marine Le Pen, generic Green Parties and Pirate Parties, etc. Perhaps one day we will live in Internet democracies where anyone can nominate oneself and debates are won and lost via webcasts on Facebook but for now level playing fields are a fiction everywhere.
One can write a whole article on comparisons, but why bother when the Russian political scientist Evgeny Minchenko has already done an excellent job of picking apart these questionable assertions about how elections in Russia are much less free and competitive than in the West in his article Seven Myths about the Russian Elections? I translate his effort below. H/t @lindsey_bn for the link via Twitter.