Regular readers will know that I am generally pretty critical of the regime in charge of Russia. In my view the gradual erosion of freedom and the spectacular accumulation of ill gotten wealth in the hands of a mere handful of individuals marks Russia out as an increasingly nasty place to live. I also believe that the aggressive use of military force to challenge democratic forces in any area that the regime considers within its "sphere of influence" is dangerous for the entire international system.
Yet the Putinistas are not having it all their own way.
There has been a steady increase in the visible opposition, with protests on subjects as diverse as car import duties, press freedom and freedom of assembly becoming routine. In honour of this last, every month that has a thirty-first day has become the occasion of regular demonstrations. The date is chosen because article 31 of the Russian constitution permits freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate. Of course the regime has not permitted those freedoms, and as a result the 31st has become a litany of public arrests.
Meanwhile the increasingly odd attempts by Vladimir Putin to portray a rather macho public image have been rather undermined: his summer tour of the Russian Far East in a Yellow Lada Kalina turned out to be a one hundred vehicle motorcade. Youtube showed the visible derision of the locals as this absurdity passed by. The increasingly strange shots of Putin stripped to the waist in various poses may have been intended to reinforce his image as a strong man, but instead, as is the Russian way, has led to a string of jokes.
Meanwhile, Russia continues its drift. The attempts by the Kremlin to use the gas pipelines to Western Europe as a political an economic lever have spectacularly backfired. The United States has pressed ahead so fast with the development of Shale gas reserves that they are set to essentially withdraw from the gas market. Other countries, notably Qatar and Turkmenistan, have seen dramatic new investments by Western oil majors, and alternative gas pipelines designed to avoid transit across Russia are now virtually certain to be built. The macho posturing of the Kremlin has ended up reducing their power: the Norwegians will not sell Russia proprietary technology to develop the Barents gas fields, and increasingly the bullying of investors in Russia is leading to major changes in the outlook for growth, as more and more investors reassess the risk profile they are taking on in the country. Crime and corruption are undermining the economic capacity of the whole country. Every foreign motorist has their tale of the corruption and bribery required simply to drive to Moscow or St. Petersburg from the border.
Yet despite the increasing difficulties, the regime continues to provide irritation to the international system. Russian Air force planes continually violate other country's air space. An Ill timed visit by Mr. Medvedev to the Kuril Islands has outraged Japan. Even Vladimir Putin's summit meeting with Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy did not provide more than platitudes. Despite the visit of Foreign Minister Hague to Moscow, Russo-British relations remain in the deepest of deep freezes. It was something of an irony that the chairman of the Russian Football authority attacked the English bid for the FIFA world cup on the basis that the UK has high levels of drinking and crime. Of all things to attack the UK with he chose the area where the Russian social problems remain spectacularly unresolved.
The drug money accumulating in Afghanistan has found an outlet funding the smugglers in Russia, and the lack of effective borders between Kabul and Moscow is renewing the heroin problem in a new generation of Russian addicts. The economic crisis has not taken much gloss off the glitz of Moscow, but away from the capital the infrastructure is still crumbling and the poverty is there for all to see. Russia is going backwards.
Yet the situation now is better than the Soviet times in one important respect: there is public discussion of the problems of the country. Russian language media, both inside and outside the country is making the Russian people more aware of the scale of the problems- YouTube showed the reverse Potemkinisation of Putin in the most graphic way. His black eyes- if that is what they were- have been seen across the Russian Federation- questions are being asked.
In the end the question facing Russia remains the one that has been posed for most of the past 2 centuries: "What is to be done?".
In the end Russia has always chosen the path of its own exceptionalism: the Slavophils were more influential than the Westerners in the 19th century, so Autocracy persisted; the Bolsheviks overthrew the Liberals in 1917 to create the Leninist dictatorship; the Stalinists defeated the more internationalist Trotskyites in the early 1920s. At each turn Russia has rejected the West. Some Russian nationalists argue that it was the West that rejected Russia, but the problem that they face is that there is no evidence: the fact is that the acceptance of the Putinistas today shows not a hatred of Russia, but a combination of ignorance and increasing indifference.
Russia still sees itself as a great power, entitled to trespass against its neighbours: an equal of the European Union and of China. Yet even Ukraine now does more than 75% of its trade with the EU, and Belarus is headed in the same direction, despite being part of a Russian/Belarusian common market! Russia may seek to build gas pipelines to China, but neither the Chinese nor the Europeans now take seriously the implied threat that the Russians will play the two giant economies off against each other in a battle to maintain gas supplies: the economic weapons that both can bring to bear against Russia are far more powerful that the simple cessation of gas shipments.
Sooner or later, Russia will have to accept the inevitable: the macho posturing always costs more than it brings. The huge expenditure on military might brings no leverage in Europe, sheltering under the US umbrella, and really only irritates the Chinese. In the end, as P.J. O'Rourke put it:
"Russia has been part of, or at least the idiot step brother of, Western civilisation for over a thousand years now. There really is no excuse for them"