It began with a roar and it ended with a whimper.
As 2012 wound down in Russia, the soaring expectations for change that accompanied the civic awakening and mass protests at the year’s dawn had clearly faded. But the social, economic, and political forces that spawned them will continue to shape the landscape well into the new year.
A fledgling middle class remains hungry for political change, splits still plague the ruling elite over the way forward, and a fractious opposition movement continues to struggle to find its voice.
With the Kremlin unable to decisively squelch the mounting dissent and the opposition unable to topple President Vladimir Putin, Russia has entered an uneasy holding pattern that has the feel of an interlude between two epochs.
“I don’t think we are at the end of the Putin era, but we are at the beginning of the end,” says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, international editor of the British weekly “The Economist” and author of the recently published book “Deception.”
With economic headwinds on the horizon, generational conflict brewing, and new political forces developing, Russian society is changing — and changing rapidly. But the political system remains ossified.
So what can we expect in 2013? Below are several trends and issues to keep an eye on in the coming year.
The Oil Curse: Energy Prices And The Creaking Welfare State
If 2012 was all about politics, 2013 will also be about economics.
The Russian economy, the cliche goes, rests on two pillars — oil and gas. And both will come under increasing pressure as the year unfolds.
World oil prices, currently hovering between $90 and $100 per barrel, are expected to be volatile for the foreseeable future. And any sharp drop could prove catastrophic for the Russian economy.
Energy experts and economists say Russia’s budget will only stay balanced if oil prices remain between $100 and $110 per barrel. Five years ago, the figure needed for a balanced budget was $50 to $55.
Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, suggests this could have far-reaching implications for Russia.
“The Russians are going to have to face, just as the Saudis did in the 1980s, the possibility of dropping energy prices,” he says.
The flush days when petrodollars could power Russia’s economy and lubricate Putin’s political machine are coming to a close.
How the political system responds to these challenges will be a key question in 2013.
Leading Russian economists like Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin have stressed the need to diversify the economy away from its dangerous dependence on nonrenewable energy. Both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have likewise made calls for diversification.
But despite all the rhetoric, there has been little real action.
Part of this is due to fierce resistance from powerful figures in the Russian elite with ties to the energy industry, like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin crony.
But the reasons for inaction are actually much more fundamental. Diversifying and modernizing Russia’s economy would entail a degree of decentralization and the subsequent development of alternative centers of economic power. According to Edward Lucas this, in turn, would eventually lead to new centers of political power with more independence from the Kremlin than Putin appears willing to tolerate.
“The decoupling of gas and oil prices, the large quantities of liquefied natural gas on world markets, the growth of shale gas have all [diminished the regime’s] ability to collect natural resource rents,” Lucas says. “And the collection and distribution of those rents is central to its model.”
With resources declining and no economic diversification program in sight, the authorities appear to have concluded that they need to reform the country’s creaking social welfare system. But such a move is certain to be politically volatile, especially since Putin’s main base of support is now the rural poor and the working classes.
The Kremlin is still haunted by the protests that broke out in 2005 when the government attempted reforms to the social safety net.
Fathers And Children: The Looming Generational Conflict
When Putin took power in 2000, the 40-something former spy looked like an energetic young leader, especially compared to his geriatric predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
But more than a decade later, he and his team are aging together. And by most accounts, they intend to remain in office at least until 2018 — and possibly until 2024. By that time, much of his ruling circle will be in their 70s.
The comparisons to Leonid Brezhnev that accompanied Putin’s return to the Kremlin were not superfluous. In addition to the fears of stagnation, the graying of Team Putin also sets the stage for a generational conflict within the elite.
“The lack of institutional mechanisms for promotion and rotation is a problem because, when you don’t have that, it leads the younger generations to get frustrated if they don’t believe there is a way to advance within the system,” says Gvosdev. “If everything is blocked off it creates tension. You can’t just freeze the government establishment because the energy of people is going to be directed toward breaking into it or replacing it, and that becomes a danger.”
How this generational discord develops will be one of the key underlying trends to watch in 2013. This is especially true since a whole new cohort entered the elite over the past four years.
During his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev made a concerted effort to bring younger cadres into the Kremlin, which analysts say added a political element to the generation gap.
“Real fragmentation is taking place by age because Medvedev rejuvenated the system of administration,” prominent Moscow-based sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” this summer. “The more conservative older part of the elite was irritated by this and moved toward Putin. And those who were younger moved toward Medvedev in hopes of a quick career if Medvedev remained for a second term.”
The young guns who came in with Medvedev are also ideologically inclined toward greater pluralism. “Many observers are convinced that these leaders are giving financial support to the opposition,” Kryshtanovskaya said.
The generational gap in the elite is mirrored by a similar one in society as the cohort born after the fall of the Soviet Union — and which has only faint memories of the chaos of the 1990s — comes of age.
“This group of citizens sees itself as not only post-Soviet, but non-Soviet,” says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “They don’t consider themselves to be vassals of the state. They are more free thinking.”
Lipman adds that this younger generation is helping fuel Russia’s civic awakening. “This process is irreversible,” she says. “And as Russia continues to urbanize and cities become centers for younger people, this process will only accelerate.”
Strange Bedfellows: When Aleksei Meets Aleksei
When speculation emerged that anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin may be cooperating politically, it raised eyebrows among Kremlin-watchers.
And the reason for the interest goes much deeper than an abiding fascination with these two emerging players on the political scene.
An alliance of the Alekseis would have pointed to one of the key developments analysts have been watching for since mass protests broke out a year ago: collaboration between the technocratic wing of the elite and moderate elements in the opposition.
Such a marriage makes sense in many ways. Elite technocrats understand that Russia is dangerously dependent on energy exports, that current levels of corruption are unsustainable, and that in order for the economy to diversify and modernize, the political system will need to become more pluralistic.
Moreover, as moderate opposition activists come to understand that a colored revolution in Russia is unlikely, they are more likely to place their hopes in evolutionary change.
And in the event that the Putin regime begins to look dangerously shaky, overtures from inside the halls of power to the opposition will become more likely.
“We are going to see more people toying with defection to the opposition, people opening up back channels,” says Mark Galeotti, the author of the blog “In Moscow’s Shadows” and a professor at New York University. “We’re going to see the economic elite trying to reach out [to the opposition] and this is going to be very dangerous for the state.”
On the opposition’s Coordinating Council, a bloc is already emerging that seeks to negotiate political change with willing elements in the Kremlin, rather than trying to topple the regime, according to press reports.
The faction apparently includes 16 members of the 45-seat council. In addition to Navalny and his backers, it reportedly includes socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak and her supporters as well as longtime opposition figure Ilya Yashin, and entrepreneur Aleksandr Vinokurov, the co-owner of Dozhd-TV.
For his part, Kudrin has been trying to position himself as a bridge between the opposition and the authorities to foster what he calls “evolutionary change” toward greater pluralism. So has billionaire oligarch and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov.
If a bridge is ultimately built between the opposition and the technocratic wing of the elite, it could result in negotiated political reforms, in the co-opting of a vital wing of the Kremlin’s opponents — or a measure of both.
“I think it is more likely that as we see divisions within the regime that one faction tries to exploit public discontent,” says Lucas. “It will still be kind of inside baseball rather than a 1917-style change.”
Beyond The Street: Will The Opposition Mature?
Bouts of soul searching are an inevitable ritual after the past few opposition demonstrations.
The heady days of December 2011 and January 2012, when dissenters found their voice and discovered they were not alone, are a fading memory. Likewise, the period from the beginning of the year until Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May, when the opposition seemed to control the national conversation, is also over.
And opposition leaders look increasingly uncertain about what to do next.
“They’re focusing on the glory days, the revolutionary days of December through May. But nobody is thinking about what happened after May, when they lost control of the agenda,” says Sean Guillory, a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies. “How are they going to recapture the agenda and how are they going to really start making connections with society?”
The opposition, of course, is not a unified movement. It comprises nationalists, leftists, and liberals, united only by their opposition to Putin.
Will a single leader emerge in the coming year? Will the Coordinating Council, an elected body designed to bridge the divides in the opposition and establish a bond with civil society, prove an effective form of collective leadership?
“A process we are going to see is the opposition actually beginning to fragment,” says Galeotti. “You will begin to see ideological blocs, real opposition movements rather than just the generic ‘we want Russia without Putin’ thing. But it will be a painful process.”
What happens with the opposition, whether it is able to move beyond the street and develop into a potent political force, is a trend to watch because there is a deep well of discontent in society to potentially tap.
“They have this feeling of stagnation,” says Lucas. “Of institutions that don’t work, of a public life plagued by lies, evasions, and propaganda. They want more decent behavior by public officials and public institutions and they aren’t getting it.”