Every once in a while, Russia-watchers and commentators seize on a subject and mercilessly feed off of it - while, in the end, no minds get changed and why the subject came up in the first place is forgotten
Something of this sort happened just recently when a few articles appeared comparing the Russia of today to the Russia of 1998 - before the financial crisis in August of that year.
The comparison - which quickly turned into a debate - centered on what has and has not changed in Russia in the area of economics, with politics coming up occasionally as an afterthought. Nothing was really settled. However, the only common agreement that could be found was that Russian political stability today is much stronger than it was back then. However, the fact of the matter is that, although the nature of Russia's political stability is certainly different today, it can hardly be said to be stronger.
The flurry of comparisons of 2003 to that fateful year of 1998 was, oddly enough, a defensive reaction on the part of many. Russia has started to surpass the macroeconomic levels it had posted just prior to the financial crisis. The fact that Russia's tiny but spectacularly performing stock market - the RTS - recently bested the highs of 1998 was another reason to take a look at the present. The defensive approach to the comparison is the result of past crises and a belief that nothing in Russia is too good to be true, coupled with the knowledge that Russia is bucking world economic trends.
Many of the usual suspects were involved in this discussion, and many of the bean counters (excuse me, "economists") who were wrong about Russia back then are hoping to have another crack at getting the country right. Bean counters speak in a specialized dialect of pros and cons, costs and benefits and a heck of a lot of "all things being equal." Even informed readers have little choice but to accept their methodology at face value when the numbers are being crunched (after all, most of the former have accountants do their tax returns). When they enter the realm of evaluating the success of reform in Russia, one can start becoming suspicious of their findings. When they start talking about politics, hard and critical questions should be raised.
The topic of economic and structural reform is a cottage industry in Russia and abroad. While the bean counters like to elbow their way into this area, it is for the most part the realm of vested interests in the government and the financial community who are attempting to persuade investors that Russia is a place to park their cash during these troubled international economic times. Beyond a doubt, Russia has as of late achieved some remarkable results in some areas, at least on paper. Lack of reform in the banking sector is lamented by many. In the grand scheme of things, though, this not a great tragedy - the state has correctly come the conclusion that it is better to have no real banking sector rather than surrender it to an oligarch.
Then there is the issue of Russia's political stability. This is something that is sidestepped by most bean counters and many of those preoccupied with Russia's reforms efforts, as they favor supporting the conventional wisdom propagated by the same group of foreign political spin-doctors who were around in 1998 and are looking to make a comeback. Political risk and stability have never been the bean counters' specialties, as they are not really quantifiable. In this area, they and the engineers of reform are followers. They have not reflected what political stability really means in Russia, as their skill set limits their ability to really appraise the nature of Russian politics.
Russian political stability these days is summed up in one word - Putin. Vladimir Putin certainly is a stable political figure, but the political environment he appears to favor is not. Positive assessments of Russia's political stability are a function of the image Putin puts on and not of the actual state of the project of building a solid political order. Putin is popular and even charismatic, in a way, but basing one's judgment of Russia's political stability on one person is a shortcut for people who want to believe or have a vested interest in believing that all is well in Russia.
If you really want to get a handle on the state of political stability in a country like Russia, you need to consider a number of issues that do not get enough exposure. Among them is the development of political parties. Putin still has not decided to throw his personal support behind one or a group of them in order to make the parliament more responsive to the government and the people. He has changed his position on the question a number of times, leaving his supporters in the Duma in a quandary as to how Putin understands the development in Russia. The "presidential bloc" will continue to do what the Kremlin tells them, and will continue to have nothing to do with representing a constituency.
The quality of the political elite is rarely found on the spreadsheets of the bean counters or those who want to put a positive spin on Russia to attract investment. Putin avoids making political enemies if he can get away with it: It does not matter how incompetent, disliked, or corrupt a high public official is, there always seems to be a promotion available for them if they agree to follow the supreme leader. The fact that the notorious former mayor/governor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Yakovlev, has been appointed as a federal deputy minister tasked with implementing a critical social-policy mandate clearly confirms that even the most undesirable can have a life in Russian politics even after a career of plunder and incredible levels of irresponsibility with respect to the public.
Political stability is also a function of the rule of law, which has not meaningfully improved in Russia over the last three years. Putin came to the presidency on the slogan of "dictatorship of law." The practical result has been the normalization and routinization of corruption: It remains chic, respectable and part of everyday life. The latest "clear hands" operation, ostensibly an attempt to root out high-level corruption, was really probably just a cheap pre-election campaign ploy on the part of the presidential bloc. Trying to get Putin's attention is something his supporters will go to great lengths to attain.
An entire political culture should not be based on the rule and qualities of one man. Russia's macroeconomic performance has indeed been sterling when compared with its international peers as of late. However, all things being equal, this is hardly a reason to believe that Russia's politics have normalized or become any more stable than before decade. In 1998, Russia was ruled by a drunk with a vision to make Russia into his vision of a better place regardless of the cost. In 2003, Russia has a leader that promotes his own political fortunes at the expense of making real decisions on how Russia should move forward.
Comparing the Russias of 1998 and 2003, all things considered, does make some sense in a way most involved in this discussion-cum-debate have probably not considered. Russia has changed in many ways since 1998 - in spite of itself. Entering the world economy presents the country with a number of economic incentives and disincentives that are sadly lacking in the realm of Russian domestic politics - all things being equal.
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