A Kremlin Made of Sand

Vladimir Putin may not be as secure as he thinks.

When Vladimir Putin returns to the Russian presidency on Monday, May 7, the pageantry surrounding his inauguration will aim to portray a picture of unassailable strength, a confident master of his domain invulnerable to pressures from within or without. But things are not quite as stable as they seem. Over the next few years, Russia's domestic and foreign policies will be shaped by an unfolding and increasingly sharp conflict between the consequences of the two events that took place in the past four months: Putin's reelection and the ensuing mass protests that erupted in more than 100 of the largest Russian cities.

Yes, the protesters represent a small minority of the Russian population, as the Kremlin never tires of reminding us, and the demonstrations seem to have sputtered out for now. But what of it? When has there been a truly great modern revolution started by a majority of the people? Or one that took place all at once?

Instead, what we may be seeing is a Russian version of a familiar post-authoritarian democratization that swept through Greece, Portugal, and Spain in the 1970s, South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s, and Mexico in the 1990s. Having reached unprecedented prosperity and personal freedom, the middle class in each of these countries began to demand a say in how its country was governed.

This is not just a political conflict. It is a clash between two moral sensibilities, two political moralities, and two visions of what constitutes meaningful and dignified citizenship. This means that neither side is likely to give up, retreat, or compromise. It will be a struggle to the bitter end, no matter how long it takes.

But it may not be that long. Before Putin's reelection, a poll showed that 35 percent of Russians polled said they thought the election was "dirty" -- i.e., fraudulent. That means that, with all the caveats and margins of errors, millions of Russian citizens do not consider Putin a legitimate president. They were convinced that the Central Election Commission, the Kremlin's wholly owned subsidiary, would produce whatever numbers the boss ordered.

The Kremlin is well aware that millions may feel angry and cheated, which is why no meaningful liberalization is likely after the inauguration. Authoritarian regimes do not tinker with the system when they feel insecure. With the regime badly needing to bolster the legitimacy bruised in the Duma and presidential election, foreign policy is likely to be shaped by the domestic need for an external enemy. So I would not expect any new "resets." Quite the opposite is more likely, as this week's threats by high-ranking military officials to strike preemptively at missile defense sites in Europe remind us.

But everyone, including top government ministers and establishment economists, know that even with all the nationalist bluster Moscow's PR shop can kick up, the system cannot continue indefinitely without a radical de-centralization of politics, the economy, and the justice system. Foreign investment is down, and net capital flight is at a record high so far this year because of what investment analysts euphemistically call an "unfavorable institutional environment." Translated into plain English, this means Russia has a perverted legal system, with courts for sale, universal and absolutely shameless corruption, shakedowns of businesses, thievery, and inefficiency.

In the short term, Russia's most serious risk stems from a near-fatal dependence on the price of oil. Twelve years of Putinism have moved Russia perilously close to being a petrostate, with all the political, economic, and social niceties those are known for. According to UBS analysts, a $10 change in oil's per-barrel price changes the price for balancing the budget by 1 percent of Russia's GDP. Last September, Alexei Kudrin, then finance minister and deputy prime minister, estimated that if the price falls to $60 a barrel, Russia's economy would register zero growth or even contract. To balance the national budget in 2004, Russia needed oil at $27 dollars a barrel. Last year the break-even point was $115. Thus far, the projection for this year is $117.

This is why Russia is likely to face a severe fiscal crisis as early as 2014, even with the world's third-largest hard currency reserves. In the words of one of Russia's most respected economists, Sergei Guriev in a recent talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the state may "run out of cash" to pay for the huge increases in the defense budget and the social commitments Putin ratcheted up on the way to reelection, first and foremost the pensions of retiring baby boomers.

Yes, countries can tighten their belts. But this task, politically risky enough even in mature democracies like France or Britain, could be fatal when millions may believe that the president's election was fraudulent and his rule illegitimate. The regime's worst nightmare is that millions of angry pensioners may join the hundreds of thousands of middle-class protesters.

These protesters are not quite a full-fledged political opposition yet. But they are already something ultimately more threatening for the regime. They are a civil rights movement. They reject the system not so much because of specific political or economic grievances (though they have plenty of those as well), but because they find it indecent, undignified, offensive, and unworthy of them as people and citizens. This is a morals-based movement against effective disenfranchisement and inequality before the law, owned by the state. "Justice" (spravedlivost) and "equality before the law" (ravenstvo pered zakonom) are among the key slogans at the demonstrations. Sound familiar?

I first came across this moral essence of the Russian discontent when I traveled through Russia last summer and interviewed leaders and activists of grassroots organizations and movements. Five months later, I read the same slogans on the banners of demonstrators in YouTube videos, as well as in photographs, blog posts, and interviews with Russian and Western reporters: Don't lie to us! Don't steal from us! Listen to us! Don't step on us! We are not a herd! We are not a faceless crowd. We are the people!

I was reminded of these words by an unexpected development on March 4, the day of Putin's reelection. In a total surprise, opposition and independent candidates won 71 seats in Moscow's 125 district municipal legislatures -- around 1,500 seats total. Still a tiny minority and with little power, almost all the winners were under age 30 and ready to struggle for a long time.

One of them was a 20-year-old journalism student named Vera Kichanova, who won a seat on the district council in Moscow's Yuzhnoe Tushino district. The American media -- bless 'em! -- duly noted her "outsized boxy glasses," "pageboy haircut," and "multicolored tights." But fortunately, they noticed something else. She was a member of Russia's tiny Libertarian Party and an admirer of the American Tea Party. Ideally, she said, she would like Putin to say, "I'm tired; I am leaving." But as this is not going to happen, her plan was to follow small steps. "If you see a breach in the iron wall," she said, "it makes sense to try to go through it."

And this is as good a summary as I've heard anywhere of what has happened to Russia in the past few months -- and of what is likely to happen next.



Friends Like These

This week's tensions aside, China and the United States still need each other more than they admit.

Everyone knows that China is on the rise, that the United States is in decline, and that the two countries depend upon each other more than ever to solve global problems. As it has since the onset of the global financial crisis, this received wisdom in part shapes the U.S.-China relationship, including at bilateral forums such as this week's Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). But what if this "wisdom" is wrong?

The S&ED, though overshadowed by the drama over the fate of activist Chen Guangcheng, addressed other critical issues such as North Korea, Syria, and bilateral economic tensions. But even without the Chen case, Washington and Beijing are approaching each other with more apprehension than usual these days due to each country's ongoing concerns about the other's strategic intentions. For the United States, the growing fear is that it will be "eclipsed" -- that one day China will dominate Asia. For China, the perpetual fear is America's overreaction to its rise. Chinese leaders, with some justification, view the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia as a move to contain China's growing power and keep it down.

But the United States and China are worrying about the wrong things. The downfall of popular Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai exposed the high-stakes political struggles in Beijing during a period of political succession. And though we do not know Chen's motivations for planning his escape during this already shaky period, a negative outcome of this drama could lead to further incidents involving activists who might sense cracks in the system. These sudden changes and their longer-term implications should cause Washington to be more worried about an unstable and unpredictable, yet likely still authoritarian, China. In the United States, a nationwide weariness with global leadership is manifested most concretely in a reluctance to fully fund its grand strategy, even though this will undercut the stated political goals that have provided the conditions for great-power peace in Asia. Beijing should be more troubled by a United States that cannot or will not fulfill its global obligations.

Officials in Beijing often try to reassure their counterparts in Washington that China "does not want to be No. 1" on the world stage. Americans watch China's assertiveness in Asia and greet this reassurance with skepticism. In turn, Washington cajoles Beijing to take on more global responsibility. The Chinese view this as a trap -- a way for America to tie China down in any number of international quagmires.

But, in fact, neither side is entirely disingenuous. Not only does China eschew the burdens of being "No. 1," but the events of recent months demonstrate why it is not currently in a position to be a global leader. Meanwhile, the United States truly is looking to enhance cooperation with partner nations that could lead to the sharing of great-power burdens in the future. There was once a real hope that China might play such a role by applying real pressure to North Korea on its nuclear program or in policing the global commons. However, on these issues, China has largely indicated an unwillingness to play a constructive role.

The United States must adjust to deal with a changing China. Though it is maintaining a veneer of internal harmony, the Communist Party is spooked. The Bo scandal revealed the mafia-like nature of Chinese politics. The fate of Chen and his supporters is uncertain, even after the deal announced Friday, May 4, but their case does demonstrate the determination of reform-minded individuals to shed international light on Chinese human rights abuses and give credence to the fact that the government's view is not the only one.

Growing internal fractures will make China a less predictable and pricklier power that remains authoritarian. But a weak China is nothing to celebrate, especially since the country's failure to enact any democratic reform will make the potential fallout from a political crisis more dangerous. There are no Chinese institutions other than the military that can hold the country together if the leadership fails. A strong, authoritarian China has already demonstrated little interest in upholding the liberal international order. But a brittle authoritarian power may be even less likely to do so. Indeed, a China beset by strife, with a growing role for the military, may well lash out against its neighbors more forcefully. Washington's mistake is assuming that the China it knows today is the one it will know tomorrow.

China's main worry is that the United States is too strong and too tough. An editorial last week in the Global Times summarizes the Chinese view well. The authors cite U.S. military deployments both inside and outside the first island chain as evidence that America is reneging on its "pledge" not to contain China, and calls on Washington to find a new "balance point" for the relationship rather than "hop[ing] to extend the old way of bullying weaker countries." A weaker America, however, would not be in China's interest. Benign U.S. hegemony has provided the stable conditions that have allowed China to prosper. Beijing has long enjoyed a free ride off the security Washington provides. If that ride disappears, China will be in even deeper trouble.

China should think carefully about what the world would look like if the United States fails as a great power. What if no country provided the public goods requisite for great-power peace, such as open access to the global commons, deterrence of adversaries, and efforts to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? Can China continue to prosper in a world with unprotected sea lanes or with an increasing number of volatile nuclear states?

As China grows less predictable and the United States less willing to shoulder its responsibilities, familiar patterns of bilateral relations must change. The first step is for both countries to recognize that weakness in either country will not benefit the U.S.-China relationship or international order. America must be prepared for a less stable China. While continuing to check destabilizing Chinese activities, the key objective for Washington is to press harder for the stability that can only come with democratic reform. China should desist from undermining American efforts to preserve regional and global stability, and instead encourage the United States to maintain its commitments. And both sides need to prepare for the possibility that by the time the next big summit rolls around, China may be in decline and America may still be on the rise.