The Art of Reading Russia's Future

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With Vladimir Putin's presidency winding down, this is a good time to think about his legacy and the future of Russia. The Putin presidency will be remembered for the country's economic resurgence, political stabilization and increasingly assertive foreign policy. These trends all go back to the very beginning of his presidency, and the economic recovery that was set into motion by the currency devaluation in 1998, in fact, predated his rise to power by a year. Nevertheless, as this year began with Putin's succession increasingly imminent, my colleagues and I seemed to have more questions than answers about the durability of these trends.

When it comes to Russia, prediction has proven to be a particularly perilous endeavor. For the last 20 years, not only have we failed to predict what happened, but we also have failed to seriously consider the possibility that what did happen could have happened. If we go back to 1999, the year after the financial crash, nobody anywhere suggested the possibility of Russia's nominal-dollar gross domestic product growing by more than sixfold, or incomes increasing by a factor of four in less than 10 years, or the stock market becoming the world's hottest. But it happened. And if we had engaged in this exercise in 1987, anybody who suggested that the Soviet Union was on the verge of being consigned to the dustbin of history and that there would be tanks firing on the parliament building in Moscow within 10 years would have been exiled to the lunatic fringe. One needs a broad imagination to suggest Russia's future 10 years forward and the potential for discontinuities in its trajectory -- a trajectory that for the last few decades has been extraordinarily nonlinear.

The challenge is even greater today because there seems to be so little agreement about present-day Russia. In fact, Western views on Moscow have never been so polarized as they are now. Broadly speaking, the key divide is between those in the business and investment community, who are quite bullish on Russia, and those in the policy and the nongovernmental communities, who view the Putin period with much more skepticism.

In order to put together a mosaic of possible Russian futures, I organized in Washington a working group of leading experts with diverse perspectives and expertise on the most salient drivers of Russian futures. We met a number of times over a period of several months, and everyone's input to the discussions contributed to the report released last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Alternative Futures of Russia to 2017."

Unfortunately, this report was seriously distorted and mischaracterized in an article in Kommersant on Dec. 13, resulting in headlines about predictions that, in fact, the report does not make. It is unfortunate that the sensationalistic misrepresentation resulted in such an uproar in the Russian public, but I hope this will help clarify what the report is really about.

The following are the main highlights of the report. Some will seem banal, some will seem controversial, yet all are essential for anticipating how the country may develop.

Russia will not be a failed state. While there was one significant dissenter from this view, who emphasized that we should not discount this possibility, overall we thought this scenario so unlikely that we discarded it.

Russia will not be a mature democracy in 10 years. We agreed that Russia could possibly become a more plural political system, but that it was extremely unlikely that 10 years was adequate time for democracy to emerge, especially as the current trends are going in the opposite direction.

While stable economic growth is not guaranteed, the country's economic future in the near term looks relatively bright. By comparison, Russia's political future is far more uncertain. State capacity and institutions generally remain weak, and the current political stability has a fragile foundation. Its weakly institutionalized system, personalities and personal interests play an unusually large role in policymaking.

Russia's economy is too diversified to describe it as a "petrostate." But we agreed that the oil price is the most important driver of the country's future.

Russia's territorial integrity over the next ten years is secure. Social, economic, political and security challenges for Moscow will be greatest in the North Caucasus, but secession appears unlikely.

Demographic challenges remain significant, but they should be manageable. The shrinking population, however, will put additional strain on an already tight labor market, increasing the likelihood of labor unrest. Increasing migration of Asian and Muslim workers will also add to social tensions.

Nationalism and xenophobia are growing. There were differing views within the group about the extent to which this presents a threat to ethnic minorities within the country as well as its likely impact on the Kremlin's foreign policy.

Russian foreign policy is growing more assertive as economic recovery gathers momentum. There were differing views in the group, however, about the extent to which the country was becoming a revisionist power, while at least one group member saw Russia increasingly playing the role of multilateral spoiler.

There was also consensus about the danger of excessively linear thinking about Russia's future. The current stability is more fragile than it appears.

There are many insights that emerge in projecting change and stability in Russia's future, as well as the various hypothetical scenarios in the second half of the report. There are two scenarios that deserve particular attention -- one about the country's foreign policy and another about its domestic development. First, foreign policy is not likely to take a deeply anti-Western turn that results in a repeat of the Cold War. In fact, the more likely outcome is that Washington and Moscow will find greater common interests in the security area that will drive them closer to cooperation in the coming decade. There are two main reasons for this: The Kremlin learned some tough lessons about overextending and overmilitarizing itself during the Cold War and it is unlikely to repeat these mistakes. In addition, instability on its southern border will continue to be the country's greatest security challenge in the next decade, and striking an anti-U.S. position will not help address that problem.

Finally, when pressed about what I think Russia will look like in 10 years, I empathize with my older colleagues. When they were asked this question 25 years ago, they typically responded with status-quo and continuity scenarios that turned out to be dead wrong. In their defense, however, it is very hard to predict discontinuity. My Sovietologist mentors identified tensions and vulnerabilities in the Soviet system, but in the early 1980s, nobody in the mainstream or the "establishment" predicted imminent collapse. The consensus was that the Soviet Union would somehow "muddle through."

At the risk of making a similar mistake, I think that for the next 10 years, a fairly stable scenario that ends in a relatively positive place is the most likely outcome. In support of this conclusion is the fact that most Russian people desire a future that is far more stable and predictable than the last 20 years they have experienced. As Putin told us nearly eight years ago in the "Millennium Statement," which spelled out his vision of where the country should be headed, Russia has had more than enough revolutions.

Andrew C. Kuchins is director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.