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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Merits of Political Instability

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The resurgence of political uncertainty in Russia heralds an end to the "stability" of the first 3 1/2 years of President Vladimir Putin's regime. However, the increased volatility engendered by the Yukos affair and its fallout, coupled with the collapse of the system of oligarchic capitalism, may ultimately prove salutary for the long-term development of Russian democracy and civil society -- and, ironically, work to counter Putin's growing authoritarianism.

Shock over the abrupt end to the artificial stability that has characterized the political environment over the past several years is largely a result of the rose-tinted expectations and simplified assumptions that Russia-watchers have entertained until now about Putin's presidency.

Indeed, Putin's pursuit of so-called political stability by centralizing power in the executive branch has damaged Russia's still-nascent democratic experiment by crippling public debate and defining the boundaries of political discussion in the narrowest of terms. Moreover, it is possible that after the March 2004 presidential election, Putin will try to engineer an amendment to the constitution to allow him to stay in power beyond the mandated two-term limit (or else follow in the tradition of installing a chosen successor) -- either way continuing to ride roughshod over Russia's delicate democracy.

On another front, one of the major results of the political uproar triggered by the attack on Yukos and the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been the demise of Russia's unique brand of oligarchic capitalism and its replacement by bureaucratic capitalism spearheaded by Putin's ex-KGB henchmen. Under most circumstances, Putin turning on the oligarchs as a political force (some of whom installed him in the Kremlin) would be an unquestionably positive development -- as would be the resignation of Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, despite the vocal regrets of some observers who seem to have forgotten that he is the main architect of Putin's authoritarianism. But this sentiment is dampened by the still-remote, though increased, possibility that through their attack on Yukos and Khodorkovsky, Putin and the siloviki may be trying to tighten further their grasp on the political arena and move toward full-blown authoritarianism.

However, concerns over the implications of the Yukos affair have been overblown, and breathless admonitions that the attack on Yukos represents the end of Russia's post-Soviet democratic experiment are likely to prove to be just as wide of the mark as the earlier premature proclamations about "St. Putin the Savior of Russia." Rather than a march toward greater state control, including the nationalization of privatized assets, the next phase of the Putin regime is likely to involve a continuation of authoritarian rule with targeted repression of political opponents and rivals that the Kremlin deems a threat. Khodorkovsky was targeted primarily because he was a political threat, and the political nature of the conflict between Yukos and Putin suggests that the chances of large-scale asset redistribution are minimal, as long as no other oligarchs decide to get into politics beyond the limits established by the president.

Running counter to the Kremlin's increasingly authoritarian impulses is the renewed climate of political uncertainty which may well mark an important step in rejuvenating political debate in Russia (at least now the issue of Putin's authoritarianism is a subject of open discussion), by triggering the creation of a bona fide opposition. Also, the absence of an alternative to Putin over the past few years has been a key factor in the president's ability to almost single-handedly dictate and dominate the political agenda.

Whether the opposition evolves into a real political force or folds in the face of the Putin juggernaut remains to be seen. The regional governors, who were among the major losers in Putin's power grab, may hold the key to survival of a serious opposition and their defection from the Putin camp would signal a shift in the balance of power away from the Kremlin. Additionally, the oligarchs themselves, who also have a lot to lose in Putin's continued power play, might gravitate toward opposition involvement, although they would run the risk of becoming targeted like Khodorkovsky. Ultimately, however, a true opposition will need to evolve at the grass-roots level which may prove challenging due to the general passivity of the populace.

In the meantime, the emerging opposition suffers from conflicting agendas and is dominated by figures weighed down by political baggage. Opposition sentiment at this stage has logically coalesced around Khodorkovsky, but it would require several years and considerable effort to re-engineer the former Yukos CEO's image. By repeatedly defying Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has positioned himself -- in the eyes of the oligarchs and the business community, at any rate -- as potential presidential material (particularly if he soon loses his position, as Putin casts about for someone more malleable to head the government). Finally, Anatoly Chubais, as the only major business leader to stand up to Putin and the siloviki, has indicated his interest in returning to politics, but he remains despised by the general public and may have a difficult time combining the roles of opposition leader and head of UES, one of Russia's largest government-controlled companies.

More significant than specific opposition leaders, though, are the institutional implications of the re-emergence of a vocal opposition that could offer a real alternative to Putin's politics, policies and personality. Conspicuously absent since Putin's rise to power has been a credible brake on the president's prolonged power grab, as he has effectively subverted and/or co-opted the very institutions that should provide checks on the executive branch.

A genuine opposition has a vested interest in ensuring that its potential avenues to power remain open by initiating vigorous discussion about the political environment and defects in the political process, and therefore is the best potential insurance against the continued concentration of power in the executive branch. Forces that offer a credible alternative to the president are in effect the optimal guarantors of democratic practices -- such as relatively fraud-free elections -- as only through these can they hope to come to power.

Putin and the siloviki are clearly focused on increasing the authoritarian nature of the regime. But the issues that form the backdrop to the new environment of political uncertainty, including the consequences of the privatization process that created oligarchic capitalism in the first place and the resulting corruption and inequality that pervade Russia, will need to be adequately addressed for real and sustainable political stability to be achieved. The gradual development of an independent, credible and vociferous opposition, offering a real political alternative rather than what is currently offered by the Communist party and so-called patriots, is the best hope for establishing stronger foundations for democracy.

In the final analysis, renewed political instability may be just what Russia needs.

Alexander Bim is a political analyst at IMAGE-Contact Consulting Group and Kim Iskyan is a former securities analyst for the Russian equity market. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.