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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Impending Crisis and History's Challenge

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For five long years, you could sell just about anything with the "President Vladimir Putin" brand. But as Putin's sixth year in office begins, a pressing question can be heard above the din of propaganda, alarming statistics and the gloom of everyday life: "What next?"

Life in Russia as we now know it is coming to an end, but not because the Constitution requires Putin to leave office in 2008. On the one hand, the current regime seems to have a total disregard for the law. On the other hand, if a law is bad, what's the point in enforcing it, especially when even good laws aren't enforced?

But if the law were the only issue, this question of what's next wouldn't even come up. One politician would simply be replaced by his anointed successor or an opponent would appear who would stick to what works and get rid of what doesn't.

The inevitability of a turning point when Putin steps down and the growing concern that this possibility engenders in society are based on the increasingly firm belief that he will lose power not because of term limits, but because of the chaos that his own policies have created.

For starters, Putin has given carte blanche to the bureaucrats who have become his power base. By relieving them of responsibility, he has enabled the spread of corruption that has paralyzed the state. He has concentrated power in the hands of the siloviki who have emerged as Russia's new oligarchs, subduing the entrepreneurial oligarchs of the Boris Yeltsin era and enriching themselves by using force, not only against the business community but also -- from inertia and simply for kicks -- against average Russians. At the same time, dissent has increased among the top siloviki, and the new oligarchs are increasingly powerless to protect even their friends and allies.

Lies, slander and persecution for opposing the party line have become commonplace. Potential opposition leaders have been cowed. A climate of fear has been whipped up in society.

The social welfare net has been destroyed despite the country's favorable economic situation in order to divert public money into the hands of business, which passes it on to the siloviki who are close to many a company.

Just as they were under Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia's national interests are sacrificed in order to win favor in the West, based on the assumption that in return the West will overlook the undemocratic and inhumane nature of the Kremlin's policies.

Policies like these cannot save the country from catastrophe. In fact, they will not be long in breeding catastrophe. And the result of this mess will be an all-encompassing systemic crisis.

The crisis is inevitable because practically everyone who attempted to help Putin early in his presidency came away convinced that this was an exercise in futility. The policies outlined above are not the result of unfortunate mistakes or evil designs that could be rectified. They spring from a stable balance of power between objective interests.

The country has been stricken by convulsions of authoritarianism that began at the very top. We will collapse into a systemic crisis sooner than mathematical models predict because they don't take into account the destructiveness of the infighting that has already gripped the siloviki oligarchy. They cannot calculate the sheer incompetence and irresponsibility of the leadership. The systemic crisis won't hit before the spring of 2006, and probably not until the fall of that year. Existing "reserves of stability," including the public's optimism and confidence in the state, will hold out until then. Russian society, therefore, has 18 months to figure out its next move.

If we can find the strength to prepare ourselves properly, we can achieve political modernization, building a state that will answer to the people. In so doing, we would lay the groundwork for economic modernization, enabling us to rebuild the country, to normalize the conditions in which we live and to bring about the renewal of Russia as a country that inspires in its citizens pride and faith rather than sorrow and shame.

This may just be our last chance to revive Russia. If we don't make the most of it, the agony afflicting our homeland now will end in decline and death.

But will we seize this last opportunity? Do we have a future? There's no easy answer to these questions because they have been posed by history itself, and history consists of individual, separate actions. We can only reply to this challenge with our own actions, our own lives.

If in the next few years we hand the country over once again to indoctrinated half-wits, cunning thieves and crooks posing as patriots, we won't have a country left to rebuild. We will become miserable hangers-on not only in the fashionable countries of the world, but also among the ruins of the one country which, until recently, we called home.

Today, Russia is not merely staring at the television set, or looking to the president who still enjoys the respect of many, or even ogling at the senselessly aggressive and self-satisfied oligarchy of the siloviki. Russia is staring death in the face. We might not survive Putin's presidency, just as the hundreds of thousands who died in the civil war in Tajikistan and in all of the undeclared wars across the former Soviet Union did not survive the collapse of Soviet power. Not to mention that we could lose our homes to war, crime, poverty and hopelessness, just as tens of millions of our fellow citizens have before. We could face hunger and despair.

The threat of Russia's demise is not a metaphor, a scare tactic or mere hysteria. This is simply the situation in which we find ourselves.

We could turn a blind eye and buy ourselves a few months or even years of peace and quiet, but this would only increase the destructive power of the coming systemic crisis and the likelihood of our demise. Trying to postpone disaster is rational in a way because it provides immediate gratification and puts off the pain. But this is a destructive sort of rationality.

If we want to preserve our nation and our country, and if we want to provide a future for ourselves and our children, we have to understand that the next 18 months are critical. By the fall of 2006, everything will have been decided, for better or for worse.

We find ourselves in a state of historical indeterminacy. Before we can be anything, we must become it. Before we can have anything, we must go out and take it. If we want to have rights, even the right to our own lives, we must be prepared to defend our rights against aggressors and rivals.

The relatively civilized interval, the taste of stability that followed the upheavals of the early 1990s, is coming to a close. History is once more forcing its way into our everyday lives. Once more, we must stand up and defend our right to a homeland.

I say all of this in hopes of increasing our chances of victory -- or in other words, of survival and modernization. I am staying in Russia to fight this fight because I believe that we will prevail. There will indeed be life after Putin.

Mikhail Delyagin is head of the Institute for Globalization Studies. He contributed this essay, which was adapted from his new book on the future of Russia, to The Moscow Times.