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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Confusing Control for Stability

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Russia has been flexing its muscles lately, and the adjective "resurgent" is now nearly always attached to its name. President Vladimir Putin has also been pulling off one political surprise after another. But just how strong and stable does Russia appear on closer inspection?

Many Russians would like to see Putin stay on in power in one capacity or another. They would have no great objection to Putin simply flouting the Constitution or using a two-thirds majority in the State Duma to amend it. If Putin is to become prime minister, structural changes will also have to be made in the government since all the important "power ministries" report to the president. But this desire for continuity at any price conceals a deep fear of instability.

There have simply been too many changes in too short a time for anyone to feel solid ground under their feet. One day there's a Soviet Union, the next it's gone. One day Boris Yeltsin is on a tank in front of the parliament building defending freedom, the next day he's having his tanks shell the parliament. One day the ruble is strong, the next it's worthless, and then it's strong again. One day Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the richest man in the country, the next day he's a pauper in prison.

The Kremlin confuses control for stability. The media, the opposition parties and the judiciary are all viewed as potential sources of instability instead of means for reconciling conflicting interests. The post-Soviet leadership still subscribes to the position of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who said, "The disadvantage of free elections is that you can never be sure who is going to win them."

The current dispensation, however, seems to suit the people. The experiment with democracy in the '90s only justified suspicions that the result would be license and larceny, not freedom and fairness. The current dispensation involves control of the media (with a little breathing space left so that the intelligentsia doesn't suffocate), intimidation via selective punishment (Khodorkovsky) and unsolved murders (Anna Politkovskaya), combined with real social freedoms -- of religion, travel and business. But its stability is based on one man and a set of factors, all of which can change.

The price of oil has almost quadrupled since Putin came to power. The government has been smart enough to put $130 billion aside in a stabilization fund in the event of a steep and sudden drop in the price of oil. That's unlikely, but a world recession, an environmental calamity or some technological breakthrough could catch everyone by surprise. The real problem is that the nation's economy -- like its political system -- is not being allowed to diversify enough. State monopolies lose all the advantages that competition confers. Even in a world of high gas and oil prices, Moscow may start having problems delivering the goods because it has impeded foreign investment and has not been motivated to develop new fields.

Polling in Russia is fairly reliable, but it is difficult to gauge public sentiment in a society where there is little advantage to public dissent. There are indications that the great and glaring disparity of wealth is beginning to produce a backlash of resentment and class antagonism. Others are voting against Russian life with their untimely deaths, destabilizing the relationship between the birth and death rate. The nation's population decreases by about 750,0000 people every year.

Most of the leading Chechen rebels have been either killed off or bought off, but the Chechens have been resisting Moscow for two centuries and there is no reason to assume the struggle has ended. The lesson future Chechen rebels may have learned from the latest failed uprising is to let go of the mountain-warrior myth and use some of the terrorist tactics developed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Oil may fall and the people may rise -- nobody knows. That's what makes Russia a land of danger and surprise.

Richard Lourie is the author of "Sakharov: A Biography" and "A Hatred for Tulips."