Assessment of change in authoritarian political systems is notoriously problematic. A serious political crisis has been looming in Russia for a long while, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict precisely the final shape or timing of the crisis. Lilia Shevtsova, a well-known political researcher, summarises the current situation in her recent article at the American Interest as follows:

We can only be sure that a new Russian landscape is emerging that demands patient observation. The Russian system could still propose imitation solutions that would allow it to drift further in an unknown direction. At the same time, it is pregnant with conflicts that could blow it apart. The lull is deceptive. Russians will have to start thinking about existential questions before the new apocalypse comes.

In fact, researchers are quite unanimous that the prolongation of the COVID-19 epidemic poses a serious challenge to Russia’s current political system. The significant weakening of economic growth together with the fact that the political decision-making system based on President Putin’s authority has proven vacuous, or at least rickety, constitute a “perfect storm” that may undermine the very foundations of the system. The probability of rapid change is reduced – at least in the short term – by the lack of a clear contender for the current system. On the other hand, the idea cannot be completely excluded that the political elite will lose control of the situation and, as a result, the country will end up in chaos.

However, so far, the COVID-19 crisis has not changed the operating logic of Russia’s political system. On this basis, it can be assumed that the Kremlin will primarily seek to ensure the loyalty of the actors essential to its own position. The legitimacy of the current system can also be strengthened by means of a threat discourse, where different groups are set against each other, eliminating the possible fomentation of any coherent resistance movement that would call the Kremlin’s actions into question or set itself as an alternative to the Kremlin’s power. The fight against the coronavirus may temporarily unite the Russians, but will it be possible to return to the “besieged fortress” if the strength of the citadel has proved to be a pipe dream?

To carry out a more detailed analysis, a combination of different types of data and information is required. Further studies should also define more precisely the relative analytical importance between the key uncertainties (the possibility of mass repressions, Putin’s and the political elite’s public image management, the resilience of the administrative system). In addition, the developments at the interface between new technologies (AI and big-data) and the political discourse should be scrutinized. Will technology experiments carried out during the epidemic become part of the everyday life? It can be assumed that the political leadership’s need to control social media discourse will increase further. How will this be implemented and what kind of resistance will it provoke? The possible escalation of regional disparities should also be closely monitored. The research analysis that has now been carried out lays the foundation for research into these broad themes.

The original study by Katri Pynnöniemi and Outi Helin has been published in Finnish at the working papers series of the National Defence University of Finland.

Here’s a link to the original report: https://www.doria.fi/handle/10024/177546

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