Last week’s Duma elections have identified several weaknesses in Russia’s political system that cannot easily be solved. The current political order will probably survive the protests over the blatant electoral fraud, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is likely to return to the presidency next year. But the Putin system that has defined Russian politics for the past decade is unlikely to last beyond the next decade, since its vulnerabilities cannot be addressed by the modest reforms that the leading members of the regime are willing to tolerate. To truly modernize, Russia must overcome Putinism, develop stronger political parties, achieve greater political freedoms and mobilize the Russian people around a positive and progressive agenda.
Putinism’s ruling ideology of “sovereign democracy” stresses the need for Russia to ward off external predation and hostile foreign influence, under the assumption that Russians will prioritize economic growth and political stability over political freedoms. That creates an inherent tension, for although Russia’s political leadership promotes economic growth, it does so to generate the rents needed for political manipulation, while eschewing economic reforms that, though necessary for modernization, could threaten their political dominance.
As a result, although economic factors have not played a major role in the recent protests, they underline the regime’s vulnerability. The economy has not grown in the past three years, and reformers stress the need to diversify the Russian economy beyond natural resources and to pursue innovation and modernization. Many Russian as well as foreign experts call for radical economic -- if not political -- reforms that would break Russia’s dependence on energy exports as the foundation of its economy.