The World Cup Is Over – What’s Next For Russia?
This was a successful world cup on many fronts. The Russian people showed the world a different side to themselves often overlooked in the media – one that was welcoming, warm and hospitable. It was a world cup where some of the ‘non-traditional’ broke through. It was well organised and greatly received by the fans at home and abroad.
That’s all in the past now. Anyone hoping that Russia and Vladimir Putin would avoid making the headlines for the remainder of 2018 is set to be hugely disappointed. Russia faces some immediate and pressing challenges. These are, quite frankly, akin to walking a tight rope.
The Centenary of the Tsar’s Murder
The reader may have come across the odd opinion piece in the news, but this anniversary is one the government wants to keep low key and at arm’s length.
The Russian Orthodox Church canonised Nicholas II and his family as saints in 2000. In post-Soviet Russia, the church has played a key role for society and the state. On the one hand, it helped rebuild some form of Russian national identity and on the other, it provides the state with spiritual justification.
For Putin, the embodiment of the state comes through a strong and inspirational leader (vozhd’) who represents its continuation and survival, and this includes the USSR. While rebranded, it is essentially the same centralised state, viewed as a historic necessity to hold ‘great Russia’ together.
Putin and the elites have to condemn the murder while not condemning the Soviet state. The anniversary itself has now past, but commemorations continue. There are several competing narratives between different factions in society at odds with each other. Mediating these is no easy task.
Relations with The West
Putin walked away from Helsinki the victor. His American counterpart struggled not just to keep his story straight, but even defend his own national interests. This was after upsetting NATO allies and followed by back peddling statements on North Korea and Syria.
One thing that Trump did get right (at least as far as his own government is concerned) was increasing arms sales to Ukraine: a symbolic, if hollow, gesture that keeps the relationship in a stalemate.
Elsewhere, the Mueller investigation is still ongoing. While the results are a long way off, recent reports from the Senate indicated that Putin personally ordered the election meddling. Meanwhile, the British police confirmed it knows the identity of those behind the Skripal poisoning, and links them to the Russian state. Both are sure to throw a wrench into an already rusty machine.
Whatever the reader’s views, both serve as an unwanted distraction and affect progress on the world’s most urgent issues. Not one of which can be resolved with the co-operation of Russia and the West.
Equally, recent polling shows that opinions of the West inside Russia are not improving. As Kimmage recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, Russians increasingly view the West as hypocritical, condescending, triumphalist and aggressive. With any luck, the World Cup started to change this. It is at the grassroots where the relations will steadily improve through increased cultural exchanges, and these are to be encouraged.
After re-election, Putin promised a greater redistribution of wealth, spending on education, healthcare and the nurturing of technological development. The current economic picture is mixed.
The economy continues to recover despite sanctions, non-tradable sectors especially. However, growth prospects are modest (1.5% – 1.8%). Financially, things are stable; bank interest rates sit at 7.25%, for instance. The Russian stock market has been one of the best performers in the previous year, as well (20%).
On the flip side, the Duma recently raised the retirement age and state pensions remain at unsustainably low levels. The minimum wage was also recently increased, however, much of the population live pay cheque to pay cheque. Housing remains too expensive, and sectors where the economy is performing well (IT and agriculture) have limited long-term prospects.
The lack of genuine reforms since 2008 is starting to be felt. The world cup fever and patriotism surrounding Crimea is practically burnt out. Meanwhile, Putin’s personal popularity is down and the government cannot continue to rely on the economic success of his first presidency.
Modernisation is a term constantly thrown around, but more innovation is needed and entrepreneurship lacking. It’s a time to be cautiously optimistic, but the government would do well to finally diversify its economy, attract investment and improve the social support system. Then again, this is Russia, what else is new?