Over the last two decades, Russia has taken on a very important geopolitical and military role globally, but the domestic outlook of the country is not particularly rosy from many points of view: a stagnant economy, a growing disaffection of the middle class especially in major cities, the emigration of a considerable number of highly educated young people, the strong aversion to pension reforms on the part of most of the population, the very poor result obtained by the government party in the last administrative elections despite the exclusion from the electoral lists of many opponents, a long-term demographic decline, and the existence of local realities that are extremely problematic, from the ever-turbulent northern Caucasus to the unresolved issue of the Kuril Islands. And, in the background, the question of president Vladimir Putin's succession: according to the Russian constitution Putin, who has been in power for twenty years, must step down after the end of his current mandate.
Russia needs to tackle these and other internal challenges, which are not easy to resolve, but whose implications for the country's capacity for international projection are obvious. In recent years, Russia has maintained its political unity and has regained its centrality on the international stage – results that are remarkable after the deep crisis of the 1990s. The country’s internal development, however, has not lived up to its international ambitions. In fact, the authoritarian political system that has been built over the twenty years of Putin's rule is consistent with Russian historical tradition, but seems unfit to manage the country's immense resources effectively. Yet authoritarianism in and of itself does not seem to be the main reason for Russia's poor economic growth: even more authoritarian states, such as China, are achieving far better results. The main issue revolves around policy choices that favour the stability of the country at the expense of its social and economic development. To maintain this stability, leadership has been put in the hands of a trusted elite, which however is unable to satisfy Russia’s needs. As Dmitry Trenin observes, “The political regime that replaced the chaos of the 1990s has been unable to mature into a full-fledged state: it predominantly services the needs of a narrow elite, exploiting the country’s resources for their personal and collective aims.” Such a situation is certainly not exclusive to Russia, but it has been particularly exacerbated here.
In today's Russia, political and economic life is determined not so much by the government as by the exponents of the security apparatus behind the president. In the perspective of this elite, any real change in the economic sphere can jeopardise the political balance of the country, and as such, the ruling class’s very existence. The obstacles hindering the country's economic growth are well known: the existence of a powerful class of state capitalists interested in preserving the status quo, the lack of competition between the public and private sectors, the ever-increasing role of the state in the economy, the extreme difficulty in attracting foreign investment – in a nutshell, an asphyxiated economy that fully reflects the dynamics of a rigid (although not yet completely blocked) society. The problem is that the government does not seem willing to seriously address these issues as it is itself an expression of the same environment that creates them.
No signs of change are in sight. The result is a situation that recalls the Brezhnevian era of the USSR, namely stagnation (zastoy). This stagnation evidently widens the gap between the establishment and the most modern part of the population; in particular, contrasts with the urban, young, educated middle class are growing. After having achieved a degree of wellbeing, this middle class now aspires to greater political freedom. However, this feeling is not universally shared, as a significant part of the middle class retains strong links to the state and the institutions that depend more or less directly on it: armed forces, security services, ministries, magistrates, companies in the energy sector and so forth. This sector of the middle class has no real interest in the political and economic liberalisation of the country and has therefore mainly supported the status quo, limiting the growth of the opposition, at least until 2011-2012. Then, on the occasion of Putin's third re-election, a vast protest movement emerged that challenged the neo-conservative discourse pursued by the Kremlin. Today, the stagnation of the country is increasingly perceived, first and foremost by the middle class, including sectors dependent in various ways on the state, whose hopes of economic and social development have been largely unmet. But the population as a whole is becoming increasingly dissatisfied, especially those most affected by the lowering of the living standards in recent years and the pension reform. The awareness that the stability of the country does automatically produce wealth (except for a privileged elite) is growing. The protests in recent months and the outcome of the parliamentary elections seem to show that a much more critical attitude towards the status quo is emerging within Russian society compared to the past. It is not certain whether this sentiment will triumph, but it is likely to consolidate itself if the government does not take concrete measures to improve the situation. However, a quick implementation of these measures seems unlikely because the Russian political system was built to ensure the country’s stability and not its development. As a result, the most one can aspire to is for the system to be rationalised without affecting its overall functioning. As Chris Miller noted, “Economic growth will be capped around 2 percent a year. From Putin’s perspective, economic stagnation is tolerable. He has the tools he needs to stay in power. Big changes in economic policy, by contrast, might anger key support groups and loosen the Kremlin's control over Russian politics”.
This is a highly risky dynamic for Russia. The idea that democracy and economic development are inextricably linked and guarantee long-term political stability is no longer as obvious as it used to be. However, the inability to improve the economy can undoubtedly compromise that stability that seems to be the primary objective of the Russian leadership. And it is unlikely that permanently appealing to patriotism and values will be enough to maintain the status quo. From this point of view, the future of Russia seems to depend much more on its ability to find new instruments to face the problems of economic and social internal development rather than on successes in foreign policy, which appear to be more tactical than strategic anyway.
This also applies to Putin's legacy. During his twenty years in power, Putin has certainly stabilised Russia and brought it back to the fore of the international scene; at the same time, he appears increasingly unable to introduce the internal changes that the country badly needs in order not to be sidelined in the global competition. In recent years, the gap between Russia and the United States and China has widened, which is unacceptable for a country with such human and natural resources. Without breaking this stagnation circle, Russia risks going down a path of substantial decline, which natural resources and foreign policy activism can only attenuate or merely conceal.