Trying to assess what the “central planners” in Russia are thinking these days is a treacherous endeavor. Analytical minded outsiders may think Putin’s inner circle is busy formulating plans to address the prolonged economic strain that is plaguing the Russian economy. Or, perhaps, Russians are busy figuring out how to replenish their dwindling reserves so that the country can continue to pay out salaries and pensions. Or maybe, they are busy meticulously calculating the opportune moment to pull out of Syria.
Interestingly, there is a significant chance the Russian leadership is not spending most of their planning hours regarding the concerns stated above. They are more likely than not busy analyzing when and how Vladimir Putin is going to decide to run for yet another bid for the Russian Presidency. If he indeed decides to do so, that will be his fourth.
In a country where almost everything is owned and managed by the Government which in turn is essentially run by the office of the President, the outcome of the next Presidential campaign is going to be both about survival and maintenance of the status quo.
What the inner circle of Putin ultimately decides to do regarding his fourth time presidential bid will come with both unintended casualties and unexpected beneficiaries. That is why everybody in Moscow is actively searching for clues.
Kremlinology : The art of figuring out what Russia’s going to do next
During the Soviet era, Moscow watchers from the West developed a special branch of political knowledge, appropriately dubbed Kremlinology. Given the closed nature of the former Soviet power, the only few available channels to decipher important clues regarding what was about to happen inside Kremlin included official press photos, speeches delivered at party meetings by key officials, and of course, hearsay from people assumed to be connected to the upper echelon of the Soviet machinery.
After the fall of the Soviets, during the early days of the fragile Russian democracy, oblique practices of understanding Russian realities like Kremlinology was initially thought to be a thing of the past. But with President Putin’s opaque ways of running his country, “happy days” of Kremlinology are back again.
The Russians are more likely than not busy analyzing when and how Vladimir Putin is going to decide to run for yet another bid for the Russian Presidency. If he indeed decides to do so, that will be his fourth.
However, nowadays the best of the Kremlinologists are not found in the Western capitals, but in Moscow.
The locals have recently seen the rise of new star Kremlinologist named Valery Solovei. He is a professor and chair of Public Relations Studies Department at the prestigious MGIMO University in Moscow, which is a diplomatic college run by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Its alums includes Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and, more importantly, Chief of the Kremlin staff Anton Vaino. Despite a semi-official nature of his job, Mr. Solovei freely discusses publicly what he thinks about Putin’s next moves. He turned out to be correct in predicting some of the recent shuffles inside Kremlin. The Professor’s name means “a nightingale” in English.
What the Kremlinologists thinking about 2017?
Professor Solovei, the nightingale, asserts that Kremlin is now contemplating to move the presidential elections one year ahead, from the scheduled 2018 to 2017. “It seems nearly certain that elections will be moved”, said Professor Solovei.
Russian political tradition has always followed expediency rather than Constitution. Appropriations for such an election have already been included in the federal budget for 2017, although, this appropriation does not automatically mean a 2017 election.
The main reason behind this strategy, explains Mr. Solovei, is a visibly deteriorating economic situation causing growing restlessness among the Russians. Opinion polls show Putin is still fairly popular, but his approval ratings have gone down from their 2015 levels : 74% in 2016 vs. 80% in 2015. The approval rating of the Russian government is down to 26% from 46% and the rating of the Duma went down to 22% in 2016 from 40% in 2015.
Labor unrest have also doubled due to delays in wages during the third quarter of 2016 compared with the second quarter of this year. Economy is believed to continue its current trajectory for another six months, after which it may face strong headwinds. Although global oil prices have stabilized with moderate price increases lately, it is the Western sanctions and lack of investments that constrain the prospects for a healthy recovery in the Russian economy. That is why holding the Presidential election sooner rather than later makes more sense for the inner circle of Putin.
Sensing vulnerabilities in Europe and America, it is not unimaginable that Putin may have decided to go ahead extending little bit of help to further the Western vulnerabilities, especially when the payouts may be outsized relative to the costs and risks involved.
However, the biggest question about the next election remains unresolved, and that is whether Putin himself will contest that election as a presidential candidate for the fourth term. Contrary to general belief, Mr. Solovei confidently predicts that Putin may opt for finding a successor to whom he will give the key to his Kremlin office.
The decision moment, as Mr. Solovei asserts, is sometime after US Presidential elections on November 8. He is hinting that Putin wants first to see who wins the White House and then make his own decision on “if” and “when” to launch his own bid for the next term.
Russia’s unusual moves regarding the U.S. election
Moscow is closely following the US elections. Never before has it believed that it could or should try to influence Presidential campaign there. Since at least the 1970’s, Moscow has even lost interest to forecast a winner of the American election process, and found it better to just wait it out, and send a polite telegram with pleasantries and congratulations. However, the 2016 U.S. election turned out to be different.
Putin probably sensed that the times have changed not only in Europe (e.g., Brexit), but also in America in such a way that unscrupulous self-styled politicians can take on any established political order. Sensing vulnerabilities in Europe and America, it is not unimaginable that Putin may have decided to go ahead extending little bit of help to further the Western vulnerabilities, especially when the payouts may be outsized relative to the costs and risks involved.
The official line has always been that Kremlin never gets involved into electoral campaigns in foreign countries. However, Putin did not hesitate to send out enough signals about his preferred candidate in the U.S. election. For example, he used a few opportunities to casually bless Donald Trump by calling him “a bright person”.
Kremlin’s preferences are best reflected by official Russian media which for the past months have been promoting Donald Trump while demeaning Hillary Clinton. One of Putin’s loyalists in Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, known for his political instincts, has gone as far as to publicly urge the Americans to vote for Trump or face the prospect of a nuclear war.
Definitely Trump’s pleasantries and overtures towards Putin have raised strong expectations in Moscow that with his ascendancy to the U.S. Presidency, the Russian wheel of fortune may move for the better. The key idea here is that with Washington-Moscow co-operation, Russia will usher in a new world order never seen before. That’s why hacking and leaking DNC e-mails was worth a try.
One must not forget, Kremlin is known to follow its time tested tactic: if you don’t meet resistance, continue testing the limits.
However, as Clinton’s victory is becoming more likely, newer challenges for Kremlin will re-emerge on the horizon. November will come to Russia with many dimensions, some of which may not be what Kremlin hoped for.