(March 2, 2012) After centuries of serfdom, Putin has delivered prosperity. But, it is also easy to foresee a Russian economic collapse if Putin follows in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors: Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.
On Sunday, Vladimir Putin will be re-elected Russia’s President, likely by a margin so large that he’ll have no need to rig the election. By the end of this next term, which ends in 2016, he will have served more than four terms as either president or prime minister and as Russia’s sole de facto leader of the 21st century. In the unlikely event that he would then choose to retire, he would do so arguably as the country’s greatest leader since the magnificent czars of the 17th century, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.
Putin’s stunning and prolonged popularity, as vouched for in numerous Russian and U.S. public opinion polls, exceeds anything seen in the Western democracies. Aside from a 2011 decline from which he is rebounding, his favourables never fell below 65% and often exceeded 80%, his unfavourables were often in the 20s and even in the teens. Women especially swoon over his macho photo-ops, but they aren’t alone. Putin is popular with most Russian demographics — rich, poor, young, old, Russian, ethnic, as well as male, female — and for good reason. After centuries of serfdom and privation under the czars, after decades of central planning and privation under the Communists, and after a decade of chaos and privation in the 1990s, Putin has delivered stability and prosperity.
By the end of 2006, the midpoint of his reign to date, his reputation was made. Russia’s GDP had almost tripled over the previous four years while its reserves had increased more than six-fold, the ruble was strong, inflation had been halved, the economy was growing at 7%, almost everyone had been made better off. Despite the recent recession which hit Russia’s energy-dependent economy especially hard — GDP plummeted by 8% in 2009 — Russia soon bounced back and it now boasts the world’s third-fastest growing economy. All told, since Putin came to power at the end of 1999, per-capita GDP rose an estimated six-fold, according to the IMF, and real disposable income is at its highest level ever.
That economic record, which including earning Russia elite membership as a G8 country, would be reason enough to re-elect anyone, but Putin has even more going for him: the restoration of Russian pride. After the fall of the Soviet Empire, Russians to their immense shame lost their superpower status as well as many of their satellite states, becoming a demoralized nation that the West could push around at will.
No more. Under Putin, Russia is once again flexing its muscles, hammering secessionist rebellions in Chechnya, invading neighbouring Georgia, putting its former satellite Ukraine in its place, forcing the U.S. to abandon its plans to install missile defences in Poland and Czech Republic, and quashing U.S. plans for Syria through a UN veto and by stationing a Russian aircraft carrier off Syria’s shores. What the West sees as bullying or even “despicable,” to quote Hillary Clinton’s characterization of the Russian UN veto, the Russian public generally sees as admirable and honourable. While the Obama administration is considering dramatic contractions in military spending, including an 80% reduction in its deployed nuclear weapons arsenal, Putin is running for re-election on a promise to bulk up Russia’s military capabilities, including its nuclear weapons.
The upshot? Despite his regime’s less-than-honourable attributes, such as rampant corruption and short life spans for too-curious reporters, Putin is expected to win as much as 66% of the vote in Sunday’s election, some 50 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, at 15%. With the world coming out of recession and needing more of Russia’s oil and gas — these account for nearly two-thirds of Russia’s export revenue, half or more of the government’s budget, and as much as 30% of the country’s GDP — it is easy to foresee continued prosperity in Putin’s fourth term.
It is also easy to foresee a Russian economic collapse thereafter, following a collapse in oil and gas prices.
Until recently, the U.S. was the world’s largest importer of natural gas. It is now becoming a major natural gas exporter, thanks to new gas fracking technology that has unearthed vast new supplies. The U.S. remains the world’s largest importer of oil. It may soon become an exporter of oil, thanks to oil fracking technology that could make the U.S. the world’s largest oil producer.
China, now a major importer of oil and gas, has the world’s second largest known potential for frackable hydrocarbons, which it is now developing. European countries such as Poland, Ukraine and Great Britain also have vast reserves of frackable hydrocarbons, giving Europe as a whole the prospect of self sufficiency in energy, particularly since European countries on the Mediterranean have only begun to exploit the vast deposits of conventional oil and gas that lie beneath the sea bed. These immense new sources of oil and gas would flood international markets and act to depress the revenues that the Russia economy now relies on, as would major new finds of conventional oil and gas in Africa and South America.
Putin’s formula for economic success has been the same as that of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great: import Western technology to develop Russia’s raw resources for export, mostly under the tight rein of Russian state control. Neither of the 18th-century czars nor their successors liberated the Russian economy, leaving it backward and ultimately vulnerable, despite Russia’s immense natural wealth. Putin’s Russia will be doomed to the same fate, if in his remaining terms he follows in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors.
This article first appeared in the Financial Post.