The Limits of Putin’s Leadership


Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is set to assume Russia’s top office once again following his resounding victory in the March 4 presidential election. Russia watcher Hakamada Shigeki offers his forecast for the political climate in the country and for Japan-Russia relations under the new Putin regime.

In May 2012, Vladimir Putin will once again take power as president of the Russian Federation, after winning 64% of the vote in the March 4 election. What can we expect from Russian politics and Japan-Russia relations under Putin’s third term in office?

Putin’s Heady Comeback

Late last year the Kremlin was struggling to pacify critics of Prime Minister Putin in the wake of the December legislative elections. Amid widespread domestic and foreign accusations of election fraud, anti-Putin demonstrations broke out in cities all over Russia. In fact, Putin’s popularity had been declining since the autumn of 2010. Still, the government deftly averted a “color revolution,” and by late February Putin was back in the saddle, his election victory assured. How did he manage to reverse his slide, and what does his comeback signify for the future?

First, Putin’s ongoing popularity stems from the strength of the Russian economy, a result of climbing global energy prices. For the average Russian, Putin remains a symbol of Russia’s economic development and stability in recent years. Second, the December protests produced a backlash among the general public, leading to an overall increase in Putin’s approval rating. The average Russian citizen was taken aback by these demonstrations, and when presented by the government with a choice between stability and a return to the chaos of the 1990s, opted for stability over reform. Third, in the weeks leading up to the election, the Kremlin mobilized central and local officials and media outlets to create a powerful vote-getting machine. Meanwhile, it had been wooing voters with a raft of government handouts. Indeed, the September 2011 resignation of Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin, who had managed Russian government finances so ably for over a decade, stemmed from his disagreement with Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev over the fiscal wisdom of such populism. Fourth, by engaging in heated anti-American, anti-European rhetoric over the issues of NATO expansion, the NATO missile defense system, and Western intervention in the Arab Spring, Putin was able to fan the embers of Russian big-power nationalism and so boost his voter appeal.

Reality Check

But will this recent surge in popular support translate into a strong and stable Putin regime in the coming years?

As I see it, Putin faces far more serious challenges to stability in his third term than he did in the previous two. Frustration among the Russian people continues to mount over a bloated, unresponsive bureaucracy and endemic corruption among government officials. Most Russians trust neither the government nor their individual leaders and politicians, and therefore prefer to focus their energy on their own private lives.

Putin is by no means exempt from this disenchantment, as suggested by the decline in his approval rating beginning in the autumn of 2010. To be sure, he subsequently staged a comeback of sorts, relying on the four factors discussed above. But these are not factors on which Putin can continue to rely in the coming years.

First, given the Russian economy’s dependence on resource exports and the lackluster state of the global economy, the outlook for rapid domestic growth in the coming years is virtually nil. Second, the fear of a return to the “humiliating” chaos of 1990s is becoming less potent as the memory of those years fades. Third, the popular policies adopted without regard to the state of government finances are clearly not sustainable. And fourth, in the long run good relations with Europe and the United States are essential to Russia’s continued economic development. Indeed, now that the presidential election is over, Moscow is already showing signs of modifying its hard line on Iran and other flashpoints.

Campaign season is over, and Putin’s popularity is almost certain to plummet as everyday reality sets in. Although his government will doubtless continue its authoritarian policies, Putin lacks the wherewithal to be either a reformer or a dictator.

Of course, Putin’s political sense of balance has allowed him to maintain his hold on power this long, and it seems likely that his experience and savvy will enable him to avoid any upheaval over the next six years as well. But the frustration of the populace is sure to intensify during that time.

Forecast for Japan-Russia Relations

Let us turn now to the outlook for Japan-Russia relations under the new Putin regime.

Given the sluggish European economy and the EU’s efforts to diversify its natural gas imports, Russia can expect little progress from the European Union in terms of trade and investment. This is why Putin has been eyeing East Asia with such keen interest. Yet when he visited Beijing in October last year, hoping to close a deal to supply natural gas to China, negotiations broke down over price issues. Moscow is increasingly dissatisfied with this trade relationship, in which Russia merely supplies resources while importing Chinese manufactured goods. It is also wary of China’s growing economic influence over Siberia and the Far East, as well as growing numbers of Chinese migrants.

This explains why Putin has been pushing economic cooperation with Japan. He reasons that Japanese demand for natural gas is sure to rise in the wake of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, and he sees Japan as a vital source of the industrial know-how and technology needed to reduce the Russian economy’s dependence on resource exports—a key component of Russia’s national strategy.

In the context of these high hopes for economic cooperation with Japan, Tokyo’s refusal to abandon its claim to the Northern Territories—the four disputed islands north of Hokkaidō—is a major headache for Putin. Uncharacteristically, the prime minister raised the Northern Territories question himself at a Moscow press conference for foreign media on the eve of the March presidential election. Addressing the Asahi Shimbun senior correspondent and sprinkling his remarks with jūdō terms like hajime (start) and hikiwake (tie), he hinted at a willingness to sit down with the Japanese and hammer out a compromise.

These comments triggered a burst of optimistic speculation by the Japanese media—particularly the Asahi Shimbun—that the Northern Territories issue might finally be resolved after years of Russian intransigence. Further analysis yielded a more sober conclusion: Putin was not abandoning Moscow’s long-standing refusal to negotiate the issue but urging Tokyo to get past the problem so that the two countries could do business together. No doubt bilateral economic ties will develop somewhat in the years ahead. But genuine normalization of Japan-Russia relations hinges on a resolution of the territorial issue, and that is unlikely to happen while Putin is president.

(Originally written in Japanese on March 26, 2012.)

Russia natural gas Asahi Shimbun Northern Territories presidential election Vladimir Putin resource exports Japan-Russia relations normalized relations Alexei Kudrin