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28/06/2020 | Opinion - Why Putinís Bid to Become President for Life Is No Sure Thing

Candace Rondeaux

No amount of polling-day bribery will be able to hide the fact that Putin has failed to insulate Russia from the political and economic catastrophes on the near horizon.


If all goes as planned next week, Vladimir Putin will be on a glide path to serve as Russia’s perpetual president. On July 1, Russia will hold a national referendum on a proposed package of changes to its constitution that many predict will essentially pave the way for Putin to run for office again after his current six-year presidential term expires in 2024.

In theory, the proposed changes—which will, among other things, “reset the clock” on the current constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms—mean Putin could win two more elections and remain in power until 2036. If he does, he would be 84 years old by the time he stepped down and would have outstripped the tenure of the Kremlin’s last iron-fisted leader for life, Joseph Stalin, by about seven years.

In practice, however, there’s no guarantee Putin will be able to last that long politically in the event the vote next week goes his way and he is eventually reelected.

If recent dire predictions about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the future of Russia’s economy and scientific forecasts about rapidly accelerating permafrost melt in the Arctic region are even remotely accurate, Putin and the Russian elites who currently back him might end up having second thoughts about the wisdom of the constitutional amendments. Given how much of Russia’s economy and territory is likely to be literally under water in the coming years due to the COVID-19 crisis and the accelerating climate emergency in the country, it is reasonable to ask whether Putin will still be around or even want the job by then.

It would be hard to overstate just how drastically the pandemic has altered Russia’s economic and social landscapes—and, with them, Putin’s political fortunes. When Russia’s highest court ruled in March that a national referendum on some 200 changes to the country’s constitution could go forward, it was widely assumed that results of the polls would be rigged in Putin’s favor. But widespread skepticism among Russian medical professionals and experts about the accuracy of government statistics on COVID-19 death rates, combined with the April arrest of a doctor who has been critical of the Kremlin’s response to the pandemic, appear to have shaken public confidence. Polls now indicate a substantial drop in Putin’s approval rating in the wake of his government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic.

In an indication of rising anxiety inside the Kremlin, Putin and his elite backers have taken a no-holds-barred approach to shoring up the vote on the referendum next week. Russian voters have reportedly been enticed with prizes and browbeaten by their bosses to vote in favor of the changes, which include a ban on same-sex marriage and an expansion of parliamentary powers.

Rigged or not, however, an affirmative vote in favor of the proposed constitutional changes will do little to forestall the hard choices Putin will be forced to make during his remaining four years in office—and any subsequent terms. As I’ve previously noted, and other analysts have suggested, mounting political problems in Syria and recent battlefield reversals in Libya likely mean that Russia’s costly military adventures abroad may be even less viable financially and politically in the wake of the pandemic. The postponement earlier in June of scheduled talks between Turkey and Russia suggests Putin might be looking to buy time in order to bolster Moscow’s negotiating position. All these signals point toward a Russian military drawdown in the near term, a move that would substantially constrain Moscow’s ability to achieve its long-coveted goal of supplanting American influence in the oil- and gas-rich Middle East.

As things stand, the International Monetary Fund is projecting a 5.5 percent contraction for the Russian economy, and a 6.6 percent decrease in real GDP adjusted for inflation, in the wake of the pandemic. The global recession has also put downward pressure on demand and prices for Russia’s top strategic exports—oil, gas and steel. Meanwhile, independent experts have called out Putin’s government for failing to provide enough financial assistance to ordinary Russians, and are pushing for Moscow to increase cash payments and quadruple the amount of economic support to $136 billion.

Constitutional changes will do even less to mitigate the looming longer-term structural risks posed by the impact of climate change on Russia’s already fragile national infrastructure and on public health more broadly. By 2030, the year when many expect Putin to make one last run for a final six-year term, a sizable portion of Russia’s giant land mass could be engulfed in floods and engorged by mudslides.

Late last year, Russia’s deputy minister for Arctic development estimated that the damage and destruction caused by accelerated permafrost thaw could cost upward of $2.3 billion in economic losses annually. That figure now seems low in light of the roughly $4 billion price tag for the cleanup of a massive 21,000-ton oil spill that occurred in late May, after a fuel tank owned by Russian mining company Norilsk Nickel sank into the Ambarnaya River due to permafrost melt.

Permafrost covers a little more than half of Russia’s territory, and much of the country’s vital oil, gas and mining infrastructure spans the semi-frozen region stretching across Siberia up to the Arctic Circle—all of which is imperiled by climate change. Big companies like Norilsk Nickel have raced to revamp and rebuild existing infrastructure to improve its stability and mitigate risks. But they and Putin’s government may be in an unwinnable race against time. Over the past few years, climate and earth scientists have become increasingly concerned about the number of giant sinkholes opening up across the Siberian Tundra due to methane gas released by the permafrost thaw.

Russia is ranked fourth among global producers of greenhouse gases, and there is little in the politics of Putin’s permanent presidency to suggest that the Russian government will be better-equipped to deal with these challenges after the referendum next week. The reality is that no amount of polling-day bribery or Victory Day parade pomp will be able to hide the fact that Putin’s naked power grab has failed to insulate Russia from the epic political and economic catastrophes on the near horizon.

***Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.

World Politics Review (Argentina)


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