It Isn’t the Economy, Stupid

Russia’s economic woes have been a new excuse for light-headed speculation on the fall of Putin. The situation certainly looks bleak: oil prices are low, the ruble has nearly halved in value since January, and a recession is imminent. Economists seem ready to start carving Putin’s gravestone—Bloomberg wrote that the foundations of Putin’s regime are giving way, Reuters called the bad economic news “Putin’s death cross,” and Slate had the simply inane headline “Russia is So Screwed.”

Why the irrational enthusiasm? A tanking economy should, the theory goes, enrage Russia’s people and send the oligarchs fleeing, upending Putin’s government. Russians have only tolerated Putin so long as he could guarantee prosperity. However with a looming recession, “Putin’s bubble bursts.”

But this view implies a social contract between ruler and ruled, ignoring Putin’s transformation of Russian politics over the last 15 years. Putin’s loyal media outlets have convinced a solid majority of Russians that the West is responsible for events in Ukraine, making sanctions an easy scapegoat for a recession. Most Russians do not think their government is repressive, and actually want more government intervention in the economy. Such opinions are not fertile ground for a popular revolt against Putin.

Indeed, Russia’s oligarchs are more bound to the regime than economists acknowledge. Putin expelled the feistiest oligarchs in his first term to teach those remaining that if they wanted to keep their money, they had to stay out of politics and stay loyal to Putin. The oligarchs who still remain in Russia lead some of the most profitable industries, like energy, heavy industry, and mining. Many, if not most, of these oligarchs stand much more to lose by leaving than trying to weather the oncoming recession.

None of these observations invalidate predictions of doom for Putin’s government, but rather caution against taking glee at the prospect. Although a failing economy presaged the Soviet Union’s collapse and Boris Yeltsin’s resignation, it was also accompanied by a breakdown in social order. That civil war was avoided on both occasions is almost miraculous. The idea of risking revolution in a nuclear-armed world power should fill observers only with dread.

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