As part of a new series Birkbeck Politic’s own Ed Bacon has a new book on Russian Politics-see here

Is there more to Russian politics than Putin?

Inside Russian Politics is an intelligent, critical and engaging account of the realities of contemporary Russian politics.  It is distinctive in widening our view of Russia beyond the standard account of global power plays and resurgent authoritarian menace. Putin matters, but he is not Russia. Russian military adventurism has had a major effect on contemporary international affairs, but assessing its aims and projecting future intentions and impacts requires analysis within a context deeper than the stock ‘Cold War renewed’ story.

The holistic approach of this book facilitates our understanding of power politics in and beyond the Kremlin and of Russian policy on the international stage. Revealing the Russia beyond Moscow and the central figures around Putin, Edwin Bacon focuses on Russia’s political present, not to ignore the past but to move beyond cliché and misleading historical analogy to reveal the contemporary – and future – concerns of Russia’s current generation of politicians.

Find out more about Ed’s work on Russia here.


Edwin Bacon

Last week I had the privilege of talking to Birkbeck’s new undergraduate politics students. These guys are serious about politics. Serious enough to take on debt, move house, give up their evenings, and so on, to study politics. Serious enough to know what’s going on in the world. When I asked how many of them knew that there had been a parliamentary election in Russia a week or so ago, I would say that about a quarter raised their hands. When I asked how many of them knew who had won the election, more than half raised their hands. So, if even people who didn’t know there was an election, knew that Putin’s party had won it, what was the point of Russia’s parliamentary election?

Russia’s Electoral System

The Duma (lower house of parliament) has 450 seats. For this election, 225 deputies were  chosen under a party list system, with all parties getting over 5% of the nationwide party list vote receiving a corresponding proportion of the 225 seats. The other 225 seats were allocated in constituencies, under a first-past-the-post system. There is no connection between votes cast for the party list and votes cast for the constituency candidates.

Fourteen parties took part in the elections. The four listed in Table One gained sufficient votes to share 448 of the seats. The other two were won in constituencies by a couple of minor parties (‘Motherland’ and ‘Civic Platform’). For details of all the parties and the electoral process, see this pre-election briefing from the European Parliament.

Table One. Results of Russia’s Duma Election, 18 September 2016 (showing only those parties passing the 5% threshold for seats under the proportional representation half of the ballot).

Party PR share % PR seats Single Seats Total Seats % Total Seats
United Russia 54 140 203 343 76
CPRF 13 35 7 42 9
LDPR 13 34 5 39 9
A Just Russia 6 16 7 23 5

The unchanging state of Russia’s elections

Adam Przeworski wrote in 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed, that ‘democracy is a system in which parties lose elections’. That’s a pretty good definition.

A couple of years after the Soviet collapse, I was an official election observer at Russia’s first post-Soviet general election. I was in the city of Kursk, in the bitter December cold, with a British MP. We were miffed to discover that we’d scarcely had time to file our report before the leader of the UK observer mission announced the elections ‘free and fair’. It was always clear that the findings of that observer mission would be positive, as there was widespread enthusiasm for the notion that Russia had joined the democratic camp of countries.

The surprise ‘winner’ in terms of the party-list popular vote in 1993 was the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his so-called ‘Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’  – though the presidential constitution and the mixed ‘party-list and constistuencies’ electoral system meant that he won only notoriety, not power, and his party came second behind the pro-presidential party in terms of numbers of seats. In third place came the Communist Party, just a few seats behind Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party. The Communist leader was Gennady Zyuganov.

What have these reminiscences of 1993 got to do with the Duma elections of 2016?

Simply this. If you had told me then that 23 years later the president’s party of power would still be coming first in elections with the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party finishing almost neck and neck in second and third place, I would have concluded that Russian democracy had spent nearly a quarter of a century becoming moribund.

If you had further told me that 23 years later the seemingly ageless Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov would still be leading their parties, I might have concluded that Russian democracy was not moribund, but dead.

Would I have been right?

There certainly is a sense in which little changes in the Duma elections.  In last month’s elections, the president’s party – United Russia – won. Just as in the previous two elections (2007 and 2011), only the same four parties gained any real presence in the parliament (United Russia, the Communist Party, the misnamed right-wing nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and the regime-friendly left-ish party ‘A Just Russia’). As usual, Chechnya voted 96% for the president’s party. As usual, United Russia drew up a list of candidates headed by ‘big names’ who had no intention of taking up their seats.

The ever-changing Russian electoral system

But let’s not say that nothing changes.  After all, Russia’s elections are in constant flux. Every election brings multiple rule-changes, new procedures, new refinements to make things run better. Or at least to makes things run in a regime-friendly way.

The term of office for the deputies elected in 1993 was two years. After that elections went to a four year cycle, the same as the presidential term. Until 2011 when parliamentary elections changed to every five years, and the presidential term to six years. So 2016’s parliamentary plebiscite was Russia’s first ‘mid-term’ election, with the next presidential vote due in 2018. Though the discrepancy in term lengths means that mid-terms will not continue to be the norm, as in another 20 years both presidential and parliamentary elections will take place together – if we make the unlikely assumption that the electoral rules will not be changed again in the meantime.

What else changed this time round? For the first time in the post-Soviet era, the elections were not held on a Sunday in December, but on a Sunday in September. Low turn-out has already led to the suggestion that next time round, parliament will be elected in April, on a weekday.

As for the electoral system itself, between 1993 and 2003 the 450 seats in the Duma were filled by a half single-mandate, half proportional combination. That changed in 2007 and 2011 to an entirely proportional, party-list vote in order ‘to strengthen Russia’s party system’, since independents won more than 100 seats in 2003.

Now, having established a stable group of ‘parliamentary parties’, the electoral system has reverted back to the previous 50:50 mix. This has had beneficial results for the ruling regime. United Russia won 60% of its seats from the single-mandate constituencies.

The revival of single-mandate constituencies also gives structure to the ruling ‘power vertical’, that is, the connections by which the Kremlin sees its authority carried across Russia’s vast territory.  None of the opposition parties has a concentration of support anywhere, as the few constituencies that they won are spread out. For example, there is one seat each in Moscow and St Petersburg for both the Communists and ‘A Just Russia’. The degree of local control in particular regions can also be seen by the clustering of continuing deputies. There are no new United Russia deputies at all in Tatarstan’s constituencies, ditto in Tversk, and almost all deputies in the Voronezh region remained in place.

Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC) made mention of Voronezh when she talked about several examples of electoral malpractice that came to light. It is possible to spend a fascinating half hour or so watching such examples on Youtube, thanks to Russia’s practice of having live webcams in all polling booths and using transparent plastic ballot boxes. It is less possible, however, to be sure of the extent to which electoral fraud shaped the final results. Pamfilova bemoans the fact that the CEC headquarters cannot remove CEC regional heads, as this is in the remit of the governors.

 What do the numbers tell us?

Apart from the results themselves, the two stand-out numbers from the Duma election relate to turnout and turnover.

  • The 48% turnout represents the lowest in post-Soviet Russia’s national elections. Turnout was especially low in big cities, notably Moscow and St Petersburg. Such low turnout reflects well a lacklustre campaign, where few people doubted the identity of the eventual winners. If the result is so predictable, then why bother voting?
  • A remarkable 49% of the deputies elected to Russia’s Duma on 18 September are new to parliament. For half of all members of parliament to be new to the role means that there are plenty of fresh faces coming into Russian politics. The figure is higher still if we consider only the president’s party, United Russia, which has 204 new deputies, 60% of its cohort.

A notable trend in Russian politics over the past few months has been the renewal of the presidential cadre, with some well-known, long-standing associaties of President Putin moved out of their positions. In their place come younger people, who are more clearly protégées, rather then colleagues. Previous practice shows that the parliament serves as a talent pool for the president’s team. Even though far from all of the new United Russia deputies are young – their average age is 51 – there are still more than 80 new deputies in their 30s and 40s. These represent the coming generation of Russian politicians.

 So why bother?

Let us return to the question with which we started. If the campaign is lacklustre, the turnout low, and the result entirely predictable, what is the point of Russia’s parliamentary election?

First, from the point of view of the regime, elections serve as a legimating mechanism. I mean here legitimation in the political science sense, rather than in the vernacular sense that implies approving of the electoral process and its results as legitimate. All regimes, of whatever stripe, employ some mode of legitimation – be that popular vote, ideological justification, or ‘social contract’ based on the provision of economic goods or national security. Those who govern Russia have chosen democracy as their legitimation. Russia has a democratic constitution, and its rulers are scrupulous about sticking to its fundamental provisions, holding elections accordingly, and ensuring that these elections are multi-party in nature. One can criticise the way in which elections are managed in order to protect those in power – the regular rule changes, the blind eye turned to electoral manipulation, the media bias, the various forms of political control, the judicial means employed to restrict candidates, and so on – but from the regime’s point of view it is essential for reasons of legitimacy that elections are seen to be held. It is just that, contravening Adam Przeworski’s definition of democracy, United Russia does not lose elections.

If the purpose of the elections for the regime is clear, why do opposition parties play along? Surely they could threaten that unless the electoral playing field is levelled, they will refuse to play their part in legimating the ruling regime? Although such action is sometimes threatened when the regime is deemed to have committed particularly egregious electoral violations , the opposition parties do take part.

For those parties that get into parliament, there are obvious material rewards for the deputies and a comparatively exalted position within national political life for the parties themselves. But these parties, although capable of sharp criticism of the Putin regime at times, tend to work with it in parliament.  A revealing meeting of party leaders with President Putin, shortly after the election results were announced, had all present agreeing on the need for stability. Stability? What sort of opposition wants so little to change?

Zyuganov, the Communist leader, complained about there being too many parties in the election, and then lobbied Putin for positions for some of his party colleagues who failed to get elected. Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia asked that the chairmanship of a key parliamentary committee be given to someone from his party. That he was asking the president for something that is theoretically in the gift of the parliament is indicative of the control of the executive over the legislature, and the position of the regime in relation to the parliamentary opposition.

If the advantages of the elections for the regime and the parliamentary opposition are clear, what on earth is in it for those smaller parties that don’t even get into parliament, such as the liberal opposition parties Yabloko and PARNAS? Analysts of Russian affairs often argue that one of the main reasons for the non-systemic liberal opposition not making a breakthrough is their inability to unite their efforts. They bicker amongst themselves, taking votes from one another rather than from their ideological opponents. To make such a criticism is to misunderstand why these parties enter the elections. They’re not stupid. They don’t take part to win, because they know that they won’t. Their aims are different.

First, taking part in the elections gives them a voice. During an election campaign, these parties get air-time, criticise the ruling party, and can try to get their voices across – albeit that the rather lively TV debates can be so cacophonous as to drown out much of what is said.

Second, campaigning serves as a training ground for aspirant political figures dissatisfied with how Russia is ruled.

Third, and most significant, they take part in order to stay in the game. The legitimating mechanism of the Russian political system is democracy. At some point in the future – who knows when? – there will be a state of flux and the question of who next rules Russia will become urgent. The constitution and established political practice are clear, the people’s vote decides who rules. In some future time of change, the democratic institutional structure that is Russia’s political system will stop being more form than substance.

Those who remember the Soviet collapse recall the way in which de jure institutions and institutional rules quickly became de facto, and mattered enormously in enabling that process and shaping its progress. It is to prepare for such a day that parties take part now in elections that the ruling party does not lose.

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle flies over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. This F-15 was a part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Released)

While the West is critical of Russian airstrikes for hitting moderate Syrian opposition groups, both have resolved to take action against ISIL. But doing so now, when the war has come to be defined as Sunni versus Alawi – and other minorities – will only feed Sunni resentment and bolster the popularity of ISIL. What neither side will countenance is the only feasible option: dividing the country into separate ethno-sectarian cantons. Continue reading

A special piece of analysis from Birkbeck Politics Department’s Russia expert Edwin Bacon

Perspectives for Russia’s Future: The Case for Narrative Analysis

Image by Y Nakanishi

This article is an excerpt from E-IR’s Edited Collection, Ukraine and Russia.
View all of E-IR’s Publications 

Any observer looking at Russian politics at the end of 2014 cannot fail to be struck by the magnitude of change over the course of that year. 2014 saw Russia expand its territory by the absorption of Crimea, taking to itself the land of a neighbouring state against the wishes of that state’s government. It saw Russians fighting in a conflict against the Ukrainian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine. It saw Russia’s relatively stable, albeit fractious, relationship with the western powers dramatically worsen, with sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on many of those close to President Putin. It saw economic decline, as the rouble and oil prices fell dramatically and official Russian forecasts posited recession in 2015.

Few, if any, analysts predicted these developments. A year earlier, in December 2013, the headlines from Russia were different. An official amnesty in December 2013 mandated the release of the highest profile prisoners in Russia – oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina – all of whom had been the subjects of sustained campaigns for their freedom in the West. A few months earlier, in September 2013, leading opposition figure Aleksei Navalny performed strongly in Moscow’s mayoral election, as other opposition candidates across the country gained a handful of seats and mayoralities, including that of Russia’s fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg. Even in early 2014, Russia’s global image was burnished by a successful Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

The ominous turn of events in 2014 reveals the complexities of forecasting Russia’s path of development. A tendency to polarisation and preconception can lead to insufficient attention to nuance and competing voices within Russia. My recent research has focused on two particular approaches to assessing political developments within Russia, namely, political narratives and political forecasting (Bacon, 2012a; Bacon, 2012b). This article sets out how narrative analysis helps us to discern Russia’s key interests from the perspective of the ruling regime, and then draws on these findings to consider the complexities of scenario building as Russia moves into the second half of this century’s second decade.

The Russian Narrative

In terms of public political narratives, at the methodological centre of narrative analysis lies the normative assertion that in order to better understand a political system, we should take seriously – and therefore pay close attention to – the stories that its political actors tell about themselves and their system. This is not a Russo-specific assertion. To understand the United States, we need to be cognisant of narratives representing the US as the leader of the free world and promoter of democracy. To understand the EU, we must acknowledge its developing story of ever-closer union. These narratives are repeated, believed, and enacted. They highlight factors that matter within a political system. They reveal self-conceptualisations that play into policy development. US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the ubiquity of systemic narratives after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in March 2014, noting that they ‘talked for a good six hours and … really dug into all of Russia’s perceptions, their narrative, our narrative, our perceptions, and the differences between us’ (Kerry, 2014).

To assert that narratives matter and that we should take seriously what political actors say about themselves and their systems is not of course to accept the content of these narratives as true and right. Public political narratives are artificial constructs, making selective use of different elements to create a desirable account. In analysis of public political narratives, these elements – or ‘narrative parts’ – are identified and interrogated. Choices made in terms of inclusions and omissions serve to reveal the central concerns of political actor-narrators. The narrative parts include temporalities and agents, symbols and motifs, plots and sub-plots. Analysis of narrative parts highlights the choices made in terms of when stories begin and end, who are the heroes and villains, what are the most significant themes, and how the story might develop. Applying the narrative analysis approach to Russia’s stance on Ukraine in 2014 facilitates clarification of those elements which particularly motivate Russian action. I have developed such an analysis in detail elsewhere (Bacon, 2015), and summarise it here before turning to the application of that analysis in developing future scenarios.

Official Russia has built a narrative around events in Ukraine, which, in terms of temporalities, looks back further than the narrative of the Putin regime has habitually done. This is not just a matter of the narrative’s unexpected emphasis on the pre-modern period – as exemplified by President Putin’s dwelling on the 10th century baptism of Grand Prince Vladimir in his annual address to parliament in December 2014 (Putin, 2014c) – but of the temporal pivot around which Russia’s national narrative now revolves, namely the end of the Cold War. For most of the Putin era (from 2000 onwards), his regime defined itself and its actions as post-Yeltsin, with the turn of the millennium being the decisive moment. The symbols of the Putin narrative (for example, the introduction of the National Unity Day holiday, and the establishment of the United Russia party) developed the story of President Putin bringing unity and stability to a country riven with political, socio-economic and ethno-national fissures during the ‘time of troubles’ of the 1990s. From early in Putin’s third term, and particularly in 2014, the narrative’s temporality has decisively shifted. The key moment now is the Soviet collapse, after which – so Russia’s narrative now relentlessly reminds us – Russia ‘found itself in such a difficult situation that realistically it was simply incapable of protecting its interests’. But today, that narrative asserts, the time has come ‘to refute the rhetoric of the Cold War’ since a strong and independent Russia with national interests which demand respect is back on the scene (Putin, 2014a). In 2014 this insistence on respect for national interests was, according to President Putin, a key factor which led to the absorption of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian Federation.

Analysing narrative parts facilitates our awareness of where the Kremlin believes the events of 2014 in Ukraine stem from in temporal terms. The narrative analysis approach also enhances awareness of whom Russia perceives as ally or opponent. In the story told by President Putin – most notably in his speech on the acceptance of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Federation in March 2014 – two particular nuances stand out. First, the view widely held in the West of Russia and Ukraine as enemies does not match that held by Vladimir Putin. In his narrative, the ‘fraternal Ukrainian people’ are part of the ‘we’ on whose behalf Russia is standing against potential western encroachment. Second, there remains a small degree of ambiguity in the way the West, and particularly the United States, is portrayed in the Putin narrative. Although the Russian narrative repeatedly portrays ‘the United States or its allies’ as the villains of the piece who use any excuse to contain Russia (Putin, 2014c), Russia’s president also insists on using the words ‘partners’ and ‘friends’ in relation to them, as exemplified both in the Crimea Speech of March 2014 and in his address to parliament in December 2014. When questioned as to his use of the phrase ‘our American friends’ in a television interview in November 2014, President Putin responded ‘of course, they are all our friends’ (Putin, 2014b).

The ambiguity in Putin’s references to Western friends and partners reflects the important final aspect of narrative analysis in relation to Russia and Ukraine which this short article covers, that is, the existence of plot and sub-plot. It is perhaps beyond cliché to note the historical ambiguity and conflict within Russia in terms of relations with the West and whether Russia’s path is as a unique civilisational exemplum or, as Putin himself once put it, part of the ‘mainstream of civilisation’ (Putin, 1999). The contemporary version of this debate spans questions of democratic development versus increased authoritarianism, and decisions over whether Russia’s path in terms of economic, security, and diplomatic priorities should be predominantly internationalist or nationalist, European or Eurasian, ideological or interest-based. Narrative analysis distinguishes between plots and sub-plots in political narratives, with the latter providing flexibility and alternative policy options. The sub-plot within a political narrative does not represent an opposing view, since the narrative of opposition forces differs from that of the ruling regime, but rather a sub-plot presents another course of action within the overarching story. For most of the Putin years, since 2000, the regime’s narrative plot has – whatever its relationship to reality – posited Russia as a reliable international partner, modernising and democratising in peaceable and non-ideological pragmatism within the framework of international law. The alternative path of nationalism, military power, and Great Power hegemony existed only as a sub-plot, to be hinted at as a potential turn to be taken, but for the most part serving as background. Events in Ukraine in 2014 saw the sub-plot become the main plot in Russia’s political narrative. The pronouncements of Russia’s political élite have followed this new line with ubiquitous ease and notable rapidity, as talk of historical vocation, military glory, and western malfeasance dominate where more sober, restrained, and diplomatic language had previously been the norm.

The changing influence of think tanks close to the regime illustrates well this shift. During the Medvedev presidency (2008-2012) the think tank closest to the regime was the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), whose board of trustees is chaired by Medvedev and whose reports habitually sought to push policy in a more liberal and reformist direction. In the autumn of 2012, apparently with tacit government encouragement (Khamraev, Savenko et al., 2012), a new ultra-conservative think tank, the Izborskii Club, was formed, bringing together the leading names in anti-western and Eurasianist thinking, such as Aleksandr Dugin, Aleksandr Prokhanov, and President Putin’s advisor on Eurasian integration, Sergei Glazyev. Their early reports seemed somewhat fantastical and detached from the real world, being replete with vague notions of Orthodox ‘spirituality’, militarism, and nostalgia for a non-existent Red-White amalgam of the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia (Delyagin, Glazyev et al., 2012; Izborskii Club, 2012; Dugin, 2013). As noted in this article’s opening paragraph, the changes, which 2014 wrought in official Russia’s narrative, are such that these ideas now appear close to the official line. When the United States imposed its first round of sanctions on named Russian individuals, Sergei Glazyev was on its list. If INSOR seeks to push Russia in a more reformist direction, the Izborskii Club pushes for further steps along a reactionary path. The extent to which the discourse of official Russia has travelled along this path may perhaps be judged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reported assertion that President Putin has ‘lost contact with reality’ and is ‘living in another world’ (Baker, 2014). The world of Russian ultra-conservatism is a far cry from the norms of western diplomatic engagement.

Analysing the development of Russia’s political narrative in 2014 brings to light the central concerns of the Putin regime in relation to events in Ukraine, revealing a nationalist revanchism which draws on notions of Russian power and destiny and sees the West as an undesirable and hostile other. At the same time, however, the notion of sub-plot has significance as it keeps alive alternative approaches. President Putin still insists on referring to Western partners and American friends. Prime Minister Medvedev remains chair of the INSOR board of trustees. The current sub-plot of international law and Russia as a state willing ‘to have as many equal partners as possible, both in the West and in the East’ (Putin, 2014c) remains in play as a potential future scenario, albeit one that seems unlikely to come to the fore again in the short term.

Building Future Scenarios

When it comes to developing future scenarios for Russia following on from the tumultuous events of 2014, the place of narrative is pertinent. Since the end of the Cold War the dominant methodology employed by analysts and academics seeking to anticipate potential futures for states and regions has been the scenario approach. The scenario methodology identifies key drivers and elaborates their effect in a series of divergent scenarios, for example, best case, worst case, and continuity (Bacon, 2012c). Narratives play a central role in scenario development, as they are used to draw disparate drivers into a coherent and feasible story of the future. In the case of Russia’s post-2014 future, there has – at the time of writing – been no systematic scenario development process conducted and published in the light of the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. On the Russian side, the Kremlin’s narrative has been notably lacking in terms of future vision. Whereas the political narrative of Putin and Medvedev in previous years presented a clear picture of a modern, law-based, and more democratic Russia to come at some undefined yet not too distant future point, in 2014 there was little focus on future vision. On the Western side, in contrast, there has been no shortage of forecasts, though these have tended to come from media and policy analysts, rather than academics, and have correspondingly lacked something in terms of methodological rigour.

The most common western forecast at the end of 2014 is that, faced with declining oil prices, a collapsing rouble, and western sanctions, Russia’s economic difficulties will worsen to such an extent that political pressure on President Putin will see him removed from office (Bacon, 2014). The political scientist stands no more equipped than any knowledgeable Russia-watcher when it comes to certainty over whether such a scenario will come to pass or not. That said, the study of forecasting does provide the tools for a short and concluding critical analysis of this scenario based around two common hazards of forecasting, namely, the temptation to shape forecasts around the forecaster’s own preferences and prejudices, and the danger of positing an outcome without a preceding process.

In a paper at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Convention 2014, David Fogleson analysed portrayals of and predictions about the Putin regime in the New York Times. He noted the preponderance of negative articles about Russia in the past decade and drew particular attention to the persistent image of Russia as ‘an unstable nation headed for a popular revolt against the Putin regime’ (Fogleson, 2014). Critically analysing the repeated appearance of this forecast since 2005, Fogleson concludes that, given Putin’s survival in power, the ‘correspondents would be disappointed. But disappointments have not led The Times’ editors to rein in prophets of Putin’s demise in the last year … One could go on citing examples of how wishful thinking on The Times’ editorial pages ran counter to the rising Russian patriotic support for Putin, whose approval rating climbed to over 80% according to public opinion surveys’ (Fogleson, 2014). Shearer and Stark go so far as to argue that the ‘predilection among reporters for looking at events through the prism of their own expectations and beliefs’ is ‘especially noticeable among Moscow correspondents’ (Shearer and Starr, 1996, p.37).

The phenomenon of wishful forecasting has a strong tradition in relation to Russia. Although it is widely accepted that remarkably few analysts in the 1980s predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union (Seliktar, 2004), such was not the case almost two decades before the Soviet collapse when Dziewanowski was able to assert that ‘predicting the downfall of the Soviet regime has been a favourite academic pastime in the West for well over half a century. Probably no other regime has ever survived so many prophecies of inevitable catastrophe’ (Dziewanowski, 1972, p.367). Dziewanowski’s prophets were in the end correct, since the Soviet Union collapsed, but few would see the repeated and temporally inaccurate prediction of that collapse as effective scenario development.

The same might be said about constant assertions of the coming collapse of the Putin regime. The notion that such a collapse might come about through economic pressure appears at first glance to provide a certain explanatory rigour to the scenario. However, what is lacking here is process. The jump is made from the likely behaviour of a key driver – Russia’s economy – to a single political outcome. More rigorous scenario development would explore a range of potential political responses to economic decline, from regime collapse to regime strengthening enhanced by factors such as anti-western feeling or a more authoritarian turn by a defensive élite. Furthermore, the need for process to proceed outcome in scenario development insists too on providing an account of how Putin’s removal from power might come about. Absent revolution, there are a limited number of ways in which a Russian president can leave office, and those who assert Putin’s coming downfall need to consider the process by which economic difficulty might lead to a change of the entrenched political leader or regime, particularly given that that there are numerous examples of severe economic problems in Russia without such a change. As I have noted elsewhere (Bacon, 2014), the scenario of authoritarian stability and global power alongside economic decline and consumer dissatisfaction ought at least to be considered, given that it kept the Brezhnev regime in power for decades. After all, the purpose of scenario development is not to predict, but to anticipate possible futures.


Bacon, E. (2012a) ‘Public Political Narratives: Developing a Neglected Source through the Exploratory Case of Russia in the Putin-Medvedev Era,’ Political Studies, 60(4), pp. 768-786.

Bacon, E. (2012b) ‘Writing Russia’s Future: Paradigms, Drivers, and Scenarios,’ Europe Asia Studies, 64(7), pp. 1165-1189.

Bacon, E. (2012c) ‘Comparing Political Futures: The Rise and Use of Scenarios in Future-Oriented Analysis,’ Contemporary Politics, 18(3), pp. 270–285.

Bacon, E. (2014) ‘Russia’s Ominous 2014, and What Comes Next,’ 10 Gower Street: The Birkbeck Politics Department Blog. Available at: (Accessed 17 December 2014).

Bacon, E. (2015 forthcoming) ‘Putin’s Crimea Speech, 18th March 2014,’ Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, 1(1).

Baker, P. (2014) ‘Pressure Rising as Obama Works to Rein In Russia,’ New York Times, 3 March.

Delyagin, M., Glaz’ev S., et al. (2012) ‘Strategiya ‘Bol’shogo ryvka,’ Izborskii klub: russkie strategii, 1(1), pp. 46-73.

Dugin, A. (2013) ‘Aleksandr Dugin: Russkii otvet na vyzov zapada,’ Izborskii klub: russkie strategii, 1(1), pp. 74-79.

Dziewanowski, M. K. (1972) ‘Death of the Soviet Regime: A Study in American Sovietology by a Historian,’ Studies in Soviet Thought, 12(4), pp. 367-379.

Fogleson, D. (2014) ‘Dark Pictures are Easy to Paint: Journalists and American Images of post-Soviet Russia in Historical Perspective,’ Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Convention, San Antonio, Texas.

Izborskii Club (2012) ‘Rozhdenie Izborskogo Kluba,’ Izborskii klub: russkie strategii, 1(1), pp. 2-11.

Kerry, J. (2014) ‘Remarks by Secretary Kerry: March 2014,’ Available at: (Accessed 17 December 2014).

Khamraev, V., Savenko A., et al. (10 September 2012) ‘Antivaldai’skaia vozvyshennost,’ Kommersant.

Putin, V. (1999) ‘Rossiya na rubezhe tysyacheletiy (Russia at the turn of the millennium),’ Nezavisimaya gazeta, 30 December.

Putin, V. (2014a) ‘Obrashchenie prezidenta Rossiiskoi Federatsii,’ Rossiiskaya gazeta, 19 March.

Putin, V. (2014b). ‘Intervyu informatsionnomu agentstvu TASS,’ Available at: (Accessed 17 December 2014).

Putin, V. (2014c) ‘Poslanie Prezidenta Federal’nomu Sobraniyu,’ Available at: (Accessed 17 December 2014).

Seliktar, O. (2004) Politics, paradigms, and intelligence failures : why so few predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe.

Shearer, E. and Starr, F. (1996) ‘Through a Prism Darkly,’ American Journalism Review, 18(7), pp. 36-40

I have spent a good deal of time recently writing the third edition of my textbook Contemporary Russia. The temptation with a second, third, (presumably fourth or even – heaven forfend – fifth) edition is to simply update rather than re-write. Succumbing to that temptation would not only short-change the reader a little, but it wouldn’t do justice to the subject. Continue reading