Putin's Problems Are Real — And It's Not Just Navalny

Russia may not be heading toward a full-blown revolution, at least not yet. But the current wave of protests shouldn't be dismissed either.

Police at Jan. 23 protest in Moscow in support of Alexei Navalny
Dominique Moisi


PARIS — This Time Is Different was the title of a book devoted to the financial and economic crisis of 2007-2008. Could the same be said about the current situation in Russia? Depends on who you ask.

On one extreme are those who say that the anti-Putin and Navalny liberation demonstrations are much ado about nothing, and that recent "filmed evidence" of the regime's corruption is neither a surprise nor shocking for the increasingly cynical Russian population, which accepts that to be in power is to get rich, and the more absolute the power, the greater the enrichment.

According to this interpretation, people see Putin as guaranteeing stability, and dismiss Navalny as just an "agent of the foreigner." If Lukashenko was able to stay in power in Belarus, it is obvious that Putin will do the same in Russia.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who see the current wave of demonstrations — in more than 110 cities, from Moscow to Vladivostok — as marking the first real cracking of power. They believe that these particular protests are the beginning of the end for Putin.

That may be taking things too far, at least for now. But there is a new political reality taking shape in Russia, one that is due to the meeting of three factors: Navalny's personality, President Joe Biden's election in the United States, and COVID-19.

The erosion of power applies to tyrannical regimes as well as to democratic systems.

For the first time, the opposition to Putin is embodied in a man who has demonstrated his courage, and whom the regime — his assassination attempt is proof of this — takes seriously. Navalny is taller, younger and more attractive and charismatic than Putin. By keeping him in prison, the regime risks making Navalny a contemporary version of Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist, human rights activist and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Incidentally, I was present in Moscow at Sakharov's funeral, in December 1989, during a period that would prove to be the regime's twilight.

New scenario

Navalny's emergence isn't, in other words, good news for Moscow. Neither is the election of Joe Biden, who unlike his predecessor, takes human rights and democracy seriously, putting Putin's Russia (and Xi Jinping's China) on the defensive.

While Navalny makes Putin appear "older," Biden makes him appear more caricatured, if not "old-fashioned" in his management of power. Washington in Biden's day is undoubtedly a more reliable and responsible partner for signing arms control treaties. But it is also a more formidable opponent because it is more professional and respectable.

Navlany appearing in court in Moscow on Feb. 5 — Photo: Babushkinsky District Court/TASS/ZUMA

Finally, there is the coronavirus. Periods of pandemic accentuate inequalities and make injustices less bearable. At a time when the poorest are the most affected, the spectacle of wealth spread out in all its excessiveness feeds anger that can lead to revolt.

The video about "Putin's Palace" on the Black Sea has gone viral, with more than 100 million views. It is clear that in legal and juridical terms, the property does not belong to the master of all Russia. There is also little doubt that it was built for his sole use. A masterpiece of immoderation and bad taste, "Putin's Palace" makes Trump's property in Mar-a-Lago, Florida look like a modest fisherman's hut!

True, Putin's Russia in 2021 is not the France of July 1789 or July 1830. Nor is it the Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. And yet, the Russian regime is facing a real threat for the first time in just over 20 years. The erosion of power applies to tyrannical regimes as well as to democratic systems.

Faced with a complex and fluctuating situation, Europe and the United States must define a common position vis-à-vis Moscow. In doing so, they need to be careful not to reinforce the perception in Russia that Navalny is only the agent of the foreigner. The regime in power has become a master in its use of the nationalist card to hide, again and again, its mistakes and abuses. But an even bigger mistake would be to simply ignore the situation, to pretend that nothing is happening, or dismiss it as Russian internal affairs that are better left untouched.

Old habits

Putin now intends to impress the new American president and European leaders by the spectacle of his diplomatic goodwill on almost all subjects. This is after he intensified provocations against the United States and Europe and attempted to expose the obsolescence of democratic systems, all when he felt in a position of strength.

A wind of revolution rose this morning.

Part and parcel with Putin's overtures is an implicit warning: It would be a pity if you missed such an opportunity for rapprochement and agreements by worrying about the fate of Navalny and democracy in Russia. True to the Soviet practice of yesterday, Putin feels that he can do everything to intervene in our electoral processes, but that any outside interference in his country is unacceptable.

The reality, though, is that the "abracadabrantesque" corruption that drives and defines his regime aren't just a problem for Russia, but for the world as a whole, especially for all those who, in one way or another, act not just for personal interest but in accordance with values.

"A wind of revolution rose this morning. It growls, it rumbles against Mazarin," 17th century French poet Paul Scarron wrote about the civil riots against Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV's first minister of state. In Russia, too, "A wind of revolution has risen." The protests aren't, at this point, a revolution, but they can lead to one, especially when feelings of injustice and anger eventually prevail over fear.

*Dominique Moisi is a regular columnist for Les Echos and special advisor to the Institut Montaigne.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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