A map of the federal subjects of the Russian Federation (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
On paper, the fifteen union republics of the USSR were equal members of a voluntary union. In reality, however, Russia dominated every aspect of political, economic, social, and cultural life in the country, and it is for this reason that we start our discussion of the former Soviet republics with Russia itself. It was, after all, not a coincidence that the capital of Russia, Moscow, was also the capital of the entire USSR. Today, Russia is the largest country in the world by area, the ninth-largest country in the world by population, and the twelfth-largest country in the world by GDP. Moreover, in recent years, Russia has been constantly featured in Western news media for its apparent meddling in other countries, specifically in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and the US. Suffice it to say that understanding what is going on in the Kremlin is key to understanding international affairs as we know it today.
A Brief History
In December 1991, Boris Yeltsin, a key architect of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, became president of an independent and post-socialist Russia. Leader of Russia from 1991-1999, Yeltsin remains a key figure in the history of post-Soviet Russia, and many of his actions laid the groundwork for politics under current leader Vladimir Putin. Many Russians today refer to Yeltsin’s rule with disdain, referring to it as ‘the wild 1990s.’ Yeltsin, along with his primary economic advisor, Yegor Gaidar, rapidly began privatizing Russian industries and businesses in a scheme known as ‘shock therapy.’ Rather than bringing a Western-style market economy to Russia, however, the reforms led to widespread corruption, crime, political assassinations, and the utter collapse of the economy. GDP fell by 40 percent. Out of the ruins of the ‘shock therapy’ reforms rose an ultra-rich and ultra-successful elite known as the oligarchs, and, today, Russia remains one of the most wealth unequal societies in the world.
Many members of the legislature, meanwhile, were opposed to Yeltsin’s rapid economic reforms, and tensions between Yeltsin and the parliament continued to grow. They came to a head in October 1993, when Yeltsin illegally attempted to dissolve the parliament, setting off a constitutional crisis. Members of the legislature refused to comply with Yeltsin’s order, and, in response, Yeltsin ordered tanks to destroy the White House, Russia’s parliament building. Between 150 and 2000 people were killed in the chaos. In the aftermath of the confrontation, Yeltsin pushed through a new constitution, granting the president wider powers than before and removing checks on his power by the other branches of government.
This new constitution, which remains in force today, largely laid the groundwork for Putin, who took over the presidency from Yeltsin in 1999, to create the strongman presidency that characterizes Russian politics today. Under Putin, Russia has seen three important developments. First, Putin focused on fixing the problems of his predecessor’s economic policies by re-nationalizing key economic sectors, clamping down on corruption, and reigning in the power of the oligarchs. As a result, under Putin, Russia has largely enjoyed stable economic growth, and this stability remains a key factor in his widespread support among Russians today. Second, Putin has sought to take control of Russia’s domestic security situation, brutally invading and subjugating Chechnya, a restive region in the south that declared independence from Russia in the 1990s.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Putin has tried to reassert Russian hegemony on the international stage, both in the other post-Soviet republics, which Russians term the ‘near abroad,’ and in other regions of geopolitical importance, such as the Middle East. This project largely began in 2008, when Russia militarily intervened in Georgia after two of its northern regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, declared independence from Georgia. Although the West condemned Russia’s invasion of Georgia, it was not until 2014 that the West became widely concerned with Russia’s reassertion of its global influence. In that year, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, a primarily Russian-speaking region of Ukraine, and began militarily supporting pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass, a region in eastern Ukraine. Quickly following up on its intervention in Ukraine, Russia then moved to Syria and became a major player in the civil war there, its first military intervention outside of the ‘near abroad’ since the collapse of the USSR.
Where is Russia Heading?
Russia’s next presidential elections will be held in March 2018. Although he has not yet announced his candidacy, Putin is widely expected to both run for and win a fourth term as president. During the months leading up to the election, watch for comments from both Putin himself and other likely candidates, such as Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the far-right LDPR. Also watch for comments and protests from Alexei Navalny, a prominent Putin critic and anti-corruption campaigner. Additionally, if and when Putin wins the elections, watch for further developments with regard to Russia’s reassertion of its power, both in the countries of the ‘near abroad,’ such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and in other regions of the world, including the Middle East, where Russia increasingly sees itself as a powerbroker and regional hegemon.