There is no need to discuss whether Vladimir Putin personally gave the order to kill Boris Nemtsov, or whether it was given by someone else in the Kremlin - either to make the boss happy or, conversely, to put yet another stain on his long-besmirched reputation. Or whether Nemtsov was shot by some "patriotic" right-wing ghoul, acting on his own. As deputy head of the Kremlin administration Vyacheslav Volodin declared last October, speaking at the Valdai discussion forum in Sochi: "Russia will endure only if Putin does."
In other words, Putin bears direct personal responsibility for the murder -just as he does for thewhole criminal enterprise known as Putinism.
Volodin’s statement goes far beyond the typical fawning of a Russian official. It not only describes the current situation in Russia, but adumbrates what will likely happen there in the relatively near future - as well as how it will happen.
We live in an age of ungovernability. The traditional way of life based on the family and the clan is breaking down and falling apart, religious foundations are threatened and ubiquitous information technologies bring the world close together and introduce new, unfamiliar ideas to previously insulated cultures. Radical change is taking place in the economy, too: on the one hand, the global economic system creates unprecedented quantities of material goods, while on the other it makes large numbers of people around the world redundant, especially young people who, ironically, got much better education than their parents.
Western industrial democracies are able to deal with these challenges relatively well. They have solid and well-developed social and political institutions, while their liberal democracy helps diffuse potential social conflicts. The same is true of many of the rapidly developing Asian countries along the Pacific Rim. But in the Middle East and Africa the issue of ungovernability has emerged as a major problem. Where the post-colonial dictatorships totter, social fabric is ripped and societies collapse into a senseless sectarian or ethnic struggle.
Oil autocracies seem particularly vulnerable to such scenarios. Thanks to the oil boom of the past 15 years, those countries have seen substantial improvements in their standard of living and education, but at the same time, they have become stratified and divided into the newly rich and the still-poor. They got greater access to material goods and became plugged in into the global information network, but, on the other hand, their redundancy problem has been exacerbated: with oil prices above $100 per barrel, it makes economic sense for them to export that barrel and import $100 worth of goods and services instead of using it to produce at home. As a result, many people in those countries, especially the younger generation, end up at loose ends, without a meaningful purpose in life.
We have already seen ungovernability sweep through Iraq and Libya, while Nigeria, Bahrain and Venezuela are starting to fall apart as well. Iran and even Saudi Arabia are in danger of following down the same path at a later date.
Over the past decade and a half, Russia has become a typical oil autocracy. It has graft and corruption that would put even Nigeria to shame; it is ruled by a strongman in the mold of Saddam Hussein, Hugo Chavez and Muammar Gaddafi; and it is experiencing the growth of Russian Orthodox religious fundamentalism in the manner of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But, as everybody knows, Russia has unique history which is is doomed to keep endlessly repeating. And, if history indeed rhymes, whoever came up with rhymes for Russian history definitely had a twisted sense of humor. Here's one example: The Time of Troubles in Russia came about after a devastating famine in the early years of the 17th century, when a sudden cooling of the climate led to crop failure in 1601-03. Geologists say that cold spell around the world, which was particularly damaging to Northern regions such as Russia, was in turn caused by the powerful eruption in 1600 of a Peruvian volcano known as Huaynaputina (which could be read in Russia as an obscenity meaning, in so many words, “let Putin go to hell”).
But of course the main reason for the Time of Troubles was the disastrous reign of Ivan the Terrible. Tsar Ivan died in 1584, but not before he plunging Russia into a protracted, fruitless military conflict - the Livonian War - which inflicted severe economic hardship on the country. He ruined the economy still further by harebrained measures and by razing to the ground the country’s most prosperous industrial and commercial center, Novgorod. Finally, he created Oprichnina which destroyed Muscovy’s moral, economic and legal foundations.
While not following in Ivan’s footsteps directly, Putin has achieved many of the same results. The parallels are obvious: a nasty military conflict is already under way, and fighting Ukraine is likely to be extremely costly and totally fruitless. Even a complete victory - the chances of which are probably no greater than 5 percent - won’t make Russia stronger or more prosperous, but will perpetual a drain on Russian lives and treasure. Meanwhile, the country is rapidly becoming impoverished thanks to the enormous costs of the war as well as international sanctions. Moreover, sanctions aside, the kleptocracy that Putin created is plundering the country and imposing unsustainable burdens on domestic producers, while starving the economy of investments and innovation. While Russia has become completely dependent on imports, its hard currency earnings have been hit by falling oil prices and shrinking markets for its natural gas.
And then there are the moral, legal and institutional implications of Putin’s rule. Sure, it is only the latest milestone in the history of Putin's rule. There have been many others: the Chechen war, the sinking of the Kursk submarine, the hostages at Nord-Ost, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the death of kids in Beslan, the murders of Anna Politkovskaya, Galyna Starovoytova, Sergei Magnitsky and Alexander Litvinenko, the downing of the Malaysian airliner and so on. On this list Nemtsov murder is not even the most outrageous or brazen crime.
And yet, Nemtsov’s assassination is somehow different. Nemtsov was an extraordinary figure. A former deputy prime minister and a one-time heir apparent to Boris Yeltsin, he voluntarily left the corrupt Russian establishment and became a determined and consistent critic of Putinism. His murder brought together all the divergent strains of Russian life: kleptocracy and corruption, cynicism and immorality, human rights abuses and lawlessness, war-mongering and propaganda lies. And, on a personal level, the death of a man who in so many ways -his brilliant science education, masculine good looks, courage, honesty and openness- was Putin’s exact opposite casts a harsh, unflattering light on the ruler of the Kremlin.
This tragic event may well mark the start of what Russian criminals call “bezpredel”, and, more broadly, the onset of new Time of Troubles. Such high-profile murders shock even more stable societies. In the United States, a series of political assassinations in the 1960s - seemingly random and unrelated, but with a strong hint of right-wing involvement - led to many years of social turmoil which ended only in the early 1980s.
Sooner or later Putin will go away - one way or another. Even Ivan the Terrible, the longest ruling Russian czar, died after five decades on the throne. Some kind of an interim period might follow, comparable to the brief and unhappy reign of Ivan’s son Fyodor, but, in any case, once Putin is gone real, large-scale Troubles are likely to ensue.
As Putin’s sycophant said, there will be no Russia without Putin.
How will the Troubles play out in Russia against the background of a more general governability problem which is especially prevalent in oil autocracies? Not very well, I fear. Local strongmen, regional officials and all kinds of thugs and toughs who are quietly ruling their local fiefdoms with the connivance of central authorities, will be forced to take the reins in their own hands if the center starts falling into anarchy.
The idea that Putin's Russia will collapse and break up is not new and many analysts have been debating it over the past year. True, Russia has always been one state, but the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated that Russia is no different from the world’s other continental empire, which ceased to exist in modern times. The same is true of the Russian Federation: it is too big, too thinly populated and lacks strong economic and social links among regions and between the regions and the center. On the contrary, more than a few regions have close links to foreign countries along their borders.
In other words, neither economically nor politically, the regions really need Moscow and will grab the first opportunity to split away from it.
The world is full of different countries which have distinct national identities but speak the same language - English, French, Arabic, Chinese or Turkic languages. If Russia is destined to collapse, the historical analogy may be the vast American possessions of the Spanish Crown. They too were large half-empty territories which promptly turned unruly once the Spanish king was overthrown by Napoleon’s troops early in the 19th century.
In Latin America, local elites began to consolidate power, provoking a series of civil conflicts which escalated into armed skirmishes between emerging Spanish-speaking states. Eventually - but not until the 1840s and 1850s, and in some cases even later -new nation-states were carved out of Spanish America.
In the post-Soviet area, Putin himself helped construct a model for the collapse of Russia. In Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, behind the backs of Russian fighters and regular military personnel, local separatist thugs have been busy setting up the infrastructure of their own independent statelets.
So it won’t be a great surprise if in another 15 years or so, what is now the Russian Federation will give way to a great variety of People’s Republics, such as Rostov People’s Republic, Ekaterinburg People’s Republic, Vladivostok People’s Republic and so on...
Alexei Bayeris a New York-based economist and writer. His detective novel, Murder Behind Closed Doors, set in the U.S.S.R. in the 1960s, is due to appear in May.