How Oil Is Propping Up Putin

The dirty little secret of the Russian leader's success? $116-a-barrel oil

  • Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME; Putin: AFP / Getty Images

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    In the short run, Putin will be able to win the March election and consolidate power through a mixture of repression and patronage. His problems are more long-term. His government has ramped up its revenue to the point that it now needs oil to approach $125 a barrel simply to balance its budget. Russia's demographics are terrible; a population that is aging and shrinking means pension and health care costs will rise dramatically as people retire. Labor productivity in Russia is abysmal, which means new investments and new, non-oil industries are essential to the country's growth. The Caucasus region is almost turning into a separate country, and Russia's ethnic diversity is straining its sense of nationalism.

    All these points are raised frankly and directly by Putin in his essays. But the only way to solve those problems involves dramatic changes in the structure of state power and control.

    Few rulers intentionally commit hara-kiri. In an essay in the recent National Interest, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy point out that Putin has often compared himself to Pyotr Stolypin, the reformist Prime Minister under the last Czar, Nicholas II. It's an intriguing choice. Stolypin, who was viciously attacked during the Soviet era as reactionary and repressive, advocated incremental, evolutionary reforms in the last years of czarist Russia. It's worth noting that Stolypin was sacked and then assassinated, and the regime he tried to keep in power was swept aside by the tides of history. But history may not repeat itself in Russia until oil prices stop levitating.

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