Cassandra Who Cried Wolf, Or The Ungrateful Business Of Predicting Russia’s Future

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

In May 2001, the Atlantic magazine went to print featuring an article soberly titled “Russia is finished.”  Summarizing his experience in living in Russia since 1993, the article’s author, Jeffrey Tayler, predicted that “[g]iven the logic and propensities of Russian history, there appears to be no end in sight to the country’s decay.”  And also: “Putin’s plans to strengthen the state…, if carried out, would amount to a national death sentence.”

There appears to be something special about Russia: tireless Cassandras of all shapes and shades are endlessly churning up gloomy, sometimes almost apocalyptic, predictions about Russia’s future.  Often, the next forecast would blatantly contradict the previous, but their originators don’t seem to care.  Thus, a prominent expert in Russian economy predicted in January 2005 that “Putin will be out of office in the near future.”  Yet in the fall of 2007, the same expert opined that the Russian president will remain in power indefinitely by "possibly following declaration of a national military emergency."  Go figure.

Combing through the Russia media coverage in 2001, it becomes clear that predicting the country’s future was as popular then as it is today.  Looking back on the prognoses of that time with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, does it seem that the gleeful prognosticators of the day shared a crystal ball with the Prophet of Troy or had more in common with the proverbial boy who cried wolf?

In August 2001, Russia’s current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – the most frequent target of all predictions – was in the 20th month of his presidency; the current President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, served as deputy chief-of-staff of the Putin administration.  In 2001, Russia’s GDP reached $307 billion ($1.3 trillion projected for 2011) and hard-currency reserves stood at $35 billion (currently at $500 billion plus).  The BBC was about to launch the quiz show “The Weakest Link” on Russian TV, and the much despised United Russia party – can you believe this? – didn’t even exist. 

What was in the news?  At the beginning of the month, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il traveled across Russia in an armored train (sounds familiar, does it not?).  On Aug. 12, the country commemorated the first anniversary of the Kursk nuclear submarine tragic accident.  The 10th anniversary of the failed 1991 coup dominated the media coverage in the second half of the month.  Also in the news were intense U.S.-Russian consultations: Washington was trying to persuade Moscow to acquiesce to U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  The American side insisted, as it does today, that the United States needed a protection from missile attacks launched by the rogue states such as North Korea and Iraq (these days, Iran replaced Iraq).  In an Aug. 14 interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Alexei Arbatov (at thet time Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma) argued that the U.S. would only withdraw from the treaty when it started to actually deploy elements of a missile defense system, and this “will not happen for several years.”  Arbatov was wrong: the U.S. withdrew from the treaty in June 2002.

On Aug. 9, Russian prosecutors issued bribery charges against Ukrainian “opposition figure” Yulia Timoshenko who at the time already faced corruption charges back at home (sounds familiar, does it not?).  And in a bout of moral clarity, the New Your Times called (now jailed) oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky “…a man who…orchestrated a series of flagrant corporate abuses of minority shareholders unparalleled in the short history of modern Russian capitalism, setting…a benchmark for unacceptable behavior.”

And then, of course, there were predictions.  On Aug. 14, Sovetskaya Rossia published a letter signed by 43 prominent Russians public figures.  Titled “Stop the lethal reforms!” the letter called on President Putin and Russian security services to stop the “criminal reforms” conducted by “the amateurs [Alexei] Kudrin and [German] Gref ” (back in 2001, ministers of finance and economics and trade, respectively) who were supposedly leading the country to “the irreversible economic and social collapse.”  The inability to do so, warned the authors of the letter, carried the risk of Russia’s territorial disintegration.

To certain extent, such a grave forecast was rooted in a widespread belief that by 2001, Russia had exhausted all growth potential generated by the 1998 economic crisis and that the economy was entering a phase of “depressive stabilization.”  To many, a new economic crisis was “imminent” because of the “imminent” fall in oil prices: from $23 a barrel in 2001 to as low as $15 by 2006 (as predicted by Lehman Brothers).  This prediction didn’t hold true: the oil prices kept rising causing the unprecedented growth of the Russian economy in 1999-2008.

Talks of economic disasters inevitably transformed into predictions of political troubles.  Inostranetz, on Aug. 7, interpreted the election of the Communist candidate Gennady Khodyrev as a governor of Nizhny Novgorod as a sign of “at least a communist renaissance, if not a communist comeback.”  The publication went further arguing that “…the inevitable deterioration in the economic situation is also likely to contribute to strengthening the Communist Party.”  This prediction didn’t materialize: KPRF, the strongest Russian political party in 2001, has been steadily losing public support ever since.

On Aug. 1 and 9, Novaya Gazeta reported (referring to its “sources” in the Kremlin and the FSB) that President Putin was about to shake up his Cabinet and replace Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov with Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak.  Otherwise, according to the newspaper, Putin would be facing a “social upheaval.”  As the matter of fact, Kasyanov was dismissed only in February 2004, whereas Prusak held his governor position until 2007.

Then, Nezavisimaya Gazeta kicked it up a notch: apparently inspired by the 10th anniversary of the 1991 putsch, the newspaper warned that as a result of infightings between Russian political elites, the country was up for a new coup d’état.  Moreover, then-Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov was identified as its possible leader.  Ivanov, however, chose a different career path and is currently serving as deputy prime minister in Putin’s Cabinet.

Although many media outlets supported the point of view that Putin would leave the Kremlin before the end of his first presidential term, it was the weekly Versia that volunteered to identify the name of the next President of Russia: Anatoly Chubais, then the chief of Russia’s United Energy Systems.  Versia argued that by August 2001, Chubais had accumulated enough of the administrative resource — and legislative and media support – to successfully challenge Putin, who, according to the weekly, still had no “team of his own” (sounds familiar, does it not?).  To the weekly's credit, its editors didn’t assume that Chubais would wrest the presidential power from Putin’s hands in a coup d’état.  Instead, Chubais was supposed to win the 2004 presidential election.  Now, we know that while staying active in Russian politics, Chubais never attempted to seek presidency.

Prominent Russian political scientist Alexander Tsipko had better luck predicting Putin’s future.  Writing for the Jamestown Foundation, Tsipko forecast that Putin would remain president for the second term, after which he “will probably relinquish power in exactly the same was as Yeltsin did:” by appointing a “successor.”

Those whose predictions of Russia’s future were not as good as Tsipko’s must not despair.  Russia is often said to be a country with “unpredictable past.”  Predicting its future is even tougher.   

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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10 Responses to Cassandra Who Cried Wolf, Or The Ungrateful Business Of Predicting Russia’s Future

  1. Mark says:

    Some more accurate predictions for Russia will likely come about when political pundits start actually analyzing what is likely to happen based on economic and societal indicators rather than simply giving voice to what they hope and wish will happen. Meanwhile, “Russia is collapsing” has become one of the most yawn-inducing phrases in the English language. Likely, Russia will collapse – someday. But trying to predict that moment based on wishful thinking is a fool’s errand on equal footing with trying to predict burnout of earth’s sun based on how much you wish it would happen and how hot it is this afternoon. Good luck with that.

  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks Mark,
    The only thing I’d like to add is “zakazukha.” I strongly suspect that many “predictions” are/were made because they were ordered/paid by “interested parties.”
    I know that there is a temptation to accuse me in using the 20/20 hindsight for blaming “innocent predictors.” Well, I’m an “innocent predictor” myself: in the past, I made a number of predictions that had not materialized — like the one in September 2008 that Saakashvili “will be gone soon.” I, however, never hesitated to point out my mistakes — and try to explain why they were wrong. In contrast to the “prominent expert on Russian economy” Aslund who piles one nonsense atop of another and never bothers to even blush.

  3. Mark says:

    I’m not tempted to accuse you of anything: I enjoy your analysis, and nobody is always right except those people who say, “yeah, I so knew that was going to happen” after something happens. Predicting the past is pretty easy – predicting the future is a roll of the dice, because so many seemingly-unrelated factors can influence the course of events.
    I thought Saakashvili would have been kicked to the curb by disgusted Georgians by now, too. I’m amazed he has not been, which seems to suggest Georgians’ tolerance for international embarrassment and humiliation is much greater than previously imagined.
    Anders Aslund once said that Russia should be allowed to join the WTO. I was personally flabbergasted, and I imagine Russophobes who have grown to rely on his acerbic put-downs reacted as if he had spat on their child’s birthday cake instead of blowing out the candles. However, that turned out to have been a slip that was not repeated, and he was soon back to peddling his usual brand of crap. Which is a pity, because Russia SHOULD be encouraged to join the WTO, and now it just looks like maybe the heat got to Aslund, or he had a bad reaction from his asshole medication or something.
    Yes, I’m sure some sources bad-mouth Russia nonstop because their paycheck comes from a think-tank that favours that view, but I don’t like to reach for that explanation every time somebody criticizes Russia. That’s because it annoys me whenever someone suggests I am generally in Russia’s corner in its spats with the west because the Kremlin pays me to do it. I wouldn’t take money if it were offered, which it never has been.

  4. Hi,
    Eugene touches on the matter of high profile pundits getting it wrong. Note how a good number of them continue to get relatively good placements over some others who prove more accurate.
    In the Kyiv Post not so long ago, Taras Kuzio confidently said that Adrian Karatnycky has been wrong on a number of issues. Quite ironic when considering Kuzio’s past. Go back to his comments on Ukraine shortly after the so-called Orange Revolution, as well as his claim that Yanukovych wasn’t likely to win the last Ukrainian presidential election. All of this is a matter of record that can be checked up on.
    On the subject of Pridnestrovie (Transnistria and closely related spellings), Ukraine and Russia, some might recall an uncritically referenced claim presented by Paul Goble (that appeared in some establishment venues) about a supposed Russian-Ukrainian agreement to have Pridnestrovie become part of Ukraine. The original source of that claim is said to have come from people associated with Yulia Tymoshenko. At the time of its English language release, there was good reason to doubt the validity of that claim as discussed in these pieces:
    On the matter of Russia ceasing to exist, the Russian national men’s basketball team’s so far undefeated performance at the European men’s basketball championship is one of numerous examples contradicting that view.
    The presence of Russia and some other nations at this tournament serves as one of several reminders that one can be European without being in the European Union.

  5. Eugene says:

    No one in his/her right mind can even suspect that your opinions are somehow influenced by external forces, save for money. (You’re not on the Kremlin’s payroll, you’re on the Kremlin’s stoogeroll:))
    Seriously, I didn’t imply that every negative piece on Russia is immediately paid for in cash. Yet, there is a demand for negative “things” about Russia — be it “analysis” or “predictions.” (Predictions actually work even better because they scare investors.) And where is demand, hey, there is supply.
    p.s. The situation with Saakashvili is actually quite simple. He’s still very popular — for whatever reason — in the countryside, where the majority of Georgians (who, BTW, can’t care less about Georgia’s international reputation) live. It’s the elitist Tbilisians who hates him.

  6. Eugene says:

    Again, I have no problem with people making predictions, proving to be wrong, accepting it, trying to analyze what happened and then moving on. After all, I used to be a scientist, and for me proving myself wrong was part of everyday’s routine.
    I’m talking about people who lie on purpose — either when “analyzing” or “predicting.” Whether this is out of some convictions or a product of “zakazukha” should be decided in each individual case.

  7. Understand and point well taken.
    At the same time and in relation to improving the coverage, I see considerable validity in addressing why some not so accurate sources continuously get promoted over others who’ve been more competent.
    This issues conerns the decesion making of what does and doesn’t get promoted.

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    You’re raising a huge, perennial problem of why mediocrity is often promoted over competence.
    Obviously, out of the scope of this blog:)

  9. Greatly appreciate your input Eugene.
    On that particular I raise, the matter of political/cultural bias and cronyism is a hushed up and ongoing variable.

  10. Attempting to conjecture that instant dependent upon wishful deduction is a bonehead’s errand on equivalent balance with attempting to foresee burnout of earth’s sun dependent upon what amount of you wish it could happen and how smoking it is this PM. Good fortunes with that.

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