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How Putin’s regime is both authoritarian and incompetent

- March 14, 2018
(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters)

Russians will vote Sunday for president, and Russian authorities have approved eight candidates. They range from a Communist strawberry magnate to a socialite ex-TV host who favors legalizing marijuana.

But no one seems to doubt who will emerge the winner. After 18 years at the helm of Russia’s state — as either president or prime minister — Vladimir Putin looks set to continue steering it into the next six.

How is Russia governed?

So this may be a good moment to take stock of the political order that has evolved under Putin’s rule. Observers disagree about how that order works.

Some see it as a hyper-centralized dictatorship, totalitarian even, in which almost all decisions follow the whims of one man. “No Putin, no Russia,” one of his loyal fixers asserted in 2014. Some analysts seem to concur.

Others see a state characterized by chaos, turf battles and unpredictable changes. Members of Russia’s liberal opposition recoil at portrayals of Putin as a “geopolitical mastermind,” commanding a unified and efficient political machine. The regime they know is riddled with corruption and incompetence.

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Together with a team of Russian experts and younger scholars, I spent the past few years trying to dissect how political decisions are made in Moscow. A book just out summarizes our conclusions.

Between normal chaos and Putin’s manual override

So which is it — a centralized machine carrying out orders of a “new tsar”? Or a hectic arena of conflicts and improvisations? Our answer is that, in a sense, it is both.

Consider an analogy from psychology. Daniel Kahneman, in his bestseller “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” argues that the human mind operates in two modes. “System 1” is the spontaneous processor that subconsciously absorbs information and spits out decisions based on instinct and routine. A realm of “freewheeling impulses and associations,” it “operates automatically and quickly.”

“System 2” is “the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do.” It monitors events and intervenes episodically. “System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.”

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Likewise, one might see Russian governance as comprising two systems. The first — “normal politics” or “autopilot” — operates when Putin does not get involved. Such cases, which include most state activity, feature often-vicious clashes between bureaucratic factions, security agents, business actors, regional elites and powerful individuals.

The second system — “manual control” (in Russian, ruchnoe upravlenie) — kicks in when Putin takes a clear stand. Then orders are indeed dictated from above, although poor preparation, practical difficulties and graft often interfere with implementation.

Both systems involve corruption and power networks, as well as arbitrary and sometimes inhumane methods. Neither is very effective, although both can get results.

Four arenas

“Normal politics” plays out in at least four arenas. In the Duma, actors propose legislation, insert amendments, block and delay bills, and mobilize opposition with targeted leaks to the news media. In the bureaucracy, decisions pass through a tortuous process of “sign-offs” (soglasovania) by multiple principals.

In the media, power-holders float “trial balloons” or plant compromising — and sometimes untrue — stories to discredit rivals. A fourth arena is criminal justice: Political insiders enlist law enforcement allies to detain and prosecute an opposed team’s members.

Although sometimes factions do bargain among themselves, the game is mostly not about negotiation. Normal politics Russian-style is a cutthroat, zero-sum contest, in which no methods are ruled out.

Asking for help can be risky

In extremis, players can invoke System 2 — that is, appeal to Putin to decide the outcome. But that can be risky. Putin may resent the intrusion or insist the parties fight it out themselves, leaving him free to enter at a moment of his choice, on his terms.

One desperate ploy is to appeal to Putin though the press, as his security service associate Viktor Cherkesov did in 2007, amid clashes with another faction. In a newspaper article, Cherkesov berated unnamed colleagues who had become “merchants” rather than “warriors.” But such gambits have never worked. In Cherkesov’s case, Putin rebuked those who aired the regime’s dirty laundry and demoted his old friend.

“Manual control” is sometimes needed to unblock lower-level deadlocks. When it works, the country’s leader looks vital and in charge. During the global financial crisis, television showed Putin bullying industrialists to reopen shuttered plants and scolding retailers about the price of sausages.

But when Putin’s intervention fails — which is surprisingly often —  his image can erode. That may explain why he often rejects requests to take a clear position, instead vaguely authorizing others to try something out. He may also favor an element of social Darwinism, as officials and entrepreneurs compete among themselves.

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Putin often seems frustrated when decisions he has publicly backed aren’t implemented. In May 2012, he signed ambitious decrees setting targets for Russia’s development — only to spend subsequent years berating officials about slow progress on them. “Are you going to get to work or not?” he exploded at one meeting of ministers and governors in July 2013, sounding more peevish than dictatorial. “What is going on?”

This frustration may be why in the past few years Putin has been meeting his government less often and signing fewer decrees — at least, judging by those that are not kept secret.

He often appoints freelancers to bypass state channels. To aid Russian troops in Crimea in 2014, he recruited Cossack vigilantes, the Night Wolves biker gang and others. A St. Petersburg restaurateur reportedly oversaw Russia’s fake news and trolling operation during the 2016 U.S. election. Another Kremlin-connected tycoon met with China’s top web censors to discuss Internet control.

But there’s a problem with both systems

Of course, neither autopilot nor manual control work well if the vehicle’s engine is badly designed and corroded. Pushing harder on the accelerator cannot make the car go faster than its potential or farther than its gas tank will carry it. Contracting out to freelancers risks accidents, as when “independent” separatists in the Donbas shot down a Malaysian passenger airliner.

The question for the next six years is whether Putin will forge Russia’s two systems into some more coherent framework or let them continue their disruptive, and sometimes dangerous, alternation. As with the human brain, imbalance among basic systems can be a sign of pathology.

Daniel Treisman is professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, and editor of “The New Autocracy: Information, Politics and Policy in Putin’s Russia (Brookings Institution Press, 2018), from which this is adapted.