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Is Putinism about Strength or Weakness?

- January 3, 2012

For those of you looking for a potential break from all Iowa, all the time at some point today, I want to suggest a very thoughtful piece on Putinism by NYU Law Professor Stephen Holmes in the London Review of Books on how we ought best to interpret the current status of Putinism in Russia.

In this piece, Holmes is directly responding to a recent book by Luke Harding, the former Guardian correspondent in Russia, but he is also addressing a more general conception that Putin’s Russia has turned into a reprise of the late Soviet period: a relatively stable soft-authoritarian regime, where some individual freedoms are permitted but in general the state – through the vehicle of the security services – remains firmly in control. In reality, however, Holmes claims that:

Harding is not alone in this view. But it’s wrong. Putin doesn’t represent a return to Soviet ways; it’s something very different and more anarchic.

Putin’s clumsily announced but not unexpected decision to have himself re-elected to the presidency provides a clue about the way the system works, or rather doesn’t. If you take it that a credible succession formula is one of the key components of any political system, Putin’s stage-managed self-coronation makes it clear that Russia doesn’t have one. To leave the decision about one’s successor to the unpredictable outcome of a genuinely competitive election is acceptable only when incumbents don’t expect to lose too much if they lose. In established democracies, soft landings await electorally ousted politicians. In non-democratic systems, former rulers can sidestep unwelcome surprises if the succession process is managed by a core group within a ruling party, as in the Soviet Union after Stalin and in China today. But this alternative is not available in Russia. For one thing, the increasingly unpopular Yedinaya Rossiya is not an organised governing party but a ramshackle vote-rigging machine run by Putin loyalists and opportunists whom no one, least of all Putin, would trust to choose the country’s next ruler.

Giving up power now would cost Putin too much. Once he leaves, he will be in the dock – it’s inevitable, Harding is told by Stanislav Belkovsky, a former speechwriter for Boris Berezovsky. That, Belkovsky said, is when he’ll face the question of how to legalise his funds, and all his friends’ funds and assets in the West. Yeltsin, too, might have prolonged his presidency had it not been for his ill-health, but he was lucky enough to have Putin in place, not to bury the Yeltsin system, but to save it. Dmitry Medvedev, the cardboard dauphin, obviously couldn’t do for Putin what Putin did for Yeltsin. Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin reveals not the strength but the weakness of the system he has built.

He then goes on to challenge the assumption that the emergence of Putinism was somehow foreordained because Russians do not really want to live in a democratic society:

The Putin system has nothing to do with the ‘authoritarian DNA’ invoked by Sovietologists to explain the recurrent suppression of liberal developments. The singularity of Putin’s Russia is a consequence of the bureaucratic fragmentation that followed the break-up of the Party in 1991, the siphoning into foreign bank accounts of money from the state treasury and state-controlled firms by rival bureaucratic and business factions, the continuing absence of socially legitimate owners of what were once state properties, the corruption of officialdom at all levels, the gap between rich and poor, the anaemic sense of national identity among the country’s political and economic elite.

The most common misapprehension about post-Communist Russia, accepted by both the regime’s supporters and its critics, is that Putin has created a military-style structure of command. In fact, he has had neither the capacity nor the ambition to rebuild a Soviet-style hierarchy. Harding writes of the transition ‘from the chaos but relative freedoms of the Yeltsin years to the “managed democracy” of the vertical Putin epoch’ and cites Valter Litvinenko, Aleksandr Litvinenko’s father: ‘Russia is a vertical system. It’s like the Soviet Union. Only Putin can decide these questions, just like Stalin. Without Putin’s approval it’ – his son’s poisoning – ‘could not have happened.’ But although it’s undeniable that ‘state irritants are murdered as a direct result of their professional activities,’ it’s far from clear that the killing of journalists and lawyers with a social conscience requires Putin’s initiative.

That the much publicised vertical power structure is a ‘fiction’, as it was called by Aleksei Navalny, one of the instigators of the massive anti-regime demonstrations that took place on 10 December, is evident from the corruption which, according to Harding, ‘has increased sixfold under Putin’s rule’. Escaping the draft, registering a company, buying an apartment, getting into school, passing an exam, being acquitted of criminal charges, trumped up or valid, receiving medical treatment may all require the bribery of public officials. The kickback plague is endemic, inflating by as much as 50 per cent the cost to the state of everything from weapons to highway construction. That the principal players in ‘the greatest corruption story in human history’, as the economist Anders Aslund puts it, include the fabled siloviki – the ‘heavies’: the army, the intelligence agencies etc – is the strongest sign of the absence of a hierarchy. In a hierarchy, local officials would answer to their Moscow superiors: but they don’t.

The full article can be found here, and is definitely worth a read.