Russia is awakening: will it implode or transform?
Putin's return to the Kremlin will act as a powerful accelerator of revolutionary events, if only because his leadership means that the logic of personalised power will not allow regime change.
Have you ever seen how a tsunami begins? The first wave comes slowly and subsides, then another one dies in the sand, and another one... until, after a treacherous lull, the water rises high and crushes everything in its way. This is what Russia may have in store - the country has already passed the fork before which other options might have been (at least, theoretically) feasible.
Russia has once again failed to find a graceful exit from its centuries-long wanderings in the dark and is instead rushing along a familiar path of fury, rebellion and revenge. Putin's return to the Kremlin and the ruling team's arrogant demonstration that they are prepared to rule indefinitely have buried all hopes of a velvet reform from the top, leaving Russia only one solution - pressure from below. Revolution has always been Russia's way of cleansing the scene for another cycle of personalised power, each time in a more ruthless and predatory form. It is still unclear this time whether Russia can free itself from its historical trap and find another way out of its predicament.
There is one certainty at least - the personalised power system is in decline. But many questions remain unanswered: will the agony end with rot that will sap the life of generations to come? Or will it implode? Will an alternative be found before the Russian Matrix collapses, or after it starts to disintegrate? And what price will Russians have to pay for the end of a phenomenon that has failed to bow out gracefully?
Victory or defeat?
For the time being the Russian chattering classes are engaged in more down to earth discussions. 'Who won and who lost?' is the question that Russians continue to debate after the apparent ebbing of December's tide of protest. The opposition community has triumphantly claimed that the December Movement changed the country and that the authorities will be forced to back down, but the majority is gloomy, believing that the protests ended with failure; Putin has returned to the Kremlin to stay there forever.
Who is right? Let us look at the arguments of both sides. The optimists are ready to argue that pressure from the rallies will force the regime to deliver liberalisation. "Look," they say, "the Kremlin is adopting legislature on political parties, promising to hold direct elections for governors, and discussing the convening of a Constitutional Assembly." Some optimists cannot contain their euphoria: "Stop whining," they urge, "the opposition has been invited to take part in meetings with the president and opposition leaders are being allowed onto the television. And most importantly: there has been no repression! Onwards towards future conquests!"
I have to admit that this reaction baffles me. I cannot understand what the Kremlin's 'liberalisation package' can change. Create competition? But between whom? The amendments to the party law approved by the Duma do encourage political competition - but between dozens of small fish. The regime is still protected by cast iron barricades in the form of the registration of parties by permit, the Justice Ministry's ability to destroy any party under any pretext, and the Kremlin's refusal to allow the formation of electoral blocs. The executive branch has retained intact the machinery for arbitrary rule and even made it more effective. So what should we rejoice in, I thought as I listened to the fanfares? The fact that the Kremlin takes pleasure in watching the hustle and bustle of the political arena while keeping all the party mice within the sights of the Justice Ministry's gun?
The Kremlin spin doctors who suggested this elegant ruse should be congratulated - allow everyone access (the more the better) and at the same time keep everyone under tight control. Meanwhile, the masochists among the opposition can enjoy another gift from the Kremlin in the form of the law on the 'direct' election of governors, although this, naturally, comes with a presidential 'filter'.
Other evidence of the supposed thaw, turned out to be a measured form of access to the political and media arena, but only for selected (by the Kremlin, of course) representatives of the opposition and civil society who have been allowed to attend meetings with the president, to sit on the presidential and government 'councils' or to take part in carefully orchestrated (and always taped) political TV talk shows. This access is supposed to accomplish three goals: firstly, to create a more civilised image of the Kremlin bosses, making it possible for them to dine with Obama and other Western leaders without awkwardness; secondly, to discredit the opposition members who accept an invitation to sit at the table with the authorities, by making them look naive or lightweight; and thirdly, to bring new conformists (who I call 'adaptants' - people ready to adapt to any rules of the game offered by the authorities) into the sphere to serve the regime.
So far, the authorities' 'all-enveloping' approach - its attempt to suffocate the opposition in its embraces - has been working. Some of the Kremlin's opponents have agreed to play the authorities' game and allowed the regime to lure them onto its playing field, where they have no chance of winning. The official TV channels showed Dmitri Medvedev listening attentively to the rally leaders at his residence (who would have imagined even a short time ago that such a thing would be possible!) creating a much more liberal image of the regime, but giving nothing in return. Television, with its skilled propagandists, has effortlessly turned the opposition into participants in some kind of free-for-all bazaar, leaving the audience perplexed: "Well, they are all the same!" The opposition and the protest leaders' desire to 'reach out' to society at large through television has been understandable. But one could hardly dismiss the impression that they looked like virgins, lecturing in a brothel on the preservation of innocence, as the madam looked on.
Another example of the Kremlin's 'embracing' tactics has been the creation of working groups under Medvedev's chairmanship with the participation of the opposition (the less significant Medvedev becomes, the more groups he creates). One such group recently discussed new means for fighting corruption. "The fight against corruption is entering a new phase," announced one Kremlin critic suddenly. It would be hard to be more perplexed: what kind of fight against corruption can there be, when the regime is only able to replicate itself with the aid of corruption? And what kind of success in the fight against corruption has Medvedev, whose presidency is viewed as the most corrupt in recent Russian history, achieved? But after all, if you have praised the authorities, you have to look for the proof that you were right and the rationale for your participation in a joint project with the regime. Embracing the opposition in this way, as Russian practice demonstrates, has always been more productive in neutralising dissent than outright repression.
It is clear why some representatives of the opposition and the protest movement have been trying to find grounds for enthusiasm, and why some of them have been willing to enter into a dialogue with the Kremlin. In a situation where the regime has not met a single demand of the December Movement, there is a natural desire to find at least some evidence that the people who took to the streets actually achieved something. Otherwise, they will stay in their kitchens next time and the energy behind the protest will evaporate. Besides, I can imagine that some of the opposition figures and protesters may really believe that the authorities have sensed their own weakness and are ready to embark on change. And it is better to achieve such change by sitting around the table than by taking to the streets and making yourself the target of police batons. If this is the case, these hopes will have been a success for a regime that survives by inciting hopes. Meanwhile, political history has proved that hopes are merely disappointments delayed; the Russian opposition and protest leaders have yet to learn this truth. Hopefully, with Putin back in the Kremlin, ready to be tougher and less ambivalent than Medvedev, the opposition will have fewer pretexts for seeking friendship with the authorities.
In fact, there is nothing new in the Russian regime's response to the awakening society. It is all about flexibility in application: on the eve of Putin's inauguration, the ruling team decided to alleviate the discontent of the 'angry citizen' with promises of liberalisation. For those who don't believe in the Kremlin's promises, there are other measures of influence in the state's arsenal and the authorities will soon start to demonstrate more toughness - the Kremlin cannot allow this liberal carnival to go on. Today's Russian rulers remember the experience of the Soviet Union - Gorbachev opened the window too far and the Soviet elite fell out. Putin's team has learned the lesson and they know too well the nature of the Russian system: any real liberalisation could only disrupt its power vertical and the house of cards could start to crumble.
Does all of this mean that those who say that the first Russian protest movement of the century has ended in failure are right? They are wrong too - a black and white view does not make sense in the Russian reality. One of the paradoxes is that although the wave of protest has dwindled, the anger and frustration in society has grown, and without legal channels for its articulation, it is becoming more destructive for both Putin's regime and the system he personalises.
Time to learn lessons
Let me give a run-down of the most apparent consequences of the Russian city rebellion. It ended a protracted political paralysis in Russia and demonstrated that society, at least its urban part, is still breathing. A new generation appeared on the stage, which feels suffocated living in its stuffy closet. Those with illusions regarding Putin's regime have suddenly felt that they have been manipulated. Broad segments of the Russian population have understood the importance of the notion of legitimacy and they have refused Putin's team the right to rule. Those who took to the streets in the harsh Russian winter have opened a page of mass dissent in Russia's post-communist history. In a few short months, Russian society has travelled along a path that would have taken decades at other times. But before Russia starts its new narrative it will need to deliberate on some lessons from its unexpected awakening. I will offer the most important of them.
The Decembrist agenda and its slogan "For Fair Elections" gave people clear evidence of the usurpation of power by the ruling team. But this agenda, like the slogan itself, does not have transformational potential. Moreover, at some point the Decembrists have started, inadvertently, to work to the regime's advantage, by creating the impression that the system of personalised rule can be improved by fair elections. Today the Russian opposition needs to deliberate on how both the ruling class and the rules of the game can be changed (i.e. a reform of both the regime and the constitution is needed). In some countries that have emerged from autocracy, the reform of the regime and the constitution was carried out by the old parliament, and new elections then followed. In others, elections were held first, and the new government proposed a new constitution and a new political system to society. In every case, however, the old order left under pressure from below.
The civic leaders have broadened the base of the protest by engaging previously apolitical strata of society and they have introduced a moral and ethical dimension to the process. However, none of them has yet demonstrated a willingness to play the role of a Russian Havel, Michnik or Geremek - to become a professional opposition politician. Meanwhile, the new protest movement needs politicisation, both of its tools and of its leadership. After all, the question is no longer about influencing the regime, but changing it. Rejection needs to be complemented by a structured political agenda.
Historically, dialogue between an opposition and a regime has been successful (for the opposition) on one condition alone: that it was backed by a powerful social movement, which forced the regime to make concessions. In the absence of such support one can go and listen to what the Kremlin is offering, and even make one's own demands, but the results of such meetings cannot bring any dividends. On the contrary, dialogue from a position of weakness usually ends with the opposition dancing to the Kremlin's tune or decrepitating. The Russian opposition and the leaders of the protest movement have yet to acknowledge this truth.
The Russian developments also demonstrated that it is time to get rid of the euphoria surrounding social communication networks and their role in organising the political space. Of course, without the new communications it is unlikely that a protest movement would have arisen. But there is a reverse side to the coin as well - an enthusiasm for communication at the expense of content. The web can bring people out onto the streets. But nowhere has the web been able to play the role of uniting people into an effective political organisation. The web provokes a new form of social atomisation as well. And those in Russia who are calling for a return to the routine work of organising political parties and are seeking their own combination of internet and political tools are without doubt right.
"We do not need your blueprints, we are people of action," the young generation of dissenters would say, shrugging dismissively at the old political opposition and human
rights defenders. In short, you leave and we will take over - your function has been exhausted. There is some truth in the fact that the generation of 'political pensioners', as the old political opposition and the previous generation of dissenting intellectuals have been called, has failed to rouse Russia, or even to prepare it for new protests. But without the participation of the opposition's older generation, the new political anger would hardly have been organised. Moreover, is it possible to replace strategy with action, or political movement with protest theatre? How can one take to the streets, without giving any thought to the kind of state one wants to construct? Even if the protest movement took the upper hand, what would their next step be without a blueprint for a new system and a map to get there?
There is another problem that the Russian protest movement will have to think about: the fact that the Decembrist movement has captured the dissent of the urban population and emphasised political freedoms. Their protest has only shown how deep the fragmentation of Russian society has become. At least at the beginning, the 'other' Russia - the Russia of small cities and company towns with their growing social and economic frustration and their failure to understand how their problems could be connected to political freedoms - was not on the radar of Moscow's angry citizen.. And if the next city protest fails to throw a line to this other Russia, the latter will once again start to search for a charismatic leader and a populist answer. In this context, the recent explosion of protest in sleepy Astrakhan, triggered by the anti-election fraud hunger strike of mayoral candidate Oleg Shein, which has been supported by members of the Decembrist movement, is a hopeful sign that the other Russia has started to rise up, and that its population understands the linkage between their social grievances and freedom.
The rebellion changed neither the balance of forces at the top nor the political order. Looking back, one has to admit that it never could have become a game changer. The Decembrist Movement was a completely systemic phenomenon - the protesters demanded honest rules of the game within the framework of personalised power. This did not threaten the system's cornerstone of the monopoly of power cemented in the Russian constitution. Part of its leadership emerged in a spontaneous way. It loathed politics and hoped just to 'influence' the authorities. Apparently, the awakening citizenry, still forming their political convictions, needed confirmation that the system cannot be transformed by the current leaders - which they got in the most persuasive way. The end of any illusions about the system, which further accelerated Russian society's political education, has been the most significant outcome of the first midwinter Russian Spring. The lack of institutional change only deepened the search for anti-systemic solutions, politicising and radicalising the protest. The urban citizenry that took part in the first protest wave moved from demanding a more honest system to demanding a new one.
It would, however, be mistaken to see the economy as the driving force of the protests. Why then did open dissent not erupt during the economic downfall in 2008? Why did people take to the streets when the economic situation was stagnant, but still not that gloomy? The Russian turbulence does not fit the cliche of being a movement of the middle class only; the December Movement's social base has been much broader, encompassing a wide range of urban residents unhappy with their situation with wide variations in age, incomes and political preferences. They did have a level of education in common (70 percent were graduates1) meaning that Putin's regime had antagonised the most advanced part of Russian society. What could become crucial for further developments is that the December Movement has demonstrated that Putin and his regime have lost Moscow; and those leaders who lose the capital do not have a political future in Russia.
A political funeral? Not yet!
The patient may have woken, but he cannot yet leave the hospital where he has been kept for years, drugged and tangled. His keepers have rushed to silence him - if cajoling will not help they are ready to shackle him. But he is becoming more and more restless. And at some point he may become so agitated that he will destroy everything around him. At the moment, though, the patient seems ready to allow his keepers to calm him down. But in Russia impressions can be deceptive.
There are many factors that continue to mitigate the Russian situation and could keep both Putin's regime and the system limping on for an indefinite time. The key economic and political conditions for maintaining the Russian status quo are well known: the deep-reaching demoralisation of society; the people's populist expectations, still looking with hope to the state; the squabbles and infighting among the opposition groups and its leaders; and the lack of a consolidated political alternative that could acquire a broad social base.
Other factors are well known by all Russia observers. I would highlight several that will definitely have far reaching impacts on Russia's future trajectory. The first is the Russian petro-state - the dependency of the country on commodities that has allowed the rentier ruling class to emerge, with its parasitic lifestyle and total lack of concern for Russian national interests. The petro-state still has the resources to guarantee the support of the paternalistically oriented social base that depends on budget hand outs.
The second powerful hindrance is the leftovers of the neo-imperial mentality in the mindset of the ruling elites and in broad sections of the population, coupled with the existence of the institutional elements of the former empire in the current functioning of the Russian state: the unitarian character of the Russian 'Federation'; the stubborn attempts of the Kremlin to continue talking about its 'areas of interest'; the 'gas wars' with Ukraine and Belarus; the hot war with Georgia; the laments about NATO expansion and the attempts to force the world to agree with the Finlandisation of the former Soviet space; and the building of the Eurasian Union (for what?). The fact that the Kremlin is not ready and would not in any case be able to pursue the idea of Soviet restoration, and tries instead to find more pragmatic means to pursue its agenda, does not mean that the Russian elite has erased imperialist longing from its mind. There is only one reason for this: the personalised power system cannot reproduce itself without a desire to preserve great power status and areas of influence; the latter being the blood vessels for the former. I would even argue that in a situation when the domestic influence of the regime has started to wane, its desire to compensate for its internal weakness through a more assertive statist and neo-imperialist policy abroad could increase - at least this has always been the logic of the Russian Matrix as it fights for survival.
The moment the Russian elite proves it has no ambition to influence other states and is ready to build a real Federation will be the end of Russian neo-imperialism. Today, however, even Russian liberals stop being liberals when they start to talk about Ukraine, the Russian-Ukrainian 'brotherhood' and the 'one nation'.
The third factor is the role and mentality of the Russian intellectual class. It is the 'thinking minority' that has always been the engine of civilisational change. The demoralised state of Russia's intelligentsia is one of the main causes of both Russia's failure to embark on a new path after 1991, and of its current stagnation. It seemed that the Russian intelligentsia ended its role as the opponent of autocracy when the communist state collapsed in 1991. The emergence of a new form of autocratic power - the Yeltsin presidency - left Russia's intellectuals lost and disoriented. Most have been unwilling to risk taking a stand against a new personalised power system disguised as a democracy. Some have become propagandists, strategists and experts in the service of the personalised rule. Between them, they are the gravediggers of the intelligentsia in its traditional role of bearer of moral and reputational principles. The demise of the intellectual class has deprived Russia of the crucial source of renewal that independent intellectuals have traditionally provided in the history of authoritarian societies (including in Russia).
One of the most important factions of the intellectual class - those liberals who were ready to serve the system - delivered the most crushing blow to the chances of liberal democratic change in Russia. These 'systemic liberals', operating within the official Russian system and serving the government in different capacities, while at the same time trying to monopolise the right to speak on behalf of liberalism and democracy not only occupy a 'grey zone' devoid of clear principles and direction (the best environment for a personalised power system), but also discredit liberal-democratic norms. Society will still to have to make its own assessment of the role of these 'systemic liberals' in the restoration of one-man rule in Russia. This will be complicated by the need to analyse the 'contribution' of those bright and popular personalities who serve the new Russian autocracy as 'court liberals', and at the same time represent themselves as the bearers of normative values. A lot of friendships will be buried and a lot of emotions will rise.2
But still, one has to acknowledge one sad truth: Russia has been lacking one of the most important dimensions that make liberal democratic change possible. Joseph A. Schumpeter called it the "human material of politics", that is, the people who take part in broader political life and "should be of sufficient high quality."3 Explaining what this quality means, Juan Linz mentions among several indicators, "the commitment to . values or goals relevant for collectivity, without, however, pursuing them irrespectively of consequences."4 The Russian 'political class', by and large, is the plain antithesis of what both Schumpeter and Linz describe. The reasons for the demoralisation of the intellectual elite remain to be analysed: the lingering legacy of Communism (but why then have the new European elites and political class in the Baltic states managed to demonstrate "sufficient high quality"?) or the legacy of the 1990s when the new version of Russian personalised rule re-emerged under liberal slogans with the voluntary help of intellectuals?
The liberals' hopes for reform from above, that became animated during Medvedev's presidency, turned out to be just another myth. True, this was apparent from the very beginning, but this hope helped the hopefuls look liberal while at the same time being part of the court. Meanwhile, the authorities' liberal rhetoric set against a non-liberal reality only made the public more cynical and mistrustful of the whole idea of reform and modernisation. This is one of the results of Medvedev's presidency: one of the most cynical plots in recent Russian history that has not only helped to preserve the old leader in the shadow of an imitation one, but deepened the degradation of Russian politics.
The fourth factor helping to prolong the life of Russian authoritarianism is the widespread fear among various sections of the public that upsetting the status quo could lead to another state collapse. Not even the regime's opponents are ready for such a development. In reality, it is the Kremlin's policy of survival that undermines the Russian state and has already triggered the process of disintegration. The price the Kremlin pays to 'pacify' Chechnya and the North Caucasus is evidence of the Russian state's fragility. The Kremlin's willingness to let local sultans establish their regimes there reflects the process of state atrophy. The dictatorship in Chechnya amounts to a form of Kremlin-sanctioned anti-constitutional coup. It is hard to believe that this construction, which goes against all common sense, can last: Russia is 'paying tribute' to Chechnya, and at the same time positioning itself as a regional and even a global leader; such a construction surely contains the seeds of self-destruction.
The risk that a state constructed from incompatible civilisational pieces could fall apart is present no matter whether the regime liberalises or strengthens its hold on power. One thing that is clear today is that Russia cannot transform so long as the North Caucasus problem remains unresolved. With the North Caucasus as it is, Russia cannot get itself in any kind of order or become a modern state.
The fifth and final factor is a phenomenon requiring serious analysis that, regretfully, neither Russian liberals nor Western observers, for reasons not difficult to guess, are ready to start. Those who have tried to raise this issue are viewed by the community, which prefers less divisive postures, as 'radicals' or 'idealists'. The factor is the role of the West in helping traditional Russia to survive. Several issues should be taken into account. For starters, Western civilisation, in the eyes of a significant part of the Russian population, has lost its role as the alternative to a personalised power system. Partly, this is the result of the current Western 'malaise'. Western intellectual and political gurus have been pretty candid in acknowledging the state of the Western model. Francis Fukuyama writes of "dysfunctional America,"5 Zbigniew Brzezinski warns of Western decay,6 and Walter Laqueur announces "the slow death of Europe."7 Naturally, this Western crisis does not inspire liberal hopes within Russian society.
However, it is less the recent Western crisis that has delivered a blow to pro-Western moods in Russia, and much more the policy of Western governments with respect to the Kremlin, which is viewed as connivance with or even an open appeasement of the Russian political regime. The latest edition of the Western course toward Russia - the U.S. 'reset' and the EU's 'Partnership for Modernisation' are considered by many liberal minded Russians as a legitimisation of the personalised power system, giving it additional strength to survive. For the first time, openly harsh criticism of Western policy towards the Kremlin can be heard from Russian liberals and democrats.8
I would expect my Western colleagues to say: "Come on! You are talking rubbish! What do you expect the West to do - isolate Russia? Stop trading or negotiating nuclear weapons cuts?" Of course, not - I am not so irresponsible or naive. The Russian opposition and the liberal critics of the West do not expect Western governments to fight for Russian democracy and freedom - this is an agenda for Russians. But in pursuing trade or security relations with Russia, the Western governments are not forced to play the game 'Let's Pretend!' with the Kremlin. The West can escape the brotherly embraces of Kremlin leaders. Western leaders can avoid presenting 'reset' as something which it is not -as a strategic breakthrough rather than a tactical trade-off. No one coerces the Obama administration to take part in that sham offered by the Kremlin, the dialogue between the 'civil societies' under the control of the Russian state official responsible for political crack down.
The role of Western politicians, pundits and journalists in the Kremlin's staged 'operas', like the Valdai Club and Yaroslavl Forum, that have become an instrument of their co-option by the Kremlin, is another form of the legitimacy that the West provides to the Russian system (hopefully unintentionally). In the eyes of Russian society the West has turned into a laundry machine for Russia's corrupt elite and has formed a powerful 'service class' that includes politicians, bankers and PR agencies who help the personal integration of the Russian political class into Western society. This integration only increases the Russian elite's brazen behaviour and lack of accountability. It even legitimises its criminality. The recent shares swap between the American Exxon Mobile and the Russian Rosneft, that has made American shareholders the owners of stolen Yukos assets, is the latest example of the help the West provides the Russian system.
Fears of imminent collapse, the lack of a new strategy and actors who would pursue it and powerful entrenched interests force the Russian elite and intellectual circles to build new hopes for change within the current regime. Today they argue, under the pressure of the mood within society, the 'new' Putin 2.0 will be forced to carry out reform, even if he is unwilling and therefore has to be supported. "Putin still could become a reformer and is capable of dexterous management under the pressure of tough reality!" the fans of Russia's personalised power would insist. True, they can't answer the question: if Putin was destined to become the transformer, why did he not transform Russia earlier? Certainly, leaders can change their previous course under the pressure of circumstances, but in Russia's case it is a change from the personalised power system, and not simply a change of course and regime that are needed. Russia needs transformation, not reform to make the autocracy more effective. For transformation to succeed, Putin's team would have to renounce its monopoly on power, which is the main source of the country's degradation, and open it to fair and honest competition. They would have to perform political hara-kiri. Besides, if Putin really is ready for change, why did he not start with fair presidential elections?
As for the idea of modernisation in the economic area only, the authorities have been attempting to pursue this policy throughout these last years, but with what results? How can one carry out economic liberalisation while at the same time strengthening the state's monopoly and control over the economy? How do you fight corruption if you turn the parliament into a circus and bury independent courts and media? The 'modernisation from the top' idea is still popular among some Russian liberals who are fascinated by the Lee Kuan Yew 'thesis'. Ironically, so far not a single Russian leader has shown any inclination to follow Lee's path.
There is another variation of the 'modernisation from the top' myth - a belief in 'gradual' reform. Supporters of the 'gradual' path assert that reform should begin first in education, healthcare, and agriculture, say, and only then spread further. But how do you reform these sectors without demonopolising them and opening them to competition, and without the rule of law and independent courts? The authorities' continued monopoly on power makes any real reform impossible, even in just these limited sectors.
Potential attempts to 'gradually' introduce competition and the rule of law raise further questions. Who gets to decide which forces will be allowed to make use of competition and fair laws, and how do you introduce these things 'one step at a time'? First in specially designated zones separate from the rest of the country and only then in other areas of life? But does anyone believe that this kind of 'gradual' approach can actually work?
The West has made its own contribution to Russian mythology. The most popular has been the hope that Medvedev would be a reforming president, which even astute Western observers fell victim to. Brzezinski wrote about Medvedev as, "the most prominent spokesman for the modernisation=democratisation school of thought." Other Western observers have even more grandiose plans for the Russian regime. Thus, Charles Kupchan believes that Russia may be "uniquely poised to help build bridges between the Western order and whatever comes next (!)" and Moscow could become "a particularly useful arbiter (!) in negotiating the shape of a post-Western order."9 This mythology not only helps the Russian Matrix to survive but distorts the Western view of the world.
Meanwhile, the variables that have so far helped the Russian system to stay afloat are now accelerating its decline. The mechanism that Arnold Toynbee defined as "suicidal statecraft" has gone into action: the system, in attempting to deal with new challenges using old methods, is undermining itself. The Kremlin's blatant manipulation of democratic institutions, such during the 2011 2012 elections, that became trademarks of the Putin system erode the legitimacy of a regime that has no other mechanisms (in particular inheritance-based or ideological) to justify its continuation. The commodities-based economy also accelerates the system's decay. Russia fits the same pattern of decline that has befallen other petro-states that did not manage to democratise before their commodities boom began. The fact that some petro-states in the Arab world (for instance, Saudi Arabia) demonstrate survivability, does not change the axiom. The Arab revolutions of 2011 have proved how fragile 'petro-stability' can be. Tame, obedient institutions ensure an external calm, but the lack of channels through which the population can express its various interests leaves people with no choice but to take to the streets, thus further undermining stability. Putin's return to the Kremlin means the growth of anger and the rejection of the regime even by social groups that had been submissive to the authorities, but are not ready to see Russia return to a Brezhnev-type of degradation.
In our reflections on the Russian system's future we should not forget one fact: Putin's regime relies not only on the security and law enforcement agencies, but is made up primarily of people who have come from the special services or are close to them. They have repression in their genes. For the first time in Russia's history, not only are the security agencies not under civil control, but they have established their own regime. This regime has nothing in common with either Praetorian Realism, which defines a scenario for imposing order on civil chaos in modernising lands,10 or Matrix Realism, but shares similarities with the army's role in the institutional arrangements of the Arab states.11 The Russian Praetorian security service officers turned bureaucrats serve one purpose - pursuing their corporatist interests at any price. Such regimes are not only doomed themselves but will also pull into the abyss the state they incarnate.
The authorities' obsession with personal enrichment - especially among people from the security agencies - is another factor speeding up the regime's decline. This obsession makes the regime more repressive, as it defends its rights to the assets it has gathered. But at the same time, this 'commercialisation' of the state's repressive machinery undermines the system, as corrupt security agencies lose their ability to effectively protect it (the historical examples are illustrative: Sparta and the Ottoman Empire fell when the Spartans and Janissaries began to get involved in commerce and trade).12
The collapse of Soviet technical infrastructure is another sign of the looming crisis. It is ironic that Russia today continues to survive thanks to the USSR, but the planes, trains, ships, mines, roads, and industry inherited from the Soviet era are collapsing, exploding, and becoming unfit for use, while the post-communist regimes have not managed to build a new infrastructure to replace them.
Another confirmation of degradation is the intertwining of crime, business, and the law enforcement and security agencies that has become the key characteristic of Putin's Russia. Why can the authorities not clear their stables? Why do they save the rank and file perpetrators clearly fingered in the Magnitsky case, even at tremendous cost to the regime's own reputation? It is not that the authorities are implicated in each and every crime and need to dispel suspicions against them, but rather that any cleanout of personnel would undermine the power vertical edifice the Kremlin has built and would violate the regime's fundamental principle that in return for their loyalty, those who serve it are guaranteed impunity. This mutual back-scratching between the authorities and the agencies at its service is pushing the system into its final stage of decay.
The Khodorkovsky and Lebedev case demonstrates another of the system's fundamental principles: wield a strong hand! This explains why, having made Khodorkovsky and Lebedev a demonstration of his total grip on power, Putin cannot now release them: their release would be perceived as the end of the Putin era. Business has become hostage to the system and can exist only if it plays by the system's rules. But even when it plays by the rules it still cannot protect itself from the authorities and law enforcement agencies, which engage in mass extortion.13
The authorities' passion for costly mega-projects, from the Sochi Olympics to the APEC summit and the soccer World Cup, is also a sign that the system has entered a dead end. No responsible government in a country with 22,9 million people living below the poverty line would take on such commitments. The Kremlin under Putin is following the typical logic of dictatorships, mobilising the population through displays of grandeur.
The use of Western technology to help ensure the regime's continuity and monopoly has also exhausted its potential. Spreading the use of new generation technology requires a free society and free individuals. The pitiful attempt to establish a closed 'modernisation zone' in Skolkovo only confirms that the old model for perpetuating the regime no longer works; and Skolkovo itself looks unlikely to have much chance of success now that everyone knows the hollow role played by its 'godfather', Medvedev.
Meanwhile, the Russian elite attempts to maintain balance in the country by creating phantom challenges and imitating responses to them. The Russian elite is battling NATO, preparing to counter a nuclear strike or even fight a nuclear war (see Russia's Military Doctrine), attempting to keep control of Russia's neighbours, clearing the stage at home of any potential opposition, while preparing to fight the 'Orange revolution' and defend the Motherland from the 'fifth column'. The system, seen until recently as a highly adaptable mechanism, is losing its flexibility and becoming rigid. It risks turning into an inadequate organisation responding to imaginary threats and becoming dangerous for its own population and the outside world. The Russian Matrix still can survive but it is losing its resilience.
Russia's ruling class is not only depriving society of all that makes it viable, but is also setting a trap for itself. The most effective means that humanity has developed so far to ensure continued survival (including that of the elite) is free competition. The Russian ruling team's attempts to secure a lifelong monopoly are a sign of its lack of confidence, and its inability to govern a free society. A monopoly on power must be constantly defended and this makes it impossible for those who hold it to feel sure they can step down without fearing for their lives. The fate of rulers who have either lost or were forced into a desperate defence of their power in recent years cannot but worry Russia's elite. The latest round of Putin's power shows that the ruling team has decided to stake all it has and to keep playing, dooming the country to dramatic developments ahead.
One thing is quite obvious: a system of autocracy cannot (even if the leader wants it to) reform itself gradually from above. So, only one way is left - from below. Putin's return to the Kremlin will act as a powerful accelerator of revolutionary events, if only because his leadership means that the logic of personalised power will not allow regime change.
Anyway, the logic of the agony has already started to work its way out. One can predict the authorities' increasing reliance on force, or the threat of force, which masks not only their lack of confidence, but also the cracks in the very foundations of the system. When the Kremlin turns to broader violence, it will mean the last chapter in Putin's narrative has begun. But whether it will be the end of the regime only, or the end of the personalised power system, is too early to say.
Crisis and then what?
Meanwhile, discontent is spreading through society. The public showed no particular enthusiasm at the news that Putin was seeking a new term in office: 31 percent of respondents approved of the move (these people make up the Putin regime's core support base), 20 percent were not happy with the idea, and 41 percent said they had "no particular feelings about it" (3 percent did not know).14
Putin's personal popularity rating still remains relatively high, but this 'Teflon president' phenomenon can be explained: people in Russia realise that there is only one real institution in the country - the presidency - and so long as people are not yet able to solve their own economic problems, they are not ready to let Putin's rating take a tumble, fearing the chaos that might ensue. But their criticism of Putin's government and the country's general policy course shows that people have no illusions about Putin and his regime - 59 percent of the respondents view them as either people who "are thinking about their interests or weak and incompetent people" and only 23 percent believe that Putin and his team know how to solve the country's problems.15
If the Russian public are not increasingly weary of Putin himself, they are showing an ever clearer rejection of the system and its basic principles. Only 33 percent of respondents think that "power should be concentrated in one pair of strong hands", while 59 percent of respondents take the view that "society should be built on the foundation of democratic freedom".16 People are showing increasing discontent with the situation in many areas of life. Most Russians think that the situation has worsened in all areas, with the exception of foreign policy (reflecting public support for Putin's neo-imperial course). Around 82 percent of respondents think that corruption in Russia has increased or stayed at its former level. Almost half of respondents believe they have lost rather than gained over the last years, although 51 percent of respondents say that, "life is hard but bearable".17 This willingness to endure and to look for ways to survive rather than turn to open protest is one of the main reasons for the country's apparent calm. Only 25 percent of respondents regard mass protests as a possibility, and only 21 percent are willing to take part in them. These figures may look small, but in reality they represent millions of people.
The public perceive the state and its security and law enforcement agencies as a hostile force. Seventy-three percent of respondents think that the gap between rich and poor has widened over the last decade, 52 percent think that there are more thieves and corruption in the country's leadership now than in the 1990s, and more than half of respondents expressed certainty that elections are unfair.18 All of this reflects society's alienation from the state authorities.
The Russian system cannot meet the domestic and external challenges. It is not able to guarantee the security and wellbeing of its population. It cannot even secure the interests of its ruling class, which explain why its numerous representatives prefer to store their 'golden parachutes' outside Russia. One can only be struck by the cynicism of the Russian elite. Usually the first sign of decay is the failure of the elite: not simply their inability to change outmoded institutions but also their inability to perceive that a failure has taken place. In Russia the ruling elite understands the suicidal path they are on, but are unable to change it. On the contrary, the ruling establishment is busy trying to pass its positions to its children or friends, which means that it will defend the system until the end.
All this means that Russia has no means or time to escape the approaching political and social crisis. But a crisis will provide a chance for a political alternative to emerge and for the ruling establishment to fragment. If the opposition fails to use this chance, Russia will either enter a period of protracted rot, or its ruling elite will attempt to freeze the situation by turning to mass repression, which could be a temporary solution but would only defer the turmoil and revenge. What-ever scenario prevails (including liberalisation), Russia will have problems in preserving its current geographical format.
The only way to transform Russia is to eliminate the old triad of personalised power, the integration of power and business, and imperial ambitions. But the political and social actors ready to start this process have yet to emerge. In theory, such actors could emerge from mid-level innovation-linked business, parts of the intelligentsia, and young people, but it is hard to see what prospects this process might have when the authorities constantly clamp down on or discredit any sign of opposition activity. In this situation it is possible that Russia will not manage to build a real alternative before the system openly disintegrates.
This would greatly complicate any attempts to set new rules based on liberal-democratic principles. The old system's spontaneous collapse and public discontent could bring about a repeat of 1991 and the regeneration of the personalised system in new packaging cannot be excluded. Whatever the case, the system's death agony is approaching faster than the political forces can find a peaceful exit solution. This makes Russia not only a challenge for its society but for the world as well.
1 According to Levada Center polls, the majority of the protesters constituted experts and mid-level managers, journalists and students. Interview with Lev Gudkov, "Dissatisfaction with Authorities is Intensifying," Izvestia, March 6, 2012.
2 At the moment there are few among the Russian liberals who are ready to start the 'moral cleansing process' following Andrei Illarionov's campaign to discuss Yegor Gaidar's role in the new Russian history.
3 Joseph A. Schumpeter (1947) (New York: Harper and Brothers) pp. 290-291.
4 Juan J. Linz (1997) "Some Thoughts on the Victory and Future of Democracy," in Democracy Victory and Crisis, ed. Axel Hadenius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p.421.
5 Francis Fukuyama, "American Political Dysfunction," http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1114.
6 Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Zbigniew Brzezinski Receives Jury du Prix Tocqueville Prize," http://csis.org/publication/zbigniew-brzezinskis-de-toc-queville-prize-speech.
7 Walter Laqueur, "The Slow death of Europe," http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/why-the-euro-the-least-europes-worries-5767.
8 Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted the existence of the "commercial stampede driven by the Western European businessmen (not to mention some former politicians), anxious to capitalize on Russia's resources while indifferent to the importance of shared values", Zbigniew Brzezinski (2012) (NewYork: Basic Books) p.146.
9 Charles A. Kupchan (2012) (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p.111.
10 Francis Fukuyama, "Political Order in Egypt," The American Interest, May-June 2011.
11 Robert Springborg and Clement M. Henry "Army Guys," The American Interest, May-June 2011.
12 The success of the samurai during the Meiji restoration could have been an argument in favour of Japanese uniqueness but for one fact: the Japanese ability to adapt to the Western rules of the game.
13 The use of force against business has become a distinguishing feature of today's Russia (according to independent sources one in three people in detention is a businessperson, and one in six people in prison is a businessperson) and this makes it impossible to build an effective economy.