In August 1999 the young director of the Federal Security Service Vladimir Putin was appointed chairman of the Russian Government. By the end of the same year after the early resignation of Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin, he started assuming his duties. Putin’s longstanding opponent Grigory Yavlinsky discusses the phenomenon of new Russian authoritarianism, summarizing the results of the past two decades.
Vladimir Putin, 1999
Photo: Musaelyan Vladimir / ТАSS
ROLE OF THE PERSONALITY
For a whole month now Vladimir Putin’s successes and failures over the past 20 years have already been analysed from every angle by virtually all the Russian mass media. The overwhelming majority of analysts and experts link with Putin personally everything that has happened in Russia in the 21st century. And this is understandable, as it goes without saying that the President is personally responsible for all the landmark decisions in the country’s fate. In actual fact, however, – and this is extremely important if you want to understand the current model of the Russian state – virtually any high-ranking bureaucrat with a similar biography could have taken Putin’s place: at the end of the 1990s the ruling group needed a reliable, tried and tested figure from the structures of the system.
Initially, hyperinflation and the confiscation of savings, then the sham privatisation, which engendered the merging of property, the state authorities and business, the rejection of a competitive political system and separation of powers – all this taken together laid the foundation for our mafia state.
That is why it has to be understood that an assessment of the results of the past two decades naturally must take account, not only of Putin himself, but also of Yeltsin’s entourage who created this system. Any other successor would have found himself in the same starting position.
Could Putin have changed anything in this system that had been corrupt from the outset, could he have acted differently? He could have done. And he had ample opportunities to do so. While the post-Soviet Russian political system veered between two paths in the mid 1990s, between a competitive or authoritarian model, and chose the latter, a second key turn was taken at the start of the 2000s. At the time, he still had an opportunity to choose between a modernising authoritarianism, a form of “authoritarianism for the sake of progress” and an authoritarian regime based on conservative decay, whose main objective is to block the path to any changes capable of weakening the control of the ruling elite over society. So at the start of the 2000s Putin by virtue of his own personality traits and professional experience opted against the path of modernisation. Instead Russia turned towards the path blocking any political changes, which might pose a threat to the stability of the regime. As a result, political development in the country came to a complete standstill.
Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin votes at the State Duma elections, December 19, 1999. Photo: RIA Novosti
We can clearly perceive today the results of this choice. Three decades after the collapse of the USSR have brought our country to a political system based on the permanent power of one dominant group of the supreme bureaucracy, which appoints at its sole discretion the heads of all the security, defence and military, administrative and key economic institutions. A system, which rules out the replacement of the ruling group without the simultaneous demolition of the actual system and profound political crisis. A system that is driven by self-renewal and eliminates the possibility of natural evolution or self-reform in accordance with the evolving situation. And finally, a system consisting intrinsically of the distribution of rent-seeking and vitally interested by virtue of this fact in the retention of such economic and social conditions, which make it possible to extract such rent going forward. Putin’s system.
ELECTIONS WITHOUT ANY ACTUAL ELECTIONS
The authoritative political order formed definitively during the years of Putin’s rule prohibits the use of elections as a mechanism to determine the scope of people or groups that receive access to the levers of state power. Supreme power represented by the ruling group is in this system irremovable in principle. And even though the personal make-up naturally undergoes some changes, any personnel reshuffles in the system are never subjected to the judgment of any external arbitrators and are only implemented further to a decision of the systemic core, which remains stable notwithstanding all the changes. Elections in this system are either non-existent or purely decorative, simply formalising adopted personnel decisions and endorsing them as it were through “public” approval.
In those instances when an authoritarian system uses the electoral procedure for elections (to avoid disrupting the usual arrangement, in order to achieve additional legitimization or for some other purpose), a mandatory provision of this procedure is the predictability of the voting results. How is this attained? Through absolute control over the entire electoral process (it is assumed that the regime may intervene in the process at any stage) — from the collection of signatures for the nomination of candidates to the counting of votes with the official declaration of the results. Why is the regime so afraid of the unpredictability of the election results? Because unpredictability is the sign of a competitive system, and to all intents and purposes this is the antithesis of an authoritarian model. As a result, any decrease in the predictability of the voting results will lead either to enhancements in the applied forms of control, or to the total rejection of elections.
The uncontrollability of the outcome of the elections would mean the collapse of the authoritarian system.
These days you won’t surprise anybody with talk about the corruption of the powers-that-be. During the past few decades corrupt practices in the governance of the state have emerged in different parts of the world. And even though the nature and character of corruption differ everywhere, the leading figures of authoritarian regimes end their journeys in virtually identical ways. Why do Russian officials try so fervently to clamber higher and higher up the corruption ladder despite such clear risks? What is so attractive about participation in the management of such a system? The answer is so banal: personal enrichment. And Putin’s system presents the ruling group with just such an opportunity to extract special rent-seeking from their monopoly political position.
As the monopoly owner of political resources in the state, the group retaining power may set its own corporate management fee with absolute abandon and arbitrarily. However, this is by no means the limit to the revenue-generating capacities of the heads of the corrupt system. In general, the profits obtained by senior officials may not be tied to the performance of their management functions; sometimes they stem from their monopoly right to violence and explicit extortion. Strictly speaking, this also happens frequently in the Russian security, defence and law enforcement agencies.
The acting President of Russia Vladimir Putin congratulates the first Russian president Boris Yeltsin with his birthday, 2000. Photo: RIA Novosti
At the same time, to all intents and purposes it is impossible to limit the pretensions and appetites of the ruling group in this system, just as it is impossible to fully clarify the extent of their rent income and the methods they use to obtain it. The only trigger that can impose the self-restraint on the ruling elite is the threat of a social rebellion. If this threat is rendered innocuous, then the brakes don’t work and the private appropriation of rent-seeking assumes ever greater proportions. In conditions when the authorities have access to vast unlimited and opaque incomes, the resolution of any objectives whatsoever, which require a significant planning horizon, long-term implementation and control, is simply impossible.
However paradoxical it may seem, it is namely the scope of this phenomenon that provides indirect confirmation that post-Soviet authoritarianism in Russia has reached a mature stage: all the intrinsic traits of this model have already appeared and are now acquiring more or less complete forms. In other words, this demonstrates that Putin’s authoritarian regime has over the past twenty years already quelled all the impulses and travails that are foreign to its nature – there is no longer any place for the personal ambitions and delusions of its leaders. Now the objective logic and attributes of this form of political order of society are taking centre stage — authoritarianism.
Over the past few years Putin has implemented measures to render the Russian authoritarian system even more stringent. As a result the window of opportunities to change the state of affairs in the country over the next 10-15 years has contracted even more.
This is due first and foremost to the clear ideologization of the regime. Back in the mid-2000s one key specific of the Russian regime was the lack of a clear-cut official ideology. The regime expected the loyalty and political inertia of the active part of society, but had not clearly formulated any ideological concepts subject to large-scale adoption and organised propaganda (one merely has to recall the endless and abortive searches for a “national idea”). It was only towards the end of 2000s that the foundations of the new official ideology started to take a definite shape: xenophobic “patriotism: and belief in the “great imperial mission”, repudiation of the growing prosperity of the population as a value and its replacement by a willingness to make sacrifices, the concept of “unified and indivisible authority” and the sacralisation of this authority.
Pyetr Surukhanov / «Novaya Gazeta»
Over the past few years this has all become the generally recognised and uncontested component of official ideology, the so-called “adherence to traditional values”. Moreover, the Kremlin’s ideology during this time has embodied several elements of traditional Russian nationalism. This is both the concept of a “special Russian civilisation” against the antagonistic European model (the so-called “Russian world”) and interpretation of the country’s history as the constant and consistent realisation of its special mission. At the same time, here the authorities assume a central place, standing high above the people and serving as the means for the realisation of this mission, and not as a tool for organising the everyday lives of the country’s citizens. Mixing into the official ideology certain extreme left-wing views (such as: the conventionality and recurrence of private ownership of major assets, which are all the same perceived as “sovereign”, a hostile attitude to major global business, etc.), Putin has tried formally to reconcile the pre-Soviet, Soviet and current periods of Russian history. All of Russia’s history in the new version has turned out to be merely a form of survival and the eternal battle of the self-same “Russian civilisation” with the hostile external world which has from the outset been seeking to destroy the “Russian world” and the unity of its people and rulers. The impetuous and all-encompassing dissemination of this ideology has become possible thanks to a mass media controlled by the authorities, first and foremost the federal TV channels with their ability to reach out to countless millions, thanks to the loyalist part of the Russian Orthodox church leveraging a certain level of authority amongst the country’s orthodox population, and also to large extent thanks to the state system of education.
The second “achievement” of the system over the past few years concerns perceptible progress with the elimination of such foreign components as a multi-party state. It is telling that after the elections to the State Duma in 2016 the issue of the party affiliation of the “people’s elected deputies” and also their party values are virtually no longer of any interest either to the mass media or society in general. In today’s Russia these issues have lost whatever practical relevance they might have had.
And there is a third important change as we reach the end of the 2010s – the definitive personalisation of authoritarianism in Russia.
The process of preparing the most important decisions is now under the personal control of one single individual and is closed off completely not only to society, but also to the other members of the ruling group, let alone the so-called “party of power”, which is politically such a phantom as the formal opposition parties in the State Duma.
And one more thing. The events of the past few years, above all the war in the Donbass and the annexation of Crimea, have isolated definitively internal political processes in the country from any external influence. First and foremost this is the result of the actions of the Russian authorities, who have intentionally sought to destroy the actual ability to exert any such influence. Constantly expanding the interpretation of external influence, the authorities have prohibited more and more forms and types of activity in Russia. Numerous non-governmental organisations have faced a barrage of attacks. Any potential agents of external influence in the information space have been subjected to impudent trolling. Moreover, the Russian authorities no longer care about the country’s political reputation in the eyes of foreign counterparties.
Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin attends State Duma first autumn session congress, September 14, 1999. Nikolai Malyshev, Vladimir Musaelyan/TASS
As a result of all these processes the Kremlin has powerful leverage over political developments. Using these levers, it has managed to configure a centralised system of governance of the country, eliminating competing centres of power, uncontrolled sources of finance and significant opposition political activity. It is clear that this system did not arise out of nowhere or as a result of the cunning combinations of certain odious personalities. Putin’s system is the logical result of the policies of the 1990s, the result of the way in which reforms were conducted after the collapse of the USSR.
How does one assess twenty years of Putin’s rule?
And how does one assess, for example, the first decades of rule of the communists? By the famine in the Volga Region and Ukraine or large-scale industrialisation? By the Great Purge, which carried off millions of lives and destroyed the fates of tens of millions or the victory over Nazism?
How does one assess Khruschev’s era? By the “thaw” and the less than stellar move, but nevertheless attempt to free the country from Stalinism, or by the invasion of Hungary in 1956? By the first satellite and Gagarin’s flight to space or the execution by firing squad of workers in Novocherkassk?
How does one assess the 18 years of Brezhnev’s rule? By the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 or the signing of the Helsinki Accords on the inviolability of frontiers in Europe ? Or maybe, by the war in Afghanistan or the lost arms race in the 1980s?
When providing a historical assessment of the political policies of the ruling party and the longstanding activity of the heads of state, in the final analysis we assess what happened to the country during the era of their rule. For example, the main result of the collective activity of the Soviet leaders was the collapse and disappearance from the political world map of a state that they had run absolutely for almost 75 years. Who these days is interested in the record growth rates of iron and steel smelting, or the valiant Soviet armed forces, which were indeed the second largest in the world and whom we were so proud of in the USSR?
The same is true of an assessment of the two decades of Putin’s rule. One can delight at GDP, which increased from RUB 4.8 trillion in 1999 to RUB 103.6 trillion in 2018 (at current prices). One can assess the President’s activity by annual inflation rates, which has contracted from 36.6% in 1999 to 4.2% in 2018 (these figures usually bring particular joy to officials from the IMF and the World Bank). One can also count the swimming pools built in Russia: last year, four times more swimming pools were commissioned than twenty years ago.
However, twenty years in our days is a vast period. And such a significant period must be assessed from a historical perspective. And to do so, we need to answer the question: what has been done during these years to enable the country to cope successfully with the challenges of the immediate and distant future? What mechanisms have been created to resolve the critically complex and dangerous problems of the 21st century on which Russia’s actual survival will depend?
Here are just some problems that already face Russia (and only some of them) and that will inevitably intensify.
In politics: The absence of any mechanisms for regime change and the lack of a system of independent jurisprudence; the uncontrollability and opacity of the defence, security and law enforcement agencies; a growing sense of fear in society, and a lack of confidence about the future and sense of confusion.
In the economy: An increase and exacerbation of the inequality of incomes and opportunities of different population groups; the merging of property and the state authorities; the supremacy of state corporations and monopolies; the likelihood of a contraction in the number of workplaces and disappearance from the market of a whole range of professions ousted by artificial intelligence.
In the environment: Climate change; an increase in the frequency of natural disasters; forest fires and large-scale deforestation; floods during overflows of rivers and the risks of the inundation of major cities; the problem of pollution and waste.
In the technological sector: The threat of technological and genetic manipulation leading to extreme forms of social inequality; the threat to the safety of private life during the mainstreaming of surveillance and control systems.
In the social and ethical sectors: Growing atomisation and the emergence of an “asocial society” in Russia.
In geopolitics: Serious and bloody conflict with our nearest neighbour — Ukraine, and military intervention in the civil war in Syria, whose consequences will haunt Russia for decades to come; the collapse of the joint Russian-American arms control system; North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats; China’s global expansion.
What has been done over the past 20 years to resolve these problems? The response to this issue determines our assessment of Putin’s activity as head of state.
Today, a completely mature authoritarian power system has been established in Russia, formalised ideologically and organisationally, with a personalised form of rule and stable domestic support, with minimum external threats. However, such a system is incapable of responding to the challenges of the modern world and ensuring the maintenance and development of the country in the new era. And this is perhaps the main result of twenty years of Putin’s rule.
However, there is also some good news. Like any autocracy, Putin’s system is not eternal – at the very least because internal defects prevent it from maintaining for long effective control over political and economic life. At some stage the grassroots of the authoritarian system will inevitably get out of control. If a large political opposition structure appears in Russia by then with its own program and its own leaders, then at the very least the bulkhead of the entire mechanism, and at the very most – a radical rebuilding of the political and economic life on other new foundations – will become possible. Until then, however, the system will have to take a difficult path – from sham triumph to actual collapse. It is just a pity that the whole country will have to take this path together with it.