The Nature of the Russian Political System: Editor’s Introduction

As we get closer to the 2012 Russian presidential elections and the prospect of the potential return of President Putin, Russian scholars have increasingly focused on thinking about the nature of Russia’s political system and speculating on how it might develop in the future. In the next two issues, we explore these questions. The articles in this issue of Russian Politics and Law investigate the main characteristics of the “Putinist” political system as it developed in Russia over the last decade. The next issue will feature articles that examine potential future trajectories of this system.

Lev Gudkov’s article on “The Nature of ‘Putinism’ ” judges Putinism to be a particular type of post-totalitarian authoritarianism in which the political police wields power on behalf of the private interests of bureaucratic clans or corporations. Furthermore, he argues that this system of power is not merely conservative but is designed specifically to block the development of the rest of society and to prevent its modernization. Control in this system is exercised by the security services, who seek to milk both the state and society for their own personal enrichment.

Gudkov notes that this political system has a fundamentally different character from either the Soviet regime or a regular personalistic authoritarian regime such as that found in other countries. The new aspects of Putinism include its system for the legitimation of rule and its technology of power. Unlike Soviet-style totalitarian regimes, the Putinist political system is not a party-state, where the ruling political party has merged with the state. The regime also lacks an overarching ideology that seeks to justify its rule, nor does it engage in mass terror campaigns against political opponents. Furthermore, the population has partial freedom of access to information and the ability to engage in opposition activity as long as it does not threaten the ruling elite.

Unlike authoritarian states, the Putinist regime has a quasi-personalist and conservative character that focuses on restoring “Russian traditions” while engaging in ever-increasing corrupt activity. The personalism of the regime is particularly important, as Russia’s leaders have partially destroyed state institutions in order to cement their control of state power.

The destruction of state institutions is the main focus of Nikolai Petrov’s “The Political Mechanics of the Russian Regime: Substitutes Versus Institutions.” Petrov argues that over the last ten years, Putin and his associates have eviscerated all state institutions except the presidency by systematically stripping them of any real power or purpose. What has been left behind are decorative institutions that appear to retain the powers of their former selves while actually performing few if any useful functions. The symbol of this transformation is the frequently cited remark by Boris Gryzlov, the Speaker of the State Duma, that the parliament is no place for political discussion. The substantive roles of both the Duma and the Federation Council have been handed over to various consultative councils, while the government itself as a decision-making organ was largely replaced by the presidential administration as long as Putin was president. Regional executives were, in turn, replaced by presidential representatives to the federal districts. The substitutions reached into the private sector, as well, with the replacement of independent large corporations with corporations controlled by the state and its top officials.

Petrov calls the system that results from this effort “highly managed democracy.” Its essential characteristics include strong personal power that is unlimited by institutions, the manipulations of public opinion through the mass media, and the holding of controlled elections. The consequences of building this type of government include excessive centralization, internal conflicts, inability to make decisions, and stagnation. These consequences in turn bring about a loss of flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances on the part of the regime, followed by a gradual loss of effectiveness in governing. The system not only fails to react to crisis but also frequently causes its own internal crises because a lack of failsafe mechanisms prevents the authorities from realizing that they are making mistaken decisions. The crisis may come from a lack of resources to maintain the patronage system that keeps the government functioning, from an internal political conflict among members of the ruling elite that spreads beyond their ability to control, or from a local crisis that expands to engulf the whole country because of the leadership’s inability to deal with it.

While the system is designed to maintain the current leaders’ grip on power, in the long run, Petrov believes, it guarantees its own failure as hostility to the system gradually develops among the population. Because the public lacks the ability to change the system, anti­government attitudes build among the population until they reach an “explosive” level that may bring down both the leadership and the entire system of highly managed democracy.

The last article in this issue, by Aleksandr Kynev, examines the impact of Russia’s governing system on regional politics. In “Distinctive Features of Interparty Struggle in the Russian Regions: Conflict Among Influence Groups and Simulation of a Party System,” Kynev shows how changes in electoral and party laws have helped create a simulated multiparty system at the federal, regional, and municipal levels, under the tight control of the executive branch. He argues that in modern Russia there are no real parties in the traditional meaning of the word. The reforms of electoral laws and rules governing political parties that were enacted over the last decade have deprived local elites of any real influence over political developments in their regions. The goal of these reforms was to increase the ability of the central government to control the situation in the regions.

The result is a semifeudal system that turns center–periphery relations into something resembling the interactions between a sovereign and his vassals. This development has not increased the controllability of the regions’ political elites but has merely created the appearance of unity. Conflict among regional interest groups has continued in other forms and with less public scrutiny. In particular, the center has essentially turned a blind eye to the regional authorities’ increasing arbitrariness “in exchange for the governors’ loyalty and willingness to deliver needed results in federal elections.” The result has been a shift in the form of regional political conflicts, rather than their disappearance. Whereas previously such conflicts were conducted more or less openly in the public sphere, they now start within local branches of the United Russia party, before shifting to secretive lobbying efforts and anonymous information warfare.

Kynev largely agrees with the other authors in this issue in arguing that this system has achieved the phantom appearance of political control, without the reality of effective governance. All three authors firmly believe that Russia’s current system of government is unsustainable and will lead to crisis in the relatively near future. In the next issue of Russian Politics and Law, we will further examine the possible trajectories for Russia’s political development.

One thought on “The Nature of the Russian Political System: Editor’s Introduction

  1. Pingback: Russian Politics and Law, March 2011 Table of Contents « Russian Military Reform

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