In this issue of Russian Politics and Law, we continue the analysis of the current state of Russia’s political system that we began in the previous issue. Whereas the previous issue analyzed the development of the system and its character, the authors in this issue focus on the system’s stability, particularly in the context of the 2008–9 global economic crisis. The crisis briefly shook the confidence of Russian political elites, and this is reflected in several of the articles printed here. The period of severe economic crisis proved to be relatively brief in Russia, however, and by early 2010 leading politicians had regained their confidence and largely ended various experiments in liberalization that had been undertaken when the economic situation was at its worst.
Emil Pain’s “The Political Regime in Russia in the 2000s: Special Features, Inherited and Acquired,” continues the discussion of the form of political system that has developed in Russia under Putin. Pain argues that Russia’s current political system is a mild authoritarian neopatrimonial regime, based on inertia rather than tradition. This system is successful in part because of the atomization of Russian society, which makes it easier for the rulers to push the populace in the desired direction on political matters.
Pain argues that changing conditions are undermining its stability and opening up an opportunity to create a democratic state based on law and capable of modernization. He notes that patrimonial systems are inherently unstable because they suffer from a chronic deficit of legitimacy and lack the ability to carry out a normal state’s social functions. As a result, such regimes turn into means for the elite’s self-preservation and are therefore fundamentally unsuited for carrying out any kind of societal or political modernization. Without modernization, Russia will fall further and further behind in the global economic system, which in turn will eventually stimulate society toward pushing for political changes.
In “Democracy 2010: The Past and Future of Pluralism in Russia,” Kirill Rogov shows that Russians are split in how they define democracy among three groups. One group believes that democracy involves public competition for power; members of this group see a decline in Russian democracy over the last decade. A second group focuses on human rights and the rule of law; members of this group argue that Russia has never been a democratic state. Finally, the third group follows Rousseau in believing that democracy represents a means for achieving the common good. For these people, the amount of democracy in Russia has increased over the last decade in parallel with the rise in living standards and improvements in law and order when compared to the chaotic 1990s. They do not see restrictions on various freedoms and on public competition for power that were put in place under Putin as necessarily having a negative impact on democracy in Russia.
Rogov characterizes the system that developed under Putin as a competitive oligarchy. Elements of this system were tried out in some Russian provinces in the 1990s before being appropriated for national politics under Putin. This system has created a forced consensus that has prevented intraelite conflicts at the expense of flexibility in the system. Rogov argues that the stability of this regime is likely to weaken in the near future as more and more members of regional elites and other excluded groups come to oppose the winner-take-all aspects of the system built by Putin. Because personalistic regimes are least suited for a peaceful transfer of power while being most sensitive to the influence of economic factors, Rogov ends with the possibility that political instability may play a significant role in Russian politics in the relatively near future.
Nikolai Petrov’s “Highly Managed Democracy: The Tandem and the Crisis” goes even farther, arguing that administrative and political crises await Russia regardless of how events unfold with the economic crisis. The system of highly managed democracy described by Petrov in the March–April 2011 issue of Russian Politics and Law is inherently unstable. The system is particularly unsuited to operating during an economic crisis, as its various components focus on fighting over the remaining available resources rather than working to improve the country’s overall situation.
The current article focuses on the critical role played in Russia’s governing system by representatives of the power ministries. Petrov shows that President Medvedev and his close allies are primarily focused on public relations, while Prime Minister Putin and other representatives of the security services have remained in control. Petrov argues that at the peak of the crisis, the Russian leadership temporarily liberalized the political system to reduce the pressure of potential popular discontent. Once the leaders judged that the worst of the crisis had passed, they returned to the old style of rule. He believes that the system has lost its self-preservation instinct and ability to act effectively. The end result will be an inevitable transformation of the entire political system that will lead to a restoration of normal political institutions in the relatively near future.
In his commentary on these two articles (“The Missed Opportunity for a ‘Revolution of Values’”), Andrei Ryabov argues that although the economic crisis might have been expected to stimulate the modernization of Russia’s political and socioeconomic system, it has not done so. Instead, the inertial mechanisms of post-Soviet capitalism have played a decisive role in blocking reform. Ryabov lists three system-forming elements of post-Soviet capitalism, which have united to block all change. These include the concentration of political and economic power in one narrow circle of people, the weakness of all political institutions, and the personalistic and patronage-driven basis of power relations in the country.
The combination of these elements and a relatively politically passive population has created a system that is relatively invulnerable to both internal and external shocks, unless they are severe enough to cause the whole edifice to collapse. After a brief initial panic, Russian leaders decided that the 2008–9 economic downturn was a temporary misfortune that could be waited out; it was not severe enough to require any major systemic changes. Furthermore, Ryabov argues that they believed that even a gradual and controlled softening of their control over the political system could result in its destabilization.
Although prediction is always a tricky and often unrewarding business, it seems to me that Ryabov is closer to the mark here than some of the other authors. Vladimir Putin and his colleagues have created a relatively stable political system that, while not as efficient or geared to the general welfare as some others, can nonetheless muddle along for another decade or more. And most likely, it will have Putin at the helm in some capacity for that entire period.