Explaining the Failed Expectations of Russian Regime Change, Part 1: Rusological Apocalypticism Versus Social Science

by Gordon M. Hahn

[This article is the first in a trilogy examining how the West’s biases and wishful thinking have led to unrealistic and unmet expectations of imminent regime collapse in Russia.]

Western and Western-tied rusology is plagued by a kind of apocalypticism, constantly predicting the end of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule and soft authoritarian regime, and they are constantly getting it wrong. Their biases lead to failed or absent methodology leading to misanalysis, if we assume the absence of a strategic communications disinformation campaign. Real regime transformation is a multicausal phenomenon, requiring simultaneous crises. A systematic study of possible regime change in Russia shows that such is possible but has not been imminent recently and is not so this year.

Recent manifestations of rusological apocalypticism are not few and far between. According to Carnegie’s Tatyana Stanovaya: “Everyone senses a new perestroika coming, making it crucial to seize the initiative now” (http://carnegie.ru/commentary/?fa=68624). According to Carnegie’s Pertsev, “Russian elites….doubt the future of the system as a whole” (http://carnegie.ru/commentary/?fa=67705). Commenting on the controversy over the decision to abruptly remove obsolete slum-like housing and replace it with new housing, Pertsev continued in the same vain: “The authorities are in a no-win situation as a result of their unpopular plans to demolish five-story residential buildings in Moscow. If they stick to their guns, angry urbanites are bound to take to the streets in protest. If they yield to public demands, they’ll demonstrate the effectiveness of mass protests” (http://carnegie.ru/commentary/?fa=69821&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWm1ZeVlqTmtOVEEyTURReSIsInQiOiJoWlE0dlU2WEs4MzUrOXdhVXRXS3drb2hwZTEzNGZka3NicUUwSXh6aDA1MGpcL2VyU1FhOGpXOXZBTkVXVnpRTFBtb2dmMHBIXC9XRVwvMFUwRXhaZFJVQVdlSlNTR0w3UHI2V1wvTnlVSUtxUkRCRmJzRTlLZmJYQ2Y3NXJ3eU5SckkifQ%3D%3D).This emphasis on a developing and soon-to-be debilitating elite or regime split – in a more measured fashion I will return to that theme further below – has also been taken up by Western-financed Russian-language daily Vedomosti (www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2017/05/10/689124-osennim-viboram-eliti and http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/video/2017/05/10/689290-aresti-gubernatorov-paralizuyut-elitu). Even the DC-tied, but sometimes objective Stratfor most recently chimed in with its weakly-grounded analysis of ‘dissent shaking the Kremlin’s foundations’ (www.stratfor.com/geopolitical-diary/dissent-shakes-foundation-kremlins-power). Taken together one might be forgiven for seeing in all this a concerted strategic communications effort to turn what many wish into reality. More likely, wishful thinking and group think drive this recent spate of articles.

But this is an old story from the Carnegie Moscow Center and other DC-oriented institutions. The Putin regime supposedly is persistently under imminent doom, about to fall, collapse, implode, etc., etc. In April 2016, Nikolai Petrov, former Carnegie expert now with the liberal Higher School of Economics in Moscow, predicted the Putin regime would fall before April 2017. A short while ago, Stanovaya was predicting the regime’s number would come up before the end of 2016 (www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR_166_PUTINS_DOWNFALL.pdf, p. 2). Everywhere such analysts see signs of the Putin regime’s end times. I have not been immune from warning about the possibility of revolution against Putin’s soft authoritarian regime. In 2012 I noted: “Absent continuing liberalization of the political system (as occurred during the first peak of perestroika 2.0 from December 2011 through April 2012), the outcome of a third Putin term is likely to be either a revolution from below––or a full-scale clampdown on civil society” (http://russiaotherpointsofview.typepad.com/russia_other_points_of_vi/2012/05/putin-and-medvedev-liberalize-government.html). But I did so in terms of the long view – looking six years forward in the just noted case – and not repeatedly predicting near-term revolts.

These misanalyses pale in significance to the stream of claims from even more tightly DC-tied and biased institutions and individuals in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. There began, as I noted earlier, “a veritable flood of articles predicting Putin’s death, illness or overthrow produced by such adepts from the ‘Washington consensus,’ as I have detailed elsewhere (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/19/putin-is-crazy-and-sick-the-lows-of-american-rusology/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/11/the-myth-of-an-imminent-anti-putin-coup-rusological-fail-or-stratcomm/).”

Oddly enough when the potential for a real perestroika 2.0 – perestroika can mean in this context liberalizing reforms and/or regime collapse – emerged during Dmitry Medvedev’s liberal presidency and political ‘thaw’, such voices were silent on the fact. Instead, they focused on an alleged growing authoritarian nature of the Russian regime. In reality, after the initial rollback of Russia’s tentative democracy during Putin’s first term, the regime has remained consistently soft authoritarian, with movement towards liberal reforms during the Medvedev interregnum. Indeed, according to the DC-tied rusological community was nearly unanimous that one of several hardliners, not a relatively more liberal like Medvedev, would succeed Putin in 2008. In short, the think tanks and their experts have been repeatedly getting it wrong. They do so because they underestimate Putin, support and thus engage in wishful thinking regarding the liberal opposition in Russia, and tend to support that opposition’s revolutionary rather than a negotiated transition change of regime.

It must be recognized that Putin is a very effective operative within the system he, albeit, designed. He endeavors to remain atop and at the center of his ‘sistema’ by ‘satisficing’ and balancing multifarious competing institutions, economic interests, clans, parties, and ideological orientations. This alone mitigates against the imminent collapse of his regime. In addition, real democratizing regime change is not so simple. This we have seen across the former Soviet Union since 1991. And as we have seen recently in Poland and even in the Greece and France, anti-systemic, anti-democratic forces can easily rear their ugly heads threatening a de-consolidation or even dismantling of established democracies.

The fall of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes requires multiple causes and crises. Bias and wishful thinking lead the analyst to leap at the first or necessary cause and declare an imminent regime collapse. An effective balancer atop the system can manage a single deep crisis. He is less likely to be able to handle several deep simultaneous crises brought about by efforts to reform ancien regime. With multiple causes and crises extant, the possibility of a truly revolutionary situation – not mere mass protest and/or violence as we saw in Ukraine in both 2004 and 2013-2014 – arises. From there, the revolutionary situation can bring one of several outcomes, only two of which are revolutionary (from below and above). However, there are regime transformational modes, such as negotiated and imposed transitions, available as exit ramps from crises for the more flexible and skilled authoritarian ruler. For the less flexible leader there is the option of tightening the screws, re-authoritarianization, or even totalitarianization either by creeping retrenchment or a hardline coup.

Typically, a transformational or revolutionary crisis comes with a decrease in the effectiveness of authoritarian rule in terms of maintaining domestic balance and stability and/or providing the state with the necessary resources to compete abroad. Usually an economic or financial crisis ensues to which rulers respond with reforms. The reforms are either insufficient to resolve the pre-crisis situation and/or bring unintended consequences, creating a full-blown political crisis. Factions within the regime’s ruling group emerge that deepen into a full-blown regime split, weakening the regime vis-a-vis the societal opposition, prompting defections from the regime ruling groups to the opposition. A transformational or revolutionary crisis arrives with the establishment of dual or multiple sovereignty under which in addition to the ruling group or groups controlling the state apparatus there emerge societal opposition coalition who demand a new form of rule (regime) and possess sufficient leadership, organizational, financial, informational-propaganda resources and skills roughly commensurate with those of the ruling group. At this point, the regime’s ability to crack down and re-authoritarianize or to carry out an imposed transition — a regime transformation led and designed solely by the ruling group or groups – may be crippled. If so, rulers and the opposition coalition usually have the option of negotiating a transition to a new regime but may not be in a position to control their respective radicals: regime hardliners and opposition radicals. If such polarization or a mix of polarization and mounting crises confound a transition agreement, then a revolutionary mode of regime transformation becomes most likely. It is this social science of complex causality, high level of contingency, and several transformational pathways or modalities that apocalyptical Western rusology often eschews.   

Thus far, President Putin has never needed to engage fundamental reforms, but President Medvedev moved in that direction, especially after December 2011. However, Putin immediately rolled back or otherwise countered those reforms upon re-assuming the presidency in may 2012. Since then Putin has been an effective, soft authoritarian balancer, and the emergence of reforms not less multiple crises are not on the horizon.

[Part 2 — on Putin’s ability to effectively balance his ‘sistema’ — is forthcoming next week]

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution. Dr. Hahn also has been a Contributing Analyst for Russia Direct (russia-direct.com) and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California) (www.russiaotherpointsofview.com).

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About Gordon M. Hahn