by Gordon M. Hahn
Western and Western-tied rusology is plagued by a kind of apocalypticism, reflected in persistent predictions of the imminent end of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule and soft authoritarian regime. Why do Western, especially American and British, and pro-Western Russian Russia watchers are constantly getting it wrong? In short, it is because their biases and the lack of an objective methodology must inevitably produce misanalysis. This typically is the case, if we assume that any particular faulty piece is not part of a strategic communications disinformation campaign. Real regime transformation is a multi-causal phenomenon, requiring simultaneous crises, and such crisis politics demands precise conceptualization and definition, detailed typology, meticulous parsing and comparative insight. A systematic study of possible regime change in Russia shows that such is possible but has not been imminent during Putin’s reign and is unlikely to occur this year or next.
Introduction: Rusological Apocalypticism
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 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). Taken together one might be forgiven for seeing in all this a concerted strategic communications effort to turn what many wish into reality.
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. 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. 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 as 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: Putin the Soft Authoritarian Balancer
Putin is not the all-powerful and aggressive dictator he is painted out to be in Western media, academia, think tank and government circles. As I have pointed out often, Putin’s function within Russia’s political system is as much an arbiter and balancer as he is a dictator (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/06/14/putin-the-balancer-containing-and-balancing-russias-multifarious-forces-through-soft-authoritarianism/). To be sure, Putin has levers in the form of his overall, though not thorough command of the siloviki for punishing irreconcilable opposition forces. But equally if not more important is Putin’s role as a balancer.
Edward Schatz’s 2009 Comparative Politics article lists five features of effective soft authoritarian regimes which can be adapted as follows: (1) a committed core of elite supporters; (2) the ability to coopt and mobilize non-core individuals through material incentives; (3) the use of measured coercion, including harassment and occasionally ‘when necessary’ violence against irreconcilable opponents in proportion to the level of risk they pose to the system; (4) the successful management and/or control of the information space facilitating a majority manufactured to one degree or another through “discursive pre-emption” or the creation of a consensus on what is acceptable and unacceptable political speech. This describes pretty well Putin’s ‘sistema.’
Putin is a relatively soft authoritarian leader riding a relatively unstable or metastable ‘sistema‘, state and society. One of his oft-discussed roles is as arbiter between institutions and elite clans seeking access to the state resource feeding trough. Another less discussed role is to balance various ideological orientations and political parties ranging across the entire political spectrum, state and society, allowing each to participate in Russia’s political life within limits he largely sets. Some forces are allowed access to elements of power to one extent or another; others are kept at various distances from power centers and economic and financial resources controlled by the state, depending on their perceived controllability and potential to seriously weaken the regime should they defect to the opposition and thereby potentially threaten Putin’s carefully balanced system.
When necessary Putin represses, but he does so carefully calibrating the extent to which he can repress and not provoke significant backlash. Moreover, he masks repression by law-bounded policing and judicial practicePutin may signal or instruct law enforcement and other siloviki and civilian organs of power to target certain groups. Signals suggest less harsh treatment is required, instructions suggest more robust measures. Some of these organs take the initiative in targeting groups Putin highlights but often go beyond their writ to expand the number of targets in order to settle their own scores and strengthen their clans and accounts, often going beyond the bounds of the law and cautious parameters Putin prefers. The Chechens’ murder of Politkovskaya and Nemtsov are good examples. This explains many of the tactical zigs and zags in court proceedings against such figures’ alleged murderers and opposition figures, for example.
Putin is somewhat akin to a tight-rope walker who negotiates a narrow wavering strand using a stick to center himself. Indeed, managing a primarily authoritarian but nevertheless hybrid form of rule is complex and requires a skillful player to maintain the system’s inherent metastability. Equally complex is Russia’s political diversity. Delicate balancing is required to control Russia’s highly multifarious polity consisting of numerous ideological orientations and ethnic groups, far-flung territories, harsh climate, and long borders. Let’s look at how Putin balances these forces and whether he does so effectively.
Balancing the political spectrum
Putin tends and prefers to balance near the center of the political spectrum, where ideology is replaced by practical power-building and maintenance. The far ends of the political spectrum, which he seeks to isolate from the centers of power but not remove from the polity or even the political system, are the liberal democratic opposition on one end and communists and ultra-nationalists on the other.
Putin limits but also leaves space for opposition articulations in Russian politics. It is allowed to function openly, organize mass demonstrations, and run and even sometimes win elections. Similar balancing over the past year includes the freeing of political activist Ildar Dadin in February of this year, and the Central Election Commission’s annulment of the fraud-plagued regional election in Barvikh based on a complaint by the democratic parties, including that by key opposition figure Aleksei Navalnyi’s Progress Party (https://tvrain.ru/news/vybory_v_barvihe_otmenili-407818/ and http://cikrf.ru/cik_info/news/20160419.html). Most recent is the flexible position adopted by one of Putin’s key political clients, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, to compromise with opposition elements after resistance emerged to a city plan to demolish old housing. Rather than denying that corruption exists and fully shut down those who expose it, Putin has sought to co-opt the corruption issue from liberals like Navalnyi, who rose to prominence in Russian politics through his corruption exposes. Over recent years corruption arrests have occurred higher and higher state officials, and this past year touched deputy ministers and sitting governors, for example, last April’s arrest of Deputy Culture Minister Grigorii Pimunov (http://echo.msk.ru/news/1751242-echo.html). Officials appear vulnerable to arrest as long as they are not close Putin associates and have been involved in corruption at a level exceeding their rank, violating the principle ‘vorovat’ po chinu’ or ‘steal according to your rank’ from state and state-tied coffers.
Irreconcilable Opposition Democrats
One of the opposition elements he needs to calibrate, balance and limit is the liberal societal opposition, including the intelligentsia, the ‘creative class’, parties such as Yabloko, the Progress Party, and Parnas, and leaders such as Grigorii Yavlinskii, Aleksei Navalnyi, and Mikhail Kasyanov. In dealing with irreconcilable opposition democrats Putin uses a mix of exclusion and limited inclusion. He deploys aggressive law enforcement and repression along with co-existence as a safety valve, letting steam exit the system. Thus, aside from Navalnyi, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, and a few selected others, members of these parties are rarely tried and imprisoned. They are almost always ‘only’ detained and arrested at demonstrations conducted in ways violating Russia’s relatively strict laws on such actions, then released and sometimes fined.
Although, early in the Putin era some Yabloko members were brought into and remain in the government – and of course Parnas’s Mikhail Kasyanov was prime minister during Putin’s first year in the presidency – Putin maintains his distance from these leaders. He never meets with them (with the exception of Yavlinskii years ago) and harshly criticizes their actions. Yekaterinburg’s mayor, Yevgenii Roizman, who, it was recently reported, will be running for Governor of Sverdlovsk from the Parnas party, straddles the cusp between the irreconcilable and reconcilable democratic opposition.
At the same time, Yabloko and Parnas are allowed to run in regional and federal election cycles. However, they and challengers like Aleksei Navalnyi are restricted from presidential competition either through refusal of registration — in Navalnyi’s through constant law enforcement harassment leveraging prosecution and conviction — and/or administrative resources that tilt the electoral playing field against them. Indeed, Putin’s balancing is exemplified well by the regime’s harassment but refusal to sentence to jail Navalnyi. There are surely elements within his circle calling for this, but Navalnyi remains free to campaign for the presidency at present for the 2018 election. Both Navalnyi and his campaign are at the same time kept under wraps, for example, by constant legal battles, imprisonment of Navalnyi’s brother and harassment on the campaign trail.
Reconcilable Opposition Democrats
More reconcilable pro-democracy opposition forces are spared repression but find their electoral prospects limited. On the other hand, they are given access to the state apparatus and budget flows, often co-opted into the presidential administration and government offices. More reconcilable democratic opposition members are rarely detained at demonstration, in part because they are careful to adhere to the legal parameters of demonstrations and at times signal their willingness to negotiate with the regime and urge others to do so as well. Their statements tend to confine to policy and not persons; thus, they eschew personal criticism of Putin and meet with him when invited to the Kremlin. Such leaders include Mikhail Prokhorov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Yavlinskii. A similar example is the Party of Growth led by Business Russia leader Boris Titov and former State Duma deputy and government minister Oksana Dmitrieva.The Growth Party sometimes supports, sometimes opposes Putin policies, and recently issued a statement calling on Putin not to run for a fourth presidential term. Titov, being Putin’s presidential ombudsman for entrepreneurial rights and tapped by Putin in the run-up to the presidential campaign this year to draft an long-term economic development program for Russia, also overlaps the centrist space occupied by regime liberals.
It is important to note that irreconcilables and reconcilables appear often on state media, including central television channels, and especially on indirectly state-funded pro-democracy radio station Ekho Moskvy. Some, such as reconcilable oppositionist Vladimir Ryzhkov, have even had their own programs on Ekho Moskvy.
Closer to both the center of the political spectrum and the Kremlin are regime liberals. These are liberals, often in the economic free market sense but also to some extent in their political views. They are co-opted moderate democrats who strategically prefer evolutionary development and political compromise to revolutionary and confrontational politics. They seek to transform Russia from within the system. Putin can weaken the street democrats by co-opting these figures, and a mass defection of such figures from the regime to the opposition would signal the beginning of a regime split that can often open the door to transitional or revolutionary regime transformation. Putin’s appointment a year ago of former Finance Minister and opposition-sympathizer Aleksei Kudrin as presidential economic advisor and to direct the Center for Strategic Development in preparing a long-term economic development plan for Putin is a classic example of cementing liberals within the system by coopting them. Similarly, last autumn Putin appointed the liberally-oriented Sergei Kirienko to the post of presidential administration deputy head, which includes the media portfolio. Kirienko was a protege of the assassinated democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in the 1990s and later one of the founders of the liberal Union of Right Forces party (for Kirienko’s biographical details, see https://gordonhahn.com/2016/11/22/putins-surprise-the-resurrection-of-sergei-kirienko-complete-version-parts-1-and-2/ and Gordon M. Hahn, “From Chernomyrdin to Kirienko and the Rise of the Nizhegorod Group,” Problems of Post-Communism, 45, 5 (September-October 1998): 1-15, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10758216.1998.11655802). This month, the Kremlin’s state service, personnel recruitment, and grant-giving policy operations were given to Kirienko (http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001201704120006; https://news.rambler.ru/video/36597767/?utm_content=news&utm_medium=read_more&utm_source=copylink; and https://news.rambler.ru/video/36597767-kirienko-poluchil-novuyu-dolzhnost/?utm_campaign=news_politics_topday&utm_medium=exchange&_openstat=%3B%3Bpolitics_topday%3B&_openstat=ng%3B&utm_source=ng). Even mainstream U.S. media organ Politico perceived a Kremlin “thawed attitude to the media,” including a grudging, even backhanded, albeit, compliment: “Under Kiriyenko’s stewardship, the Kremlin has relaxed its choke on the media in an attempt to appear less paranoid and appeal to more moderate Russians ahead of next year’s presidential election” (http://www.politico.eu/article/russia-media-dissident-press-meduza-enemy-of-the-kremlin/?utm_source=CGI+Daily+Russia+Brief&utm_campaign=593422ee85-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_04_24&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_814a2b3260-593422ee85-281712945&mc_cid=593422ee85&mc_eid=f4aac5f16f).
The Kremlin Center
Putin’s ideological orientation is traditionalist: oriented around the Russian state in both domestic and foreign politics. Domestically, the priority of the state dictates two fundamental goals and principles: political stability and territorial integrity. Political stability is requisite for the state to function. Without a functioning state, the traditionalist view holds, society will devolve into chaos. Given Russia’s communal, ideological, political diversity and geographical expanse a strong central government is needed to guarantee both Russia’s political stability and territorial integrity. Ideologically, in terms of domestic institutional design, power should be to a certain extent concentrated to some extent in one person’s or institution’s grasp than in an American-style separation-of-powers scheme and perhaps so with regard to a parliamentary system as well, even if the goal is a democratic system. The tendency towards centralization occurs both horizontally and vertically. Horizontally, power is inordinately concentrated in the executive branch (especially the president and his administration but also the Cabinet and its ministries), on the one hand. at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. Vertically, it is concentrated in the federal government in Moscow at the expense of the the regional and local governments outside Moscow and in the state as opposed to society more generally.
In Putin’s system he and the Kremlin are not just the nucleus of the political system and quasi-federation’s nucleus but they occupy the center of Russia’s political spectrum. The political center consists of statists of various stripes, from moderate economic statists to laissez faire gradualist political reformers stressing law and order to law and order-firsters to those more hardline than the relatively soft authoritarian Putin such as Igor Sechin. The basic pro-Putin forces include: the clans united under the ‘Ozero’ umbrella, the Petersburg and general siloviki, Petersburg and other civiliki, the military-industrial complex, state oil, gas and other natural resource-for export sectors, Yedinaya Rossiya (YeR or United Russia), the All-Russian People’s Front, and a slight majority of the population itself that routinely votes for Putin and YeR. These groups are cemented together by patronage in the form of state positions, access to state budget funds, state investment programs, permitted corruption delved out ‘po chinu’ or ‘according to one’s rank’.
Systemic Left and Right Statists
Moving away from the political spectrum’s center to the more statist side, which stands in opposition to the three liberal democratic groupings and, in some cases, the Putin center itself, there is the systemic left and systemic right. This consists of the socialist-oriented Spravedlivaya Rossiya (SR or Fair Russia) party and the more radical but still Kremlin-cooperative Communist Party (KPRF) on the left and the Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s populist-ultra-nationalist and misnomered Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) on the right. These parties’ relationship with the Kremlin is akin to the regime liberals on the non-statist democratic side of the spectrum. The difference is that systemic liberals occasionally get executive branch seats at the federal level, while leftist and rightist systemic forces are allowed to run candidates in presidential elections and win seats in the Duma.
Anti-Systemic Left and Right
The anti-systemic left and right opposition elements are as far from the center as the irreconcilable democratic opposition and includes very few reconcilable elements. Therefore, their relationship with the Kremlin are similarly conflictive. It includes the radical communist Left Front headed by Sergei Udaltsov, who has just ended a five-year prison term for attempting to turn the 2011-2012 post-Duma election protests into an open revolution and disobeying police to leave the designated protest location after the protest time period had expired. He displayed some semi-reconcilability upon release by saying he was open to cooperation with Sergei Mironov’s SR and Gennadii Zyuganov’s KPRF (www.ng.ru/politics/2017-08-10/3_7049_udalcov.html).
The Anti-Systemic Nationalists and Ultra-Nationalists (Neo-Fascists)
The other wing of the radical statist portion of the political spectrum consists of numerous but small the anti-systemic nationalist, ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist opposition groups. These include Slavic Union, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, Russian National Unity, the Eurasian Party, among others. All except the last of these have been subject to prosecution for breaking protest laws and regulations, committing crimes and terrorist attacks. The ultra-nationalist Eurasian Party of Aleksandr Dugin plays the political game as if it is a pro-systemic, pro-Putin party but is actually anti-systemic. If in the very unlikely event that someone like its leader Aleksandr Dugin were to come to power, the system and Russian foreign policy would get major overhauls and would be unrecognizable from their present forms. Putin is an economic Eurasianist, seeking the economic integration of Eurasia and the Eurasian Economic Union’s (EEU) economic integration with China, India and the EU. A political EEU along the lines of the EU is not out of the question but is a long-term goal and has nothing in common with re-creating the USSR. Putin’s occasional tolerance of radical nationalists like Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin should be taken as Putin’s support for Eurasianism no more than Putin’s tolerance of radical anti-systemic opposition democrats should be construed as his support for Russian liberals.
Balancing Russia’s Communalist Complexity
In addition to balancing Russia’s full-range, very polarized, if still contained political-ideological spectrum, Putin must contain a considerably complex, multifarious communal structure and its contentious politics. Russia is not a nation-state, it has over a hundred indigenous ethno-national groups. many potentially mobilized and even separatist for historical and institutional reasons, most notable perhaps being the Soviet communist regime gave more than 30 of them administrative-territorial units and other institutional amenities that reinforced their sense of a separate national identity. There are ethnic tensions between various non-Russian nationalities (Tatars and Bashkirs, Chechens and Avars, Chechens and Dargins, Chechens and Ingust, Ingush and Ossetians, Kabards and Balkars, Karachais and Cherkess, etc.) as well as between some Russians and non-Russian ethnic groups.
In addition, a complex religious structure overlaps nationality further complicating Russia’s communal matrix. With some 75 percent of the population identifying as Russian Orthodox Christian (mostly ethnic Russians) but with far fewer being practicing believers, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) while it remains ‘first among equal’ religions before the state, with which it has a historical synergistic relationship must nevertheless compete with Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, the three other legally codified ‘traditional religions’ of Russia. Other Christian religions are given short shrift compared to Islam, and other, non-indigenous religions, such as the the recently banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, are sometimes outright persecuted and prosecuted by the state. More importantly, the radicalization of Islam globally with the rise of Islamism and Jihadism has not bypassed Russia. With 15 million Muslims making up 10 percent of Russia’s population and comprising huge majorities in their native, often economically less developed ethnic titular republics in the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, Moscow has a difficult challenge in integrating Muslims into Russia’s rapidly changing social, cultural, economic and political life. Moreover, Russian Islam is itself greatly divided, with Sunni, Sufi, and Shia groups that are themselves subdivided between Sufism’s numerous tariqats (brotherhoods), which in turn are divided into virds (sub-tariqat ethnic-oriented formations).
The most salient of these communalist challenges for post-Soviet Russia has been the instability in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, which saw a radical Chechen nationalism under the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI) movement in the early 1990s evolve into the pan-Caucasus jihadist movement under the banner of the so-called ‘Imarat Kavkaz’ (IK or Caucasus Emirate) terrorist underground and more recently the Islamic State’s Russia affiliate, the Caucasus Vilaiyat of the Islamic State (CVIS), which evolved from the IK. The North Caucasus remains Putin’s Achilles heel with a Chechnya only subdued at a great price by allowing Chechnya’s Head Ramzan Kadyrov Islamicize and largely autonomize the region in violation of the Russian constitution and criminalize in violation of Russian law flagrantly. Other regions where jihadism emerged, most notably Daghestan, have seen a fall in jihadi terrorism only because the CE mujahedin, now mostly CVIS mujahedin have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad.
Russia’s communal diversity is a potential threat to both Russia’s political stability and territorial integrity, since various communal minorities, especially ethnic communities, are concentrated in certain regions often having an external border with co-ethnics inhabiting adjacent territories in neighboring states. Again, the most salient of these challenges in post-Soviet times has been the instability in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. However, for a regional crisis, even a mega-regional one, say, like a pan-Caucasus revolt, would likely require other problems to tip the scales of Russia’s meta-stability to instability.
Within Putin’s support base he distributes rents balancing the interests of the various Petersburg ‘Ozero’ business, financial-industrial clans along with those private oligarchs who agreed to play ball with the Kremlin according to its rules and strictures in the early 2000s. The former include the Rotenbergs, Timchenkos, siloviki oligarchs like Igor Sechin and his oil RosNeft conglomerate, GazProm, SberBank, military-industrial enterprises, among others. Among the latter are LukOil, Alfa Bank, Sistema, and Mikhail Prokhorov (Onexim, Rennaissance). These clans can occasionally cut across ideological and party lines, somewhat complicating the overall political landscape and thus Putin’s distributive calculus. Thus, the very staid and generally politically traditional SberBank is headed by Petersburg liberal civiliki, former Economic and Trade Minister German Gref. The top clans also cut across institutional lines; that is, a clan can have members in several state institutions, state enterprises, and/or private businesses. There are also inter-regional and intra-regional clans with business interests, such as Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya.
It is often written that Putin’s ‘sistema’ is a personalist one that dispenses with institutions. This is overstated. Institutions, including the constitution, continue to shape Russian politics, if in more limited ways than in a consolidated democracy. Institutions like the FSB, presidential administration, Central Bank, Finance Ministry, Duma, and Federation Council have their own institutional interests and tend to represent sometimes very different interests. This is obvious from Putin’s decision to step aside from the presidency in 2008 and honor the letter of the Russian constitution regarding presidential terms if subsequently perhaps not that regarding the division of powers between premier and president. The most powerful institutions outside the office of the president are the siloviki (FSB, MVD, military, National Guard) and presidential administration followed by the Government (especially the Finance and Energy Ministries) and Duma. Regions, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg, also count among institutional interests, often overlapping with the complex web of communal interests overlaying the Russian landscape.
Putin is sometimes to forced to step in and settle disputes between clans such as those between Kadyrov and the siloviki (FSB, MVD, military, National Guard) or between siloviki clans as occurred in the jostling for power prior to Putin’s 2007 announcement that he would not violate the constitution and run for a third term and instead support Dmitrii Medvedev for the presidency. We might see more of the same aimed at landing the prime ministership should Putin be leaning to replace Medvedev in that position after re-election as president in May.
Quasi-Institutionalism under Personalist Power
Finally, another way Putin has maintained stability is by avoiding the pitfall of most authoritarian leaders: overly denuding institutions. To be sure, Putin’s soft authoritarianism is a personalist one; his personal and Weberian charisma and overall effectiveness buttress his personal authority and legitimacy. However, he balances between his personalist power — based on a network of clients, friends and family, and an informal ‘court’ of courtiers — and formal institutions (http://carnegie.ru/commentary/72910 and http://carnegie.ru/2017/07/26/ru-pub-72625). To be sure, the present system cannot maintain forever the balanced hybridity of soft authoritarianism and weak democracy that lies between hard authoritarianism and totalitarianism, on the one hand, and a consolidated democracy, on the other hand. Such systems typically are metastable rather then stable. But for nearly two decades Putin has been able to maintain his personalist power by not going it alone in relation to institutions just as he has done so in relation to political actors. Most fundamentally, he has avoided flagrantly violating the constitution. At the same time, he has certainly centralized great power in his hands by subordinating legislative and judicial branches to the executive branch, the government to the president and his administration with the executive branch, and the regions to the federal center. Uncertainty has been sharply limited in elections above the municipal level and outside the smaller regions, especially in the national republics.
But despite the informal power of clans and the ‘court’, personalist power and centralization, institutions retain some ‘stickiness. The branches of government still carry out different functions and within the executive branch institutions like the government and presidential administration perform separate functions. The stickiness of institutions is reflected in institutional or bureaucratic interests and politics, pitting ministry against ministry (Finance versus Economic Development, Finance versus Defense), siloviki versus siloviki (FSB versus SK), provincial capitols against regions, regions against other regions, and regions against the center. In addition, there is some room left for legislative initiative and debate, occasional judicial independence, and regional diversity under the principle that ‘the harshness of Russian laws is softened by less than obligatory compliance with them, though this lenience of the lack of rule of law is largely afforded to the elite and those closest to the center of the system–Putin. Similarly, the electoral system is not fully rigged simply be deploying across-the-board coercion and bans of parties, etc. Rather, it is tilted in the Kremlin’s favor through relatively careful use of administrative resources, a slanted legislative framework, media control (not censorship), and various dirty tricks. Many lower-level elections comply with European standards, proceed with uncertainty of outcome, and are won by the opposition, especially at the lower levels of the system. At higher levels administrative resources and some fraud are limited to the extent necessary to win but not to fully eliminate opposition elements from the system. Parties exist and function, and some independent media survives for them to voice their positions. Economic institutions are much less compromised by personalist rule and show some effectiveness. Kudrin could never have one Finance Minister of the year in Europe, and the Central Bank could not effectively manage currency fluctuations without some institutional integrity. In short, while Russian institutions — the political especially — may be weak, they are not nearly fully emasculated and can be made more robust and sticky rapidly with a change in management and then political culture.
In addition to effective leadership through balancing the top of the patrimonial pyramid that is the core of the soft authoritarian Putin’s support, cooptation to extend the patrimonial patronage circle of supporters, and limited and carefully calibrated coercion, the soft authoritarian can muster additional support, especially among the general and potential voting public through effective information control and management. This requires a mix of blocking or countering disadvantageous information through very limited censorship and effective strategic communications or propaganda. The Kremlin achieves this by controlling the commanding heights of the media that broadcast television functions as in Russia and allowing some opposition messaging in less accessed media such as newspapers, radio, and Internet. In this way and through limited repression of those who express alternative views, it has built a majority consensus. Russian political correctness is shaped more from above than American political correctness, but both rely on ostracizing certain types of discourse – that is, discursive pre-emption.
As one can see, given all the elements that a soft authoritarian Russian leader must juggle and balance, his/her task is an immensely complex if interesting one–even before one gets to foreign and security policy.
PART 3: What a Regime Transformational Situation Looks Like: It Doesn’t Look Like Putin’s Russia Over the Next Few Years
Despite the claims of many Russian opposition figures and their Western supporters, the Putin system is not about to collapse and Putin is not about to be overthrown in a coup or revolution from above. A regime transformation may be closer at hand, but it is not imminent as long as Putin maintains his vigor and his ability to balance political entities, freedom and repression, institutions and his personal power and avoids an economic crisis or war that sparks a domestic crisis (economic or political). He might also might be wise to avoid reforms and if decides to initiate them he best tread carefully and well-prepared. Most often regime transformations, regardless whether revolutionary or transitional, begin with an economic or war-induced crisis to which the regime responds with political and/or economic reforms.
If reforms resolve the crisis, then the matter is done. However, more often than not, especially with reforms that are at considerable odds with the extant system, reform brings unintended consequences. They can produce a disagreement within the circle of regime ruling groups, sparking a regime split in which key regime actors defect to the opposition. If regime defections so strengthen the opposition that the latter constitutes a credible competing claim to the authority to rule, then a revolutionary situation has emerged. The opposition’s capacity to mount a credible competing claim and thus challenge the existing order depends on its ability to acquire and successfully deploy enough financial, informational, organizational, cadre, and even coercive means to an extent that rivals that of the current regime or at least prevents the latter from overwhelming the former.
Once a revolutionary situation is afoot, the regime’s ruling circles must decide whether to attempt to crush the opposition, impose a transition to a new system on its own, or negotiate with its moderate elements an orderly exit from power through a transition pact outlining the path to the new system. If the transition is from totalitarianism or, more likely, from authoritarianism to democracy, then along with a new constitution, a system for convening re-founding or convoking elections, a settlement regarding the previous regime leaders’ fate in light of any crimes they may have committed while in power. If they make this decision in time and talks succeed in producing a transition pact or agreement, the revolutionary or transformational crisis is over. Successful negotiations will depend on their completion before a debilitating level of crisis or a ‘structural crisis’ arrives, state institutions maintaining some level of function and not atrophying, and a structure of political strategic action that is not so highly polarized regime and/or opposition radicals (hardliners and revolutionaries, respectively) that regime softliners and opposition moderates cannot agree on and implement a transition pact.
If moderates’ cannot prevail not, and the regime chooses to end reforms, crackdown on the opposition, or impose a transition to a new regime which they lack the wherewithal to carry out unilaterally, then an illegal, anti-constitutional revolutionary transformation — rather than a legal, institutionalized, and orderly transitional one — is in the cards. If the opposition is entrenched inside the state by regime softliners who have radicalized to support a regime transformation, they may undertake an illegal seizure of power and regime change – a revolution from above. If the opposition is rooted in society, then the overthrow of the incapacitated regime is most likely to come by revolution from below (above section based on. In addition to the structure and processes created by multiple and interacting structural, institutional and intentional (polarized political) constraints, accidents of history (e.g., a leader’s death/illness, natural disaster) and the quirks and abilities of political leaders also react to, and interact with these to produce final outcomes whether revolutionary, transitional or regime stabilizing (see, for example, Daniel Treisman, http://www.nber.org/papers/w23944). [The previous four paragraphs are based on Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002), Chapter 1].
The Limited Potential for Regime Change Under Putin
To what extent does the present condition of Putin’s ‘sistema‘ have any potential to traverse the regime transformation types outlined above? The presidency of Dmitrii Medvedev saw a political thaw or “perestroika 2.0″ that culminated in political reforms that were substantial and included some nascent or at least potential pact-making (see Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0: Towards Non-Revolutionary Regime Transformation in Russia?,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 28, No. 4,October-December 2012, pp. 472-515, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2747/1060-586X.28.4.472#.VNIAL53F-uw). Putin’s return to the Kremlin and the consequent direct rollback or asymmetric negations of many, though not all of Medvedev’s liberalizing thaw mean their likely will be no further such experiments, no unforced ‘perestroika 3.0′, unless it becomes absolutely necessary (Gordon M. Hahn,“The Russian Federation in 2012: From ‘Thaw’ and ‘Reset’ to ‘Freeze’,” Asian Survey, Vol. 53, No. 1, 2013, pp. 214-223). There are few or no signs of a softening of the regime in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election, unlike during the run-up to the 2008 presidential vote. Reform under Putin, therefore, can only come from a grave economic or other structural crisis driven by war.
There are several sources for potential making of a crisis: a collapse of oil and natural gas prices, the internationalization or full regionalization of the Ukrainian or Syrian civil wars, a cataclysmic jihadi- or Ukrainian-led terrorist attack. However, Russia’s economy has recently weathered the fall of oil prices to $40pb simultaneously with fairly stringent Western economic sanctions in response to the Ukrainian crisis. Oil prices are unlikely to fall much lower than $40pb in Putin’s lifetime, regardless of the much-touted shale revolution, in lieu of some other revolutionary technological advance. Regarding the Ukrainian and Syrian civil wars, Putin has been cautious, calibrated, and perspicacious in reacting robustly to these security crises. In sum, the Kremlin does not appear to be considerably vulnerable on the crisis front.
Without a crisis, there is no need for risky reforms. But let us assume that some combination of these crises emerges as a result of some ‘black swan’ event or a confluence of developments that effectively comprise or cause an overall crisis situation. Jihadi terrorism, Ukraine’s instability and its increasingly empowered neo-fascists and ultra-nationalists, a crisis in the global economy that debilitates Russia’s own, a blow up of the Syrian war into a region-wide or global one, North Korea, and even growing US and/or EU unpredictability and instability are just a few of the potential black swans out there. In the event of a crisis that threatens sistema‘s stability will Putin opt to reform? The Kremlin’s response to the 2011-12 crisis, which featured mass demonstrations against Putin and his regime, is encouraging on this score. It responded to the merging crisis with far-reaching electoral reforms, which followed in the wake of his thaw that liberalized state media and NGO laws and reformed the police and prisons in limited fashion. Medvedev’s electoral reforms made it easier, indeed simply easy, for political parties and perspective presidential candidates to register and participate in elections (Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0: Towards Non-Revolutionary Regime Transformation in Russia?”). If we assume (as most do, I hesitate) that Putin was in full control during Medvedev’s presidency or ‘interregnum’, then it is Putin who initiated the thaw and the electoral reforms; the first perhaps in response to fears of domestic instability as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis, the second clearly a response to the anti-Kremlin demonstrations of winter 2011-12.
If whatever reforms Putin initiates bring unintended consequences deepening the crisis, will the regime split? There is reason to conclude that a regime split would follow a deepening of the crisis after liberalizing reforms. The first reason is that this is the comparative pattern globally under such structural regime crises. The second is that this is the historical pattern in Russia and the USSR when regimes have instituted unsuccessful reforms whether in Nikolai Romanov’s Imperial Russia or Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. The third is that even during the 2011-12 crisis, there was some splitting of the Putin elite. Most prominently, Russia’s effective Finance Minister and Putin close associate Aleksei Kudrin resigned his post and attended opposition demonstrations, as did several other less key pro-regime politicians (see Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0: Towards Non-Revolutionary Regime Transformation in Russia?”). It seemed at the time that if the crisis deepened and became a deep structural one, that regime would undergo substantial splitting with defections to the opposition. There can be no doubt that there are many political and even more economic liberals inside the Kremlin, the White House and other corridors of power, and that they would defect from the regime as liberals did in Moscow and elsewhere in the late 1980s and early 1990s USSR. It is crucial to remember that the epicenter of the Russian revolution from above at that time was in Moscow, not in the union republics or Russian provinces. Moscow’s oppositionist liberal intelligentsia and sluzhashchie — the USSR’s ‘creative class’ — were bolstered by defecting nomenklaturshchiki comprising the Yeltsinite revolutionaries from above to comprise the credible completing claim to rule (Hahn, Russia’s Revolution From Above). It cannot be excluded that a similar regime split could drive Moscow from the regime in a future crisis, perhaps finding cover under the Moscow city government. The Moscow demonstrations of winter 2011-2012, opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalnyi’s 27 percent showing in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, and the liberals’ recent strong showing in the Moscow municipal elections indicate that Moscow could be the fulcrum in any future Russian regime transformation. But any substantial regime split remains a substantial way off as of now. A potential but still unlikely window of opportunity could be the 2018 presidential vote, if accompanied by some developing crisis.
If crisis politics emerge and the regime splits, will Putin engage the opposition in pact talks or will he crackdown? There is reason, perhaps somewhat less, but nevertheless reason to be optimistic here, gaging by the Kremlin’s reaction to the winter 2011-12 pre-crisis situation. First, the regime signaled its reluctance to crackdown on the threatening mass demonstrations by immediately responding to them by issuing a package of legislative amendments opening up the electoral system. This and the first contacts between the regime and opposition that occurred through recent regime defector Kudrin could be regarded as what transitologists call a “first-order understanding” to engage in pact-making. This step was temporarily institutionalized as the regime and opposition set up a working group to finalize the details of the electoral reforms– a forum that could have served as a venue for pact talks had the crisis deepened and the regime chose to so engage. If this had happened, then Medvedev — at the time still trusted by some regime and opposition liberals as a suitable temporary alternative to Putin — could have served as a transitional figure and guarantor of Putin’s immunity should he agree to step down in a reasonable period of time after a expedited mid-term presidential election. The electoral reforms dampened the protest fever, and Putin’s election victory and zamorozka or freezing of the thaw closed down that exit strategy. Nevertheless, the ‘first-order understanding’ of early 2012 suggests that any more serious future episode of crisis politics, especially one involving a resource-abundant opposition front with a credible competing claim to sovereignty, would induce the Kremlin to negotiate rather than crackdown.
A confluence of interacting structural, institutional, and ‘intentional’ (a polarized and/or excessively atomized and thus complex structure of strategic political action) constraints usually explains the failure of a revolutionary situation to evolve into pacting a transition. For example, if we take 1917 Russia it is clear that the combination of economic, financial, and war crises deepened not just each other but in turn interacted with institutional breakdown — e.g., food delivery to the war front and the capitol — to aggravate an already polarized structure of strategic political action between the uncompromising regime and the increasingly radical opposition. The result was a violent revolution from below and civil war. If we look at 1991 we see a grave economic crisis, institutional breakdown, and a polarized political spectrum interacting to constrain and ultimately confound completion of the Union Treaty transition pact. The breakdown of the Party-state’s centralized political and economic management system through Gorbachev’s reforms transferring power from the CPSU apparatus to the soviets, the executive branch and presidencies combined with de facto secessions from below and above and Russia’s sovereignization from above crippled the economic and financial systems, already in crisis before the reforms. The empowerment of old institutions, such as the soviets, and the creation of new institutions, such as the Soviet and republican presidencies, opened the gates for the use of Party and state institutional reorganizations in the political battle. Gorbachev began the process by transferring powers from the Party to state bodies in his effort to change the structure of political strategic action by circumventing the Party apparatus in order to enact and implement economic reforms. In turn, Yeltsin used sovereignization and de-partyization of Russia in his power struggle with Gorbachev’s Union government.
No Russian Crisis Soon
A structural crisis is possible if an economic crisis coincides with a war crisis, especially if combined with a post-election crisis. Russia’s economy has appeared to weather the recession caused by the double-hit of a more than 50 percent fall in oil prices beginning in 2013 and Western sanctions beginning in 2014. With oil rising for the last year, small growth is expected for this year. Russia’s economy is now something more than Senator Joh McCain’s proverbial “gas station”. In addition to oil and natural gas, Russia also exports gold, diamonds, nuclear energy, weapons, and civil aviation. It is the world’s largest exporter of grain. It has formed a strong and largely free market-oriented domestic agricultural and food production sector, children’s clothes and toys market, and few other consumer sectors. Russia began dipping into the Reserve Fund to cover the federal budget deficit created by falling oil prices beginning in 2013, and the fund is due to run out of money sometime next year. Economic reports suggested Russia could become a net borrower instead of a net creditor near election time in March 2018, if the second of its hard currency or ‘rainy day’ surplus funds, the Reserve Fund, dips next into the red next year as some expected. However, the Analytical Credit Rating Agency (ACRA) concludes that given Russia’s miniscule external debt and other factors, Russia’s Reserve Fund can easily weather through for a few years more. Indeed, the World Bank predicted in 2016 that the Reserve Fund would run out by the end of that year, and then there were projections that the Reserve Fund would be running out now–by the end of 2017 (www.ng.ru/economics/2016-04-07/1_rezfond.html and www.ng.ru/economics/2017-04-17/1_6976_reserv.html). Moreover, Russia’s Reserve Fund is backed up by the National Welfare Fund, that was set up to meet future pension payments and has weathered the recession better than the Reserve Fund. Even if the latter were to empty out in 2018, the government is prepared to dip into the National Welfare Fund. Moreover still, foreign direct investment is picking up, and oil prices are unlikely to fall any time soon below the $40pb mark, beyond which more serious financial costs would strike the Kremlin. So it is highly doubtful that Russia will experience an economic crisis in the next few years, and there will be no economic crisis next year no less during the March presidential election, all else domestically and globally remaining equal.
Regarding a war crisis, again, the Kremlin has been careful to limit its interventions in Ukraine and Syria in order to avoid a large-scale military and financial commitment. Russian leaders are mindful of the domestic political costs of the Russo-Japanese and World Wars for Tsarist Russia and of the Afghan war for the USSR. Unless provoked, the Kremlin seeks to avoid war while retaining its status as a global power, not re-build empire through military conquest, contrary to the Washington-Brussels myth. Thus, in Ukraine, Moscow has limited its intervention to a velvet annexation of Crimea and low-scale hybrid warfare and support for the Donbass rebels rather than a full-scale invasion. In Syria, Russia’s intervention has been limited to artillery, missile, intelligence, and special operations support to the Syrian army, eschewing again an even mid-level ground force commitment.
In terms of a post-election crisis driven by anti-fraud protests as occurred in 2011-12, these seem unlikely. The Kremlin has limited fraudulent measures such as multiple voting ‘carousels’ and the like, which were already judiciously deployed anyway. Cameras have been installed in voting stations in elections since 2012, reducing the most flagrant form of fraud, ballot-stuffing and vote-count cheating. This is especially true in Moscow, where the threat of post-election protests is highest. In short, there appears to be little chance a destabilizing reform-inducing economic, military or political crisis will emerge in Russia in the course of the next six months.
Strong Regime, Weak and Divided Opposition
The regime’s overall public support base and internal solidarity have been and are at least meta-stable if not moderately stable and remained so throughout the 2014-2016 economic recession. Both regime dominance over society and internal stability passed the test of a simultaneous more than 50 percent fall in oil revenues and Western sanctions, which theoretically risked both popular and elite discontent. During the recession, Russia’s GDP fell 2.8 percent in 2015 and 0.2 percent in 2016 and Russians’ income and real disposable income fell by 3.1 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively, year-on-year from April 2016 to April 2017. Real income actually fell for three years in a row: 0.7 percent in 2014, 3.2 percent in 2015, and 5.9 in 2016 (www.ng.ru/economics/2017-05-26/4_6996_putin.html).
Yet opinion polls showed Putin’s popularity steady or rising throughout this period. In fact, according to the independent Russian polling agency, the Levada Center, Putin’s rating was falling before the recession–from 80 percent in February 2010 to s still very high 61 percent in November 2013. It then steadily rose and by March 2014, with the recession building and Crimea being annexed, Putin’s rating was back at 80 percent. It has remained within the 80-88 percent range ever since (www.levada.ru/). By May 2017, 42 percent of Russians thought Putin was fulfilling his responsibilities in his third term (that of recession, freezing Medvedev’s thaw, and the Ukraine and Syrian crises) better than he did during his first two terms (2000-08 with high economic growth rates). While 35 percent thought he was equally competent in his third as compared to his first two terms, and 14 percent though he was performing less adequately (www.ng.ru/economics/2017-05-26/4_6996_putin.html). Similarly, from 2010 through 2013 the percent of Russians who thought the country was moving in the right direction never exceeded 50 percent. In two months, from February to April 2104, that assessment rose from 47 to 58 percent. During the recession’s peak months from mid-2014 through 2016 there was a substantial decline in this positive assessment–from 64 percent in August 2014 to 45 percent in January 2016. However, with the weak recovery by September 2017, the proportion of Russians who saw the country as moving in the right direction had risen to 54 percent–having fallen from 57 percent, the highest mark since the end of 2015 (incidentally, when the recession really began to bite Russians’ pocketbooks) (www.levada.ru). Moreover, the crisis has not affected Russians’ increasingly modern sense of life satisfaction. In fact, Russians’ life satisfaction is now at Western levels. For example, a 2017 Romir Research Center survey found that 77 percent of Russian are satisfied with their jobs Only a third reported changing jobs in the last few years. However, a more serious economic downturn could have a mobilizing effect, as eight out of ten Russians told Romir they are only willing to look for work abroad if their pay drops in Russia (“Are Russians happy at work? – poll,” Russia Beyond the Headlines, November 1, 2017, http://www.rbth.ru).
Regarding institutional trust, a very recent Levada Center poll shows that since 2013 the presidency and all of the key siloviki departments have enjoyed a rise in the trust the population has in them: trust in the presidency rose from 55 to 75 percent, trust in the military – from 43 to 69 percent, the FSB – 36 to 57 percent, the MVD and police – 18 to 30 percent. Only Medvedev’s government cabinet of ministers as well as the Duma saw a fall in trust from 2015 to 2017 after a small rise from 2013 to 2015 (www.levada.ru/2017/10/12/institutsionalnoe-doverie-3/).
Thus, while Russians registered dissatisfaction with the economic decline, that dissatisfaction was weakly transferred onto Putin and the key institutions of his regime, excluding the Cabinet of Ministers. He and thus the system he personifies appears still as resistant to revolt as American rusology is to objectivity. Unless one regards Pew Research to be one of those seemingly ubiquitous Western-labeled ‘Putin apologists’ and trolls, then the Putin system seems to be in no danger of a color revolution overthrow any time soon. A recent Pew opinion poll this summer found that an astonishing 87 percent of Russians polled has confidence Putin will do the right thing and 59 percent think Putin has improved Russia’s clout internationally (www.pewglobal.org/2017/06/20/russians-remain-confident-in-putins-global-leadership/).
The explosive corruption issue is unlikely to provoke a major opposition convulsion on its own. Even in highly corrupt Ukraine, it took the Viktor Yanukovych regime’s broken promise to join the EU and sign the EU Association Agreement in November 2013 and the Leonid Kuchma regime’s obvious presidential election fraud in October 2004 to spark uprisings there. Despite the popularity of opposition leader Aleksei Navalnyi’s anti-corruption exposes` like that focusing on Putin’s tandem partner, PM Medvedev, the results have been very limited in terms of rallying opposition demonstrations against, or creating permanent delegitimization of the regime. Although on 26 March and 12 June of this year, Russian cities saw thousands of young protesters take to the streets on signals received through social networks issued by Navalnyi and some other Russian liberals and participate in anti-corruption, anti-Medvedev, and anti-Putin protests. According to the Levada Center, Medvedev’s approval rating took a relatively small hit as a result of the March 2017 Navalnyi expose` and attendant demonstrations, falling from 58 percent to a record low of 42 percent, but then quickly recovered to 48 percent (www.intellinews.com/russians-who-think-the-country-is-going-in-the-right-direction-at-two-year-high-127895/?source=russia).
Much has been made of a supposedly rising youth alienation and protest mood that might bolster Navalnyi and the rest of the democratic opposition. However, as historian Tom Jones notes, Russia’s youth is almost entirely apolitical, conformist or non-democratic (www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/tom-junes/russian-youths-are-taking-to-streets-but-lets-not-over-hype-revolt-of-putin-gene). Moreover, whatever democratic youth exist are likely to be as divided as the overall democratic movement, with its constant divisions, infighting and frankly petty bickering. Witness the recent barrage of attacks against Navalnyi by democrats (), the more recent spat between Kseniya Sobchaka and Navalnyi, and the history of division between Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Gorces and the like. Even when united behind a single candidate in liberal-oriented Moscow, as they were behind Navalnyi in the 2000 Moscow mayoral election, they are able to garner little more than a quarter of the vote. The democrats’ resources — financial, informational, organizational, cadre, and coercive–obviously pale in comparison with those of the regime and are insufficient to mount a significant protest movement outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, despite some limited evidence of a growing provincial protest mood. For example, the Kremlin has been able to draw out and dampen the trucking protests that occupied most of this year and the end of last.
Similarly, the fall in oil profits and rise of sanctions probably somewhat limited the Kremlin’s ability to be generous with the patronage trough and therefore, in theory, could have affected regime solidarity and the prospects of a split. Military-industrial complex tsar, silovik Sergei Chemezov, whose friendship with Putin goes back to their KGB stationing in Dresden in the 1980s, is probably the most powerful among several top officials who are said to have counseled Putin to soften the increasingly confrontational foreign policy and statist domestic course that accompanied the Ukrainian crisis. Well-informed Ehko Moskvy Editor-in-Chief Aleksei Venediktov states in a November Novaya gazeta interview that “people in charge of certain sectors, including the military-industrial complex, understand that (Russia) cannot withstand an arms race with Washington and Brussels and are trying to convince him (Putin) that there are other options” (“Aleksei Venediktov: ‘V Rossii rezko vozrosla agressiya’. Eto stali ponimat’ i vo vlasti. Ya ne pro politiku s nimi razgovarivayu, Ya govoryu: davaite sob’em temperaturu’,” Novaya gazeta, No. 126, 10 November 2014, www.novayagazeta.ru/politics/66010.html). Chemezov runs what appears to be the Kremlin’s liberal project, Aleksandr Prokhorov and his ‘Civic Front’ party (Yevgenii Minchenko “’Politbyuro 2.0’ i Postkrymskaya Rossiya,” Minchenko Consulting, 22 October 2014, www.minchenko.ru). He also reportedly works closely with liberal Deputy Prime Minister Arkadii Dvorkovich and Kremlin outsider billionaire politicians and businessmen Zivadzhudin Magomedov and Suleiman Kerimov. Chemezov’s wife runs relatively liberal media outlets, the RosBalt news agency and the Saint Petersburg newspaper Peterburgskii Chas Pik (Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Marius Laurinavičius, and Vytautas Keršanskas, “Vladimir Putin’s Pyramid of Rule: Who Really Governs Russia?,” Delfi.lt, 4 August 2014, http://en.delfi.lt/central-eastern-europe/vladimir-putins-pyramid-of-rule-who-really-governs-russia.d?id=65432116).
One potential cleavage apparently driven by the leaner patronage trough is the recent dispute between state oligarch and silovik Igor Sechin’s RosNeft and the Economic Development and Trade Ministry in the person of its head Aleksei Ulyukaev over the former’s desire to acquire BashNeft, which ended in the latter’s arrest on alleged corruption charges. This scandal has some potential for splitting the regime or at least hastening one in a period of crisis politics. Top officials like Chemezov or Ulyukaev with apolitical and/or even liberal leanings are, like many liberal civiliki (German Gref, Anatolii Chubais), prime candidates for additional defections from a Putin regime that begins to totter, if a strong society-based liberal opposition emerges.
In practice, however, there have been no important defections, no less mass defections from the regime in recent years since those few that occurred during the 2011-2012 post election crisis. Although the recession did not lead to regime defections, it and the approaching 2018 presidential election seems to have contributed to growing infighting between Kremlin clans for resources. The rise of the misnomered ‘new cold war’ also created greater imbalance between coercive and civilian institutions in favor of the former: the siloviki (especially the FSB and SK) v. the civiliki in Medvedev’s government. The arrest of Economics Minister Aleksei Ulyukaev, mirroring that of deputy finance minister Sergei Storchak in 2007, being just the tip of the iceberg of the pre-election silovikis’ offensive. Also, beginning in late 2015 through 2016 considerable conflict emerged between various siloviki departments. The situation now required better management leading Putin to fire some in his inner circle–from presidential administration chief Sergei Ivanov, Russian Railroads chief Oleg Yakunin, and Federal Guards Service chief Yevgenii Murov, and others (www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2016/11/16/665091-ulyukaev-sel and http://carnegie.ru/2017/07/26/ru-pub-72625). Numerous governors were fired over the last year as well before this fall’s virtual purge of the gubernatorial corps. Here, the more powerful cause is the upcoming presidential election as much as any need to deal with economic stagnation and hasten recovery—also an issue connected to March’s vote.
It cannot be entirely ruled out that some of the jettisoned apparatchiks, many of whom retain more informal positions within the bureaucracy, might team up later with those disgruntled with Putin’s policy and/or in fear of being next on the chopping block and maneuver against Putin, but remains unlikely, again, without a crisis. Moreover, such bureaucrats would be more likely to favor greater authoritarianism rather than democracy in a revolution from above or coup. The young technocrats that are replacing the likes of Ivanov and Murov from Putin’s close inner circle are less political and heavyweight than their predecessors. But for now it is improbable that there will be major sociopolitical convulsions below or mass defections from above (the Kremlin and its United Russia party) to bolster the democratic opposition and create a more polarized and balanced regime-opposition correlation of forces and thus a transformational situation in lieu of the unlikely major economic or war crisis.
To conclude Russian politics do not manifest any of the symptoms of an imminent revolutionary situation, no less one that is immutable to the imposed or pacted transitional regime-transformational modalities. Indeed, since 2013 Putin’s sistema has withstood a rather tough test of military, limited albeit, interventions in Ukraine and Syria, a collapse of oil prices, and Western sanctions simultaneously. There is no economic or war crisis, no failed reforms to address them, no regime split, no rise of a powerful opposition movement holding a credible competing claim on the sovereignty to rule, thus no reason to engage in transition talks, no structural, institutional or intentional crises exist no less are interacting to constrain and confound pact-making, and thus no revolutionary threat either from above of below.
The same was true in 2013-14 Ukraine and this is why there was no real revolution. The Maidan regime is an adaptation of the previous oligarch-dominated weak democratic regime. Under Viktor Yushchenko it included an ultra-nationalist element. Under Viktor Yanukovych it did not. Under Petro Poroshenko’s post-Maidan revolt regime the oligarchic regime has an even more robust and readical neo-fascist element in addition to the old ultra-nationalist one. But the regime remains a hybrid one, straddling the thin line between weak democracy and soft authoritarianism and increasingly moving towards the latter, precisely where Putin’s Russia sits. The difference is that Putin’s regime has coopted moderate nationalists and repressed radical ones, while Poroshenko has coopted virtually all stripes of Ukrainian nationalism, including its neo-fascist Bandera legacy and its contemporary incarnations.
For Russia, the federal election cycle provides a potential transformational (revolutionary or transitional opening), but only if it occurs on the background of an already existing crisis. Moreover, that opening can be closed by a strong state’s capacity to crackdown or a flexible authoritarian’s ability to calibrate reforms, balance repression and toleration of opposition, and/or feign or actually engage in pacting.
There are black swans out there. Those that might emanate from abroad or partially so (jihadi terrorism) have already been mentioned. There are purely domestic breeds: Putin’s death, serious illness or less likely decision to step down from the presidency; a nuclear accident; or less unlikely a problem from Ramzan Kadyrov and the ‘black hole’ of Chechnya and/or the North Caucasus as a whole. But black swans are long shots unlikely to emerge by definition.
The most likely path to a regime transformation — especially one that will produce a real, consolidated democracy — is likely to be peaceful corruption-provoked, anti-electoral fraud demonstrations during an election cycle that does not involve Putin’s likely candidacy as president as is set to occur in 2024, assuming no constitutional changes in the interim. Society may not accept Medvedev interregnum a second time and there appears to be no other potential successor. In sum, for at least the next few years, the Russian regime appears largely immune from crisis and transformation.
How to Help Russia Change: De-Besiege the Fortress
We cannot micro- or macro-manage Russian regime transformation. That is up to the Russians. However, we can facilitate change by removing obstacles. As one perceptive Russian analyst observes: “A vote against Putin by Russians is paramount to withholding support from their own country in its struggle against the West. This is the besieged fortress mentality, whereby one does not squabble with the commander in combat conditions.” Thus, one key reason for Russia’s crisis-time stability is that in contrast to Eastern and Central Europe, in Russia Westernism and democracy are not paired with nationalism. That is, most Russians are at the least suspicious of, if not antagonistic to the West in terms of foreign policy. Russian patriotism –in lieu of strong trends to soften the perspective – therefore does not automatically incorporate pro-democracy positions. This only untrue during the late perestroika and early Yeltsin eras. NATO expansion revived Russian nationalism’s anti-Westernism and a-democratic inclinations. Thus, a Russian leader, say a Putin, can rollback democracy and even experience a serious economic downturn without seeing a dent in his popularity ratings if he is seen as defending Russian national interests and security against potential external threats or insults to Russian honor, especially if they emanate from the democratic West. This explains why Putin’s ratings did not suffer appreciably and there were no regime defections during the 2015-2016 recession.
In terms of shaking the siloviki’s institutional dominance and intra-elite meta-stability, it is important to remember that it has been the West’s actions in Syria and Ukraine that have revived the influence of the siloviki as institutions since 2014 at a time when their personnel’s appointments to civilian bodies was on the wane as occurred in 2007-12 (http://carnegie.ru/2017/07/26/ru-pub-72625, https://svpressa.ru/politic/article/38451/, http://www.facebook.com/andrei.soldatov.52/posts/10155754132497189?pnref=story, and http://russiaotherpointsofview.typepad.com/russia_other_points_of_vi/2011/02/the-decline-of-siloviki-and-the-rise-of-the-medvedev-tandem.html). Therefore, in order to relax Russian society and state and re-open the possibility of regime reform and transformation, it is key to de-link domestic politics from the external politics by ‘de-besieging’ the fortress and ending the ‘new cold war.’ Historically, when Russia/USSR has had good relations with the West, it has liberalized; when it has bad relations it tightens the screws.
A crisis may be sufficient but it is not necessary to stimulate reforms. Gorbachev began reforms in a ‘pre-crisis’ situation; that is, with a crisis clearly visible over the horizon. Today’s Russian elite includes many who understand that the country could enter such a period. Putin is now of retirement age, and the endgame of his era will begin in a few years. If Russia and the West have stabilized their relations when it becomes clear to the elite that Putin’s era is about to have run its course, Moscow and even Putin himself may be ready change domestic course as occurred during the 2008-2012 thaw. If, however, the mislabeled ‘new cold war’ persists or is more grave as 2024 approaches, Putin is more likely to undo the presidential two-term constitutional limit, remain in power, tighten the screws, all setting the stage for slower development, greater underlying discontent, and a true crisis that will require ‘averting armageddon’ again.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com; a member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), www.aigeo.org; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.
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, and three well-received published books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002); Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.
Dr. Hahn also 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 and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.