by Gordon M. Hahn
I have written extensively exposing the Western and liberal Russian bias and wishful thinking that has for years produced bad analysis claiming the imminent demise of the soft authoritarian regime in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. This does not mean that a transformation of the regime he has played the largest role in designing will not take place. It might even happen rather soon. One trial Putin’s ‘sistema‘ must survive is the 2024 challenge of a presidential election the constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms, which Putin is about to run into. Putin must somehow guide his state and regime through this test, and would most certainly prefer to do so without any kind of regime transformation. He would accept the latter if forced to by society and/or elements inside the regime-state apparatus.
Regime transformations, whether revolutionary (extra-legal transformation to a new order led either from below (society-led) or above(state military- or bureaucrat-led) or transitional (non-revolutionary regime change either imposed from above or negotiated between elements of the regime and a societal opposition), are routinely preceded by the regime’s decay. Regime splits play a role in revolutions both from above and below as well as in negotiated or ‘pacted’ transitions. Putin’s highly personalist system is showing some early signs of the kind of decay that tends to be part of regime splits and their development.
The Stages of Regime Splits
One can posit five stages of regime decay: (1) Intensified internecine political confrontation and clan-bureaucratic conflict between state-based and -tied factions – symptomatic are increased arrests, assassinations of members of state-based and -tied clans; (2) attempts, then successes to shift the intra-state balance of power between pro-regime clans by redesigning the institutional structures and functions of government as part of the intra-state, clan-bureaucratic power struggle; (3) defections from the regime; (4) regime split by way of an institutional-organizational split within state; and (5) the final stage – the defection to the opposition by key members and large numbers of other members from the state and state-tied groups. Russia appears to be in the early, easily reversible stage second stage of regime decay.
Signs of Stage 1 Pre-Split Regime Decay
Russia may have been exhibiting the symptoms of stage 1 regime decay for a year or more. This most early stage is nearly insignificant. Prior to the 2011-12 white ribbon nascent revolution from below, the Putin regime experienced signs of early decay as early as 2007, when a small civil war broke out between various elements in the security organs, which included arrests both among these traditionalist hard-line elements but also among liberals such as in the case of the ‘Three Whales’ affair. Matters stabilized with Putin’s selection of the relative liberal over the organs’ traditionalist Sergei Ivanov. On the other hand, the arrests in 1987-88 of those tied to Uzbekistan cotton corruption case signaled the beginning of regime decay in the USSR, highlighting the systemic corruption, re-routing diverted funds to the depleted central coffers, and garnering reformist elements evidence and arguments of the need for Gorbachev’s reforms, which were just beginning to be introduced and were being resisted by hard-line apparatchiks.
Under Putin in recent years, especially in 2018, we are seeing a large number of former governors and acting deputy governors other high level regional officials, and even high level civilian and security officials being arrested on corruption cases. The most outstanding recent arrest was of Rauf Arashukov, senator from the North Caucasus’s Karachaevo-Cherkessiya Republic (KChR) in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament. Along with his father, a deputy in the KChR’s parliament and head of the KChR branch of the GazProm daughter-compan MezhRegionGaz, Arashukov is being charged with embezzling R30 billion from GazProm and the 2010 murder of Aslan Zhukov, the head of the local branch of the Circassian nationalist organization ‘Adyge Khase’ and an advisor of the KChR’s president. Both Arashukovs are members of the pro-Kremlin party, Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia). It is being reported the the head of the Russian Investigative Committee Aleaksandr Bystrikhin and General Prosecutor Yurii Chaika personally participated in the arrest (www.gazeta.ru/comments/2019/01/30_e_12151669.shtml and https://meduza.io/en/feature/2019/01/30/after-dramatic-closed-session-federal-agents-arrest-russian-senator-on-senate-floor). The Federation Council once refuted earlier corruption claims that Arashukov owning a luxury apartment in the United Arab Emirates.
This scandal is possibly tied to the recent scandal over forgiving Chechnya its gas payment debts to GazProm, which prompted a revolt by already some 9 Russian regions, requesting a similar write-off, as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov demonstrates greater and greater autonomy from, and tentacles into Moscow. All of this appears to signal a regime full of corrupt clans fighting for rents, as the system approaches a decisive and perhaps dangerous 2024 moment. Infighting over resources to be deployed in the power struggle, in its aftermath, or in the event the regime dissolves is shifting in to higher (not yet high) gear.
A day later, Moscow’s Presnenskii Court detained the head of the 12th division of the 4th operational-investigative section of the Moscow MVD’s Department of Economic Security and Combating Corruption Colonel Yevgenii Kalmatov, head of Department of Management of the Moscow MVD Dmitrii Atayev, and their friend Timur Jusov on charges of receiving a bribe of 15 million rubles. Last year, Russia’s well-connected Dagestani oligarch Zivayudin Magomedov was arrested on corruption charges. He is a close associate of Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister (2012-2018) Arkadii Dvorkovich. Magomedov’s business partner was arrested on charges of ordering the murder of Deputy Head of Russia’s Central Bank (www.benzinga.com/general/movers-shakers/17/09/10015874/the-magomedov-brothers-oligarchs-via-cronyism).
Signs of Stage 2 of Pre-Split Regime Decay
In terms of stage 2 pre-split regime decay — institutional restructuring wars — a first sign has just come with State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin’s proposal to enhance that parliamentary organs’ powers. More cryptic moves have been veiled suggestions by some, including Chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court Valerii Zorkin, that the Russian constitution might be in need of amending and rumors that such plans are being considered in the Kremlin along with many other solutions to the 2024 problem.
In the case of the Soviet meltdown, Gorbachev’s perestroika set off waves and counter-waves of institutional reform and counter-reform in good part designed to enhance the various competing political tendencies — apparat revanchism, Gorbachevite reformism, and Yeltsinite revolution from above — that arose during Gorbachev’s liberalization. Gorbachev reformed the party apparatus beginning in 1988 and called semi-free elections to a new USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies and reformed USSR Supreme Soviet in spring 1989. The former had the power and in 1990 did amend the USSR Constitution. Apparat hardliners began to call for the creation of a Communist party branch and apparatus for the Russian Federation (RSFSR) by the end of the year, as a counter to Gorbachev’s reform of the party apparat and upcoming elections to republic and local soviets and a RSFSR Congress of people’s Deputies in 1990. In 1990, hardliners secured the creation of a CP for the RSFSR (RCP), and elections to the RSFSR Congress and republican and local soviets were held. The parliamentary elections amounted to a considerable, but still partial shift from the Communist Party (CPSU) to the elected soviets and congresses. In response to the hardliners’ creation of the RCP, Gorbachev created a new Soviet Presidency in spring 1990, further weakening the Party’s hold on power and giving him a parachute in the event of a coup. He also instituted a second stage of Party reform after the July 1990 XXVIII CPSU Congress that began separating the CPSU from the power ministries; another effort to reduce the likelihood of pro-Party restorationist coup attempt. In response, more radical reformers led by Boris Yeltsin in alliance with hardline Soviet apparatchiks and Russian nationalists in the RSFSR Congress and Supreme Soviet created a popularly elected Russian presidency, won in 1991 by Yeltsin. In response to this and other problems, such as separatism in the republics, hardliners first attempted in 1991 to: (1) remove Gorbachev as CPSU General Secretary in April 1991, (2) carry out a constitutional coup in June 1991 by transferring some of Gorbachev’s presidential powers to the USSR government cabinet of ministers, and (3) overthrow Gorbachev in the infamous but failed August 1991 coup led by elements within the KGB, military, MVD and CPSU apparat under the State Committee for the State of Emergency. The above is not a full list of the reforms and machinations surrounding institutional design and the political struggle for and against reform during perestroika.
Russia showed signs of being in stage 2 regime decay in 2012 with the key regime defections following the rise of the ‘white ribbon’ protest movement against alleged massive falsification of the December 2011 Duma election results. Politically instrumental institutional re-design also occurred at this time with outgoing President Medvedev introducing liberalizing electoral reforms, although in this case the new design was prompted not in battle against opponents within the state-regime (as far as we know) but in society, specifically the white ribbon protests. Early 2012 Russia even showed signs of beginning Stage 3 pre-split decay with limited regime defections, including those of Finance minister Alexei Kudrin and the State Duma factions of the usually puppet-like ‘Just Russia’ (Spravedlivaya Rossiya) party. Both returned to the Kremlin-fold after the crisis petered out and Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, but with downgraded status. Kudrin was returned to the corridors of power as chairman of the Accounting Chamber (a clear demotion in comparison with the office of Finance minister). Just Russia’s deputy faction in the Duma was limited even further as was its access to regional parliamentary elections.
On 21 January 2019, Volodin proposed in discussion with journalists an expansion of Duma’s powers in order to strengthen its ability to carry out oversight and ensure enforcement of laws and carry out other functions, since Russia’s constitution currently lacks the proper balance between the branches of government. Specifically, Volodin noted: “It is advisable to expand the powers of the Federal Assembly, first of all it concerns the issues of parliamentary control over law enforcement.” “This would allow eliminating a whole series of flaws in our Constitution, which, as noted by the chairman of the Constitutional Court and many other specialists, are related to the lack of the proper balance in the system of checks and balances between branches of power tilted in favor of the executive branch of power.” The Duma’s speaker also emphasized that “it is the parliament that is obliged to implement the request of the Russians for the observance and the fullest realization of constitutional rights, to ensure parliamentary control and representation of the relevant interests of citizens.” It is necessary to further “detail and clarify the accountability of the government to parliament specifically on issues raised by the State Duma, including on law enforcement issues,” Volodin also noted (https://tass.ru/politika/6021833 and https://tass.ru/politika/6025456).
Should Volodin and/or the Kremlin pursue this policy line and push for actual institutional changes, then we would be talking about institutional restructuring that is possibly part of the pre-2024 power struggle. This then could become part of the pre-split regime decay in which Volodin, perhaps in cahoots, with others, is making a play to enhance his institution’s powers in order to strengthen his own position as the pre-2024 power and decision-making struggle power begin heating up. Volodin and/or others then might defect from the regime and use the Duma to counter the executive branch (Putin and/or Medvedev and/or the siloviki) marking the institutionalization of the regime split. It is, of course, possible, that Volodin’s statement, sans any significant internal political divisions, is part of an elaborate dance being orchestrated by the Kremlin to introduce into the political discourse a discussion on amending the constitution with the intent of doing so in order to extend Putin a third presidential term or engineer some other institutional change that will allow Putin to stay in charge, regardless of who is president. This could be coupled with amendments that empowered the Duma further in relatively minor ways.
As things stand now, none of this approaches the first signs of regime splitting in 2011-12, no less the state of affairs of the Soviet regime and state was in even as early as 1989, when, it can be argued, Mikhail Gorbachev’s convening of semi-free elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies initiated stages 2 and 3, which quickly devolved into stages 4 and 5 in 1990-1991, leading to the Boris Yeltsin’s civilian bureaucrat-led revolution from above.
The Kremlin has yet to respond to Volodin’s proposal, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitrii Peskov saying that it had not yet been fleshed out enough for the Kremlin to feel necessary to stake out one (https://tass.ru/politika/6025456).
Regimes can undergo decay and even splits and survive either by recovery or revanchist coup, respectively, and none of the above signals anything close to the imminent fall of the Putin system and a regime transformation. To the contrary, it signals the early stages of processes that could deepen and initiate the latter three stages of regime decay, prompting one form or another of a revolutionary or transitional regime transformation.
This needs to be emphasized because some of the very many politicized ‘analysts’ will be inclined upon reading this, should on the odd chance they choose to do so, to conclude that, you see, the regime in Putin’s Russia is about to collapse. Or some might claim that I have written here that Putin desires a regime transformation, much as one such politicized analyst once claimed that I wrote that Putin desires a transition to democracy (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/12/22/rusologys-decline-shevtsova-and-dishonest-debate/).
Even if Putin still retains some deeply hidden hope that he can fashion an imposed or ‘pacted’ transition or position Russia for either of these outcomes, he is no longer of the mindset or in a foreign political context that would allow such a maneuver. Only pressure from below in society or from above inside the state can do so, and both are unlikely in the next few years, though not impossible, especially around 2024. In this way, Putin is trapped in the system of his own making offering only a few extrication strategies that be expected not to risk upheaval. Thus, it can be expected that he will seek the system’s preservation at least until his departure from Russian politics or until death so parts Putin from Russian politics. Otherwise, change is likely only to come if someone forces Putin out of power or presents him with an offer to negotiate a transition to something else (democracy or a new authoritarian or totalitarian regime) that he can’t, or at least better not risk to refuse.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received 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.