Putin’s ‘Sistema’: Authoritarian Imbalance Growing?

by Gordon M. Hahn

In an earlier article I suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to be losing his penchant to balance between soft and hard authoritarianism, between competing political groups (parties, ethnicities, etc.) and ideologies, between competing state oligarchic clans, and so on (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/09/10/is-putin-losing-his-balance/). Recent events only confirm the hypothesis. The ‘sistema‘ as regime seems to be moving towards a more imbalanced position, tilted more to the mid-range rather than softer side of authoritarianism as has been the case since the mid-2000s. The state has recently moved to limit the rights of citizens in what appears to be a broadly written laws that will lead violations of citizens’ right to freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in the 1993 Russian constitution. The resulting imbalance could have profound consequences for both public and elite support for the present order of soft authoritarianism that Putin has so successfully managed over the last two decades.

Draconian Laws and Dissent from Below

Recent examples of the harshening of the soft authoritarian regime, moving it closer to a standard authoritarian, though still far from totalitarian one, are the laws banning fake news and insults of state officials. (1) For example, the law signed into law by Putin in March banning “unreliable, socially significant” (nedostovernyaya) information” in mass media or on the Internet is simply too broadly written to be applied with any fairness in any consistent manner given the frequent arbitrariness of Russian courts.    Thus, the law can be interpreted to be a ban on re-posting or even ‘liking’ a Facebook post or the like if a court deems it the report ‘unreliable’–a term which is not defined and probably cannot be in any objective way. Also, what constitutes a “threat” to life and property is open to arbitrary interpretation. Violations of Article 9 by citizens are punishable by a fine of up to R30,000-100,000 (approximately $500-1,000) with confiscation of the object used to spread the information. Violations by officials is punishable by a fine of R60,000-200,000. Violations by legal entities – R200,000-500,000.  Article 10 addresses cases of distribution that actually interrupt of public services or harm public order and safety with higher fines. Article 10 violations bring higher fines of R100,000-300,000 for citizens, R300,000-6000,000 for officials, and R500,000-1,000,000 for legal entities. Article 11 deals with harm to persons or private property with higher fines than applied for violations of Articles 9 and 10 (http://kremlin.ru/acts/bank/44094). In the latter two articles the potential for arbitrariness remains, limited compared to Article 9, albeit, with the difficulty of determining whether a particular ‘tweet’ or post led to the harm.

In a more draconian law, also signed by Putin in March, the state has instituted fines for “the distribution in informational-telecommunication networks, in particular the ‘Internet’, information expressed in an indecent form which insults the human dignity and public morality, and clearly shows disrespect for society, the state and official state symbols of the Russian Federation, the Constitution of the Russian Federation or bodies implementing state power in the Russian Federation. First violation of this law brings an administrative fine of R30,000-100,000, second offense – R100,000-200,000 or arrest of up to 15 days – third or further offenses bring a fine of R200,000-300,000 or arrest of up to 15 days (http://kremlin.ru/acts/bank/44089). This law will likely be interpreted by the courts to include insulting statements made in indecent form about individual state officials. Moreover, it runs into the same problems of interpretation and vulnerability to broad and arbitrary application as the law against ‘fake news’ mentioned above. Most importantly in legal terms, both of these laws clearly violate Russia’s ‘fundamental law’ — the Constitution — which guarantees free speech and equality before the law to all citizens.

But the two laws are likely to have even greater political repercussions if applied in any aggressive way. Limits on Internet speech will impinge on the interests of all citizens. Previously, the repressive element in Putin’s balancing between authoritarianism and semi-democracy has been surgically applied, restricting the freedoms of the intelligentsia and individuals who stuck their heads out above the masses by expressing opposition. These Internet laws will have a chilling effect on all Internet users–almost the entire population to one degree of Internet use or another.  These laws will impact especially the freedom of speech and expression of those among the Russian population who live in the largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as provincial capitols; those most likely to lead political uprisings. The second law widens an already wide gap between the elite and society and give the former new special status at the expense of the latter. The unpopularity of the law against insulting the authorities is clear. A Levada Center opinion survey found that 53 percent of respondents opposed the law to one degree or another, while 39 percent approved of it to one degree or another. The law against ‘fake news’ was favored to one degree or another by 55 percent against 35 percent which opposed to one degree or another (www.levada.ru/2019/04/08/zakony-o-neuvazhenii-k-vlasti-i-fejknyus/). The popularity of these laws or the lack thereof may shift in response to how they are applied.

The hope is that these laws’ presence on the books are intended to be an option to be used if political tensions grow and attempts are made to use the Internet to foment dissent and organize a ‘color revolution.’ It is well known in general and especially well-remembered in the Kremlin that color revolutions in, for example, Egypt and Ukraine, were in part sparked by Internet organizing, mobilizing, and signaling by local citizens with ties to the US government or persons and organizations tied to the US government and its democracy-promotion institutions. It is clear that the Putin administration is growingly increasingly wary of a color revolution from below fomented from the West. This was underscored by, of all people, Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Valerii Gerasimov, who in a March 8th speech noted the West’s attempts to use ‘fifth columns’ in destabilizing target countries: “The Pentagon has begun to develop a fundamentally new strategy of warfare, which has already been dubbed the Trojan Horse. Its essence lies in the active use of the protest potential of the ‘fifth column’ for the destabilization of a situation while simultaneously attacking the most important facilities with high-precision weapons” (https://sputniknews.com/military/201903021072893281-russia-hightech-space-wars/). But the Kremlin’s insensitive laws are themselves making revolt from below more likely.

The impetus for more mass opposition from below is reflected in the national ‘garbage revolt’, which overlaps with corruption. Around Moscow and farther afield in the provinces Moscow’s and provincial capitols’ garbage is being transported to outlying areas in a fashion that ignores the ecology, health, and general well-being (‘piquant’ odors) of these less well-off residents. Thus, the largest garbage dump in Europe is being built for Moscow’s garbage in far away Arkhangel’sk and the Republic of Komi. This is creating a popular backlash against Moscow – home of the national elite – and the provincial elites in the form of rather large protests in tens of cities across the country — but more intensively in Moscow, Arkhangelsk and Komi — against the location of dumps near residential areas and ecologically-dubious disposal plants (http://svob-town.ru/2019/02/22/%D0%B1%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B5-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B7%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%82%D0%B0-%D0%B7%D0%B0-%D0%B3%D1%80%D1%83%D0%B4%D0%BA%D0%B8-%D0%BC%D1%83%D1%81%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BD%D1%8B%D0%B9/; https://echo.msk.ru/blog/serpompo2018/2405185-echo/; and www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/04/08/80140-my-ne-shelupon?utm_source=novaya&utm_medium=fb&utm_campaign=regular&fbclid=IwAR30GEhC4-rtGpIUPj2spMPNIvh6dK8NwGo2ao3R28XSLL7oJcAOBrUSfnM). This issue overlaps the corruption issue as contracts to build the garbage dump and disposal sites are going to Putin allies, the Rotenbergs.

Anti-Corruption Campaign and Dissent from Above

While these new laws restricting freedom of speech and expression tend to provoke the intelligentsia and general public, the recent campaign against corruption targeting rather high-ranking officials, most of all but not exclusively so-called ‘regime liberals’ ( for example, Economics Minister Alexei Ulyukaev  and billionaire Zivayudin Magomedov last year and former Minister for ‘Open Government’  Mikhail Abyzov last week), threatens to create dissent within the elite and state apparatus. The aforementioned officials are considered political clients and allies of leading ‘regime liberal’ Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev, suggesting that regime hard-liners are attempting as they did in the run-up to the 2008 Putin succession decision to structure the correlation of forces inside the Kremlin to promote a successor candidate from among one of their own. Back then a series of arrests of regime liberals and other forms of inter-clan rivalry preceded Putin’s anointment of Medvedev as his replacement as the Kremlin’s presidential candidate instead of Sergei Ivanov or another traditionalist favorite.

However, it seems a bit earlier for such a level of conflict to burst on the scene. An alternative explanation is that the corruption campaign is not as political as it appears and could be tied to Putin’s vast and expensive infrastructure revitalization program, which has been launched to build public and perhaps more so, elite support for the 2021 Duma elections and even the 2024 succession decision and the Kremlin’s presidential candidate (on the infrastructure program see http://government.ru/news/35675/; www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2019/0313/To-make-Russia-great-again-Putin-is-building-roads-and-bridges?fbclid=IwAR1XAvvMvj2c5e79d7-GWJjJrEJ8a6QCByOEzjqL0RSGp9-fMVwbcMkmKtw; www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/04/03/russias-infrastructure-overhaul-explained-a64839; and https://republic.ru/posts/93379?fbclid=IwAR2M6_AlJ3IGJxuLcyCzurgJsjzJG_XkpPXzwUxmrxSAYp7bwIhT-gGu1Pw).

Whatever the reason behind the corruption program, its consequences are clear. It makes a regime split more likely, which means a regime transformational crisis of a revolutionary or transitional type becomes more likely. Moreover, the corruption campaign is occurring on the background of the Kremlin’s harshening or rewriting of the political contract it has had with the systemic or ‘in-system’ parliamentary opposition parties: the Communists or KPRF, Spravedlivaya Rossiya (Fair Russia) or SR, and Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s Liberal Democratic Party or LDPR. The Kremlin is beginning to punish the systemic opposition parties by reducing their access to elected office and discrediting those systemic opposition candidates who somehaow manage to defeat the increasingly less popular pro-Kremlin party, United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya)  (https://carnegie.ru/commentary/78813). This could further reduce the universe of pro-regime elements and, if they defect to real opposition, beef up the societal opposition crating a broad coalition of the kind successful revolutions are made.

The increased potential (I underscore ‘potential’ not inevitable and not even likely yet before 2021-24) for dissent from above and a regime split combines with the threat of societal mobilization of opposition towards a nascent revolution from below (or forcing the regime ruling groups’ to engage a powerful opposition in regime transition talks) created by the aforementioned laws to create a pincer movement against the Putin regime; that is, decline of support from above — within the elite — plus declining support from ‘below’, especially in the provinces, which has been Putin’s main base of support. There is growing evidence of intensifying competition among top political figures and elite clans.

Inter-Clan Infighting?

Another interpretation that may at least partially explain both the new restrictive laws and corruption campaign is that all of this is a result of inter-clan and/or intra-regime liberal-hardline conflict and positioning as the 2024 problem and succession approach. Potential regime liberal standard bearer, PM Medvedev appears to be under attack also from inside the regime liberal camp. Accounting Chamber Chairman Alexei Kudrin is known to be an opponent of Medvedev. More recently, Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin has been attempting to increase the Duma’s authorities, particularly in relation to the Medvedev’s government, perhaps to include amendments to the constitution.

In a December 2018 meeting with President Putin, Volodin called for a review of individual statutes of the Constitution and their effectiveness and for the need to find a “format for including Constitutional Court judges, leading scholars in the field of constitutional law, and experts and lok at how the Constitution and norms in the development of the Constitution are working today and to what extent they correspond to the statutes which were adopted,” without “endangering its fundamental statutes.” In response, Putin called for intensifying work with society in reviewing draft legislative bills and “initiate independent civic expertise” of such bills (www.kommersant.ru/doc/3843027).

Then on 21 January 2019, Volodin then appeared for the first time to take up the banner against Medvedev using the issue of new Duma powers he had raised. He 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 application of the law (pravoprimeneniya).” “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 issues of the application of the law (pravoprimeneniya),” Volodin also noted (https://tass.ru/politika/6021833 and https://tass.ru/politika/6025456). This was followed in February by criticism of the government from the Duma and the Accounting Chamber, headed by regime liberal Alexei Kudrin on the issue of the distribution and presumably use of federal budget funds in the regions for implementation of the the national projects and national programs, which include the infrastructure overhaul. For example, Volodin and the Duma grilled Medvedev appointee, Economics Minister Maksim Oreshkin over such expenditures in the regions when the latter proved unable to answer deputies’ questions regarding how money was being distributed to the regions other than that less than 10 percent of the designated funds had been sent. Volodin did so in a way that seemed a demonstration of the kind of new power over the government he hopes to acquire. The Duma session ended with Oreshkin being told to prepare better and return in March to answer the deputies’ questions. Volodin warned the Duma might request an investigation: We reserve for ourselves the right — in particular the (Duma” profile committee has such powers — to send information to the law enforcement bodies” (www.ng.ru/economics/2018-02-07/1_7168_kritika.html and https://newdaynews.ru/moskow/656977.html?fbclid=IwAR2UD1BEoEPk1wlyLu7mHmnnW484ZNKj7YdExMz-m4-CsboNb2pgZrnC_w8). This was a threat Oreshkin could hardly ignore, given that his predecessor in Economics Ministry is currently in prison for alleged corruption supposedly established in a sting led by RosNeft Chairman Igor Sechin.

On April 6th Volodin went further, calling for changes to the Constitution that would give the Duma greater power  in the formation of the government. Specifically, he proposed giving the Duma the power to vote whether to approve or reject presidential nominees to the post of prime minister but also on all vice premiers and ministers posts. At a minumum, he proposed that the Duma be involved in discussion of whom might be nominated to such posts (www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2019/04/06/798484-volodin). Volodin’s proposal was supported by two of the three ‘systemic opposition’ or ‘in-system’ parties’ factions: the KPRF and SR. Medvedev responded to Volodin’s idea the same day with a seeming rejection, noting on his ‘V Kontakte’ page: “The Constitution is an instrument which is considered for the long-term perspective in conditions of a stably developing country” and “there should be no tweaking of the political system and (any) cannot touch the fundamental clauses on the rights and freedoms of citizens or the clauses on the form of state rule in our country, that is, on the norm of the presidential republic” (www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2019/04/06/798489-medvedev?utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=echobox&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR3rPokGA2pwofHjtoE4JZ_dsoFC8M6lTeB30iJwGWKq2lhGrP4T1fzhsVU#Echobox=1554561372). This came just days after the arrest of Medvedev’s political client Abyzov.

It remains possible that Volodin’s initiative, sans any significant internal political divisions, is part of an elaborate dance being orchestrated by the Kremlin. This would be 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 include a weakening of the presidency with a view to Putin adopting the post of premier again or the posts of Duma and Security Council chairman (or Russia-Belorussian Union President) simultaneously. In such a scenario Volodin has been recruited and gladly accepted, since his authority would be enhanced if he remained Duma Chairman or by some other deal (e.g., the premiership). In this case, any changes or constitutional amendments would strengthen the Duma in only marginal ways. Medvedev expresses opposition because he still has his eye on the 2024-2030 presidency and wants its powers to remain as robust as possible. It is of interest that the now arrested Abyzov was not just Medvedev’s Open Government Minister but also organized a public committee in support of Medvedev returning for a second term in 2008 (https://carnegie.ru/commentary/78792).

Alternatively, all this could be more ad hoc institutional restructuring and political jockeying that is developing spontaneously as part of the pre-2024 power struggle. In this interpretation, Volodin is acting largely unilaterally, 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. Under this scenario, such initiatives could become part of the pre-split regime decay, and Volodin and/or others might even 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 remains unclear whether Volodin is positioning himself as a regime liberal in trying to put a parliamentary check on executive power while allying himself with regime liberal Kudrin against regime liberal Medvedev. This is more likely than unlikely the case. It cannot be excluded that Volodin will use or is using these proposed institutional changes to position himself as successor should Putin, and/or Medvedev falter.

All of the above is reflected in Putin’s declining poll numbers. Since January 2018 alone Putin has lost a fifth of his support, according to another recent Levada poll. If at that time Putin could count on the votes of 70 percent of possible voters and 57 percent of voters sure to participate, then in March 2019 those figures are 55 percent and 41 percent, respectively (www.levada.ru/2019/04/11/prezidentskoe-golosovanie-i-doverie-politikam/).

Conclusion

Three recent developments may signal Putin is aware that he has let the balance slip and is moving to rebalance it. Russia’s General Prosecutor just recently acknowledged that Russia has a re-emerging torture problem in its jails and prisons, claiming that such incidents have been uncovered in half of Russia’s regions (https://snob.ru/news/175357?fbclid=IwAR2A1bFpI02U37Jyz5owS5hP9V_y_3hSzifqaRTdZUzTJ0a_YEnDGuJshhQ). In another possible nod to regime and societal liberals, the liberal film and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov was released from house arrest on April 8th. Serebrennikov was brought up on apparently false charges of embezzlement of state funds from a grant he received to produce a dramatic production some two years ago. In perhaps another rebalancing act, a former Far East governor with ties to the hardline Rosneft chairman Igor Sechin was also arrested on corruption charges most recently. On the other hand, it is difficult to determine which arrests or releases Putin might have approved.

Comparatively speaking, Russia’s draconian laws are not all that anomalous. Ukraine has issued a plethora of them in the last few years, and even EU member Slovakia has banned the singing of foreign national anthems if a delegation of the relevant foreign country is not present with a fine of 7000 euros (www.eurointegration.com.ua/rus/articles/2019/04/9/7094944/). In terms of international factors, Russian history demonstrates quite clearly that the worse Russia’s relations with the West, the less liberal the Russian regime at home. Therefore, the tightening of the screws is likely to continue as long as relations with West deteriorate or remain in their currently tense condition. But these are not the points here.

If the aim is to examine the Putin administration’s actions and the regime stability as 2024 approaches, then it must be said that Putin appears indeed to be having more difficulty in ‘balancing’, his ability to precisely calibrate and regulate the right balance between authoritarianism and democracy and between competing oligarchic clans and political tendencies in order to maintain the stability of his ‘sistema‘. The result of this imbalance in favor of greater authoritarianism is the growing appearance if not reality of a Putin-ordered crackdown. If Kremlin actions continue to alienate both the elite ‘above’ and society ‘below’,  then Russia’s 2024 watershed moment can only become more problematic. The combination of a regime split and a mobilized opposition with a substantial support base able to make a credible claim to the right to rule would make a regime transformation highly likely either around the time of the 2021 Duma elections or 2024.

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FOOTNOTES

(1) The law bans “unreliable, socially significant” (nedostovernaya) information and reports in mass media or on the Internet “in the form of reliable reports, which creates a threat of inflicting harm to the life and/or health of citizens, property, a threat of mass violation of the public order and /or public safety or a threat of creating an interruption or cessation of the functioning of objects for saving lives, of transport, social infrastructure, credit organizations, energy installations, industry and communications if the actions of the person distributing the information does not involve criminally punishable activity” (http://kremlin.ru/acts/bank/44094).

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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; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.

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

Dr. Hahn 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 and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

4 thoughts on “Putin’s ‘Sistema’: Authoritarian Imbalance Growing?

  1. Mr Hahn, how about you recognize that you yourself just last year overhyped “the end of the Regime is nigh” card, and now found yourself with crapped pants (which are on fire)? Also – you use the term “regime” 28+ times in this blogpost (which is kr/am). You should seek (a professional) help

  2. How does this law compare to the new EU law Article 13?
    Or laws introduced the UNited kingdom or the United States who have corporations who can ban people at will from their internet platforms

    It would be good to compare what is done across the world – and see the laws introduced in this context.

    Anyone who thinks the internet is “ free” is living in cloud cuckoo land

    If you

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