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Once More About Soft Authoritarianism in Russia

by Gordon M. Hahn

Someday they’ll get it, but it already has taken far too long. Some Western, even some Russian observers make the truly absurd comment that today’s Russian under President Vladimir Putin is ‘totalitarian’. Let us be clear: A totalitarianism regime is a form of rule in which the state’s control over society is as close to ‘total’ as is humanly (or inhumanly) possible. It is applicable, for example, to high Stalinism (1934-1952), Nazi Germany, China pre-Deng Xiaoping, today’s North Korea. Such regimes demonstrate a total monopoly on all political, economic, artistic and intellectual activity—media, cultural, publishing monopoly; all organization whether it be state, social, economic, political; full state ownership or control over the economy; a monopoly on policy and ideology (there is no politics in terms of open competition for power); conspiratorial crypto-politics contained within the bureaucracy between top leaders and their patronage networks; and mobilizational campaigns requiring subjects not just to refrain from opposition activity but to actively support the government policy; no rule of law whatsoever; persistent warnings about and pursuits of external and internal enemies; mass state terrorism; and a ubiquitous cult of personality of the top leader. Where can one see anything remotely similar to the above in Putin’s Russia. Answer: nowhere.

In Russia today, independent media, cultural and publishing organizations are numerous. The state dominates and may have a majority in these spheres. But there are numerous independent newspapers, radio, and Internet organs covering everything from politics to pornography (perhaps no the broadest range one could cite). The state does not control organization in even a near-monopoly fashion in any sphere outside the state bureaucracy, with numerous if harassed political parties and organizations. Opposition demonstrations are held routinely both in the regions and in Moscow, and in some elections opposition elements are able to win. There is some crypto-politics and abundant use of patronage and corruption in building power networks, but this is far from the only arena of political struggle. The private sector encompasses as much as 50 percent of the economy depending on one’s measure. There are no obligatory or coerced mobilization or propaganda campaigns. There is some rule of law on issues having no significant political power implications. There is little, if any state terrorism, and there is no substantial cult of personality.

            Another good example of the limits of Putin’s authoritarianism is the fact that exiled political dissident Mikhail Khodorkovskii’s political organization ‘Open Russia’ (OR) is allowed to operate in Russia and support the opposition to the Kremlin, with, albeit, some harassment. Thus, OR holds conferences, organizational seminars, and publishes. Its members serve on the staffs of opposition parties and candidates. It is gearing up to back opposition parties in upcoming regional elections scheduled for September. For example, it backed the coalition of democratic parties, United Democrats (Obedinennyie demokraty or OD), which achieved good results in the most recent Moscow St. Petersburg municipal district councils’ elections, getting 350 candidates from democratic and moderate opposition parties such as Yabloko, the Party of Growth, and Just Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossiya) elected to these cities’ various municipal councils. In Petersburg, the OD got registered as candidates 437 of the 550 who applied to run and got elected 139 of the 437 deputies out a total of these councils’ 1,575 deputies’ seats (https://od.spb.ru). OR is now working with OD on upcoming elections in Tatarstan, Vladimir, Ivanovsk, and Novogorod region at both the regional and municipal levels (https://od.spb.ru/ and www.ng.ru/politics/2020-04-09/1_7840_openrussia.html). Founder and leader of the OD is Andrei Pivovarov, who also is OR’s Executive Director in Russia (https://od.spb.ru/ and www.ng.ru/politics/2020-04-09/1_7840_openrussia.html).

Of course, OR operatives and their allies are detained or arrested but few if any are doing jail time as we speak. Punishment for allegedly illegal demonstrations or other activity is confined by fines. Thus, recently OR’s Executive Director in Russia and founder and leader of the pro-democracy opposition front, the United Democrats (Obedinyonnyie demokraty) was detained in St. Petersburg (https://gazeta.spb.ru/2142886-v-peterburge-zaderzhan-lider-obedinennyh-demokratov-andrej-pivovarov/ and www.ng.ru/politics/2020-04-09/1_7840_openrussia.html). Again, unfortunately, this is to be expected as this is the mode of operation of soft authoritarian or ‘hybrid regimes.’ Thus, it is another question whether this bottom-up, grassroots strategy, beginning in the municipal districts’ councils to develop candidates for higher level offices, and then focusing on city and regional elections will work and bring a qualitative change to Russian government.

This could be both a weak point for Putin’s soft authoritarian regime but a positive for any Russian regime transformation to fuller democracy. On the one hand, permitting Russian democrats and more radical players such as nationalists to survive on the ground in Russian politics, afford them a foothold that could eventually be parlayed into greater power if given an effective message, effective messengers’, sufficient resources, and declining Kremlin popularity, putting the Putin’s soft authoritarianism at risk from two different flanks. On the other hand, the presence of democratic forces in the polity makes any regime transformation more likely to be democratic and peaceful, though, to be sure, there are no guarantees for this, since resort to violence could be sparked by regime and/or nationalist violence against democrats, prompting a response. The present crisis may begin to test these potential dynamics sooner rather than later.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 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, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia 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.

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