Sources of the real power of Putin


We needn’t look to the post-Soviet “color revolutions” in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), let alone to the more recent demonstrations in Moscow against election fraud (2011–2012), for the source of Putin’s visceral aversion to public protests, says analyst Benjamin Nathans. The groundwork was laid much earlier, and its timing bears on the debate about the current direction of Russian politics. As Putin’s rule has turned more authoritarian and his foreign policy more aggressive, observers have been asking themselves whether something fundamental has shifted in his outlook, and if so, why, he writes in The New York Review of Books

To be sure, like most people who have built their careers inside intelligence services, Putin was never going to be a plausible spokesman for deliberative and pluralist politics. Instead, he has presided over “managed democracy” (managed, that is, by the Kremlin) or “sovereign democracy” (sovereign, that is, vis-à-vis foreign influence)—variations on the Soviet era’s “people’s democracy”—all Potemkin democracies draped over authoritarian structures of power, going back to what Max Weber called the “fake constitutionalism” of the tsarist regime at the beginning of the twentieth century.

“Almost all success stories of democratization,” Vladimir Gel’man writes in Authoritarian Russia: Analyzing Post-Soviet Regime Changes, “result from constraints imposed on would-be dominant actors… by institutions, or by other actors, or sometimes even by themselves.”

Rather than parse Putin’s speeches for signs of creeping authoritarianism, or endlessly cite the color revolutions as triggers of the Kremlin’s backlash against civil society, we should recognize that the Russia that emerged from seventy-four years of Soviet socialism was already deeply authoritarian before Putin set foot in the Kremlin, Nathan writes in a valuable review of several books on Putin and contemporary Russia:

Indeed, as the political scientist Andrei Tsygankov reminds us in The Strong State in Russia, in the wake of previous catastrophic breakdowns during the past thousand years, whether triggered by rebellion from within or invasion from without (or both), Russia has always reestablished a strong, centralized state. That state has taken a variety of forms, to be sure, but through all of them runs a common trait: the tendency for power to reside in persons more than in institutions. …. In Russia there are few signs of institutional or any other domestic constraints emerging in the near future. The new urban middle class, for all its visibility, lacks formal instruments through which to promote its interests. And while Russia may be famous for its fabulously wealthy oligarchs, they have been too busy maneuvering against each other to form an actual oligarchy.


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