Hybrid Putinism: ‘a mafia state with a totalitarian society’?



The question of what constitutes democracy did not have time to be hashed out in the Russian public sphere before that sphere began disappearing a decade and a half ago, notes analyst Masha Gessen. So it was no surprise that participants in October’s Free Russia Forum of opposition activists in Vilnius did not have a unified vision of the democracy to come or share a categorical take on Russia’s current regime, she writes for The New York Times:

In Moscow intellectual circles, the phrase “hybrid regime” has become over the last few years a popular way of explaining why Russia can appear to combine autocracy with some democratic procedures. Terminology matters: If the future leaders of Russia view Putinism as a hybrid regime, they are likely to speak in favor of incremental change.

Lilia-Shevtsova-Russia-Rewrites-The-RulesBut the phrase had no currency at the Vilnius forum in October. Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser of Mr. Putin who now lives in Washington, called Russia a “semi-totalitarian regime.” Mr. Kasparov called it a “personalistic dictatorship with distinct elements of fascism.” Lilia Shevtsova (right), a political scientist from Moscow, called it “a semi-frozen half-fallen empire combined with a gas pump.” Andrei Piontkovsky, a nuclear-security expert who has fled Moscow for Lithuania, described Russia as a country “gripped by military hysteria intensifying by the hour and threatening to turn into an actual military conflict.”

I suggested describing contemporary Russia as a mafia state with a totalitarian society, Gessen adds:

While the state is being run like a clan, and the clan’s sole interest lies in accumulating wealth and maintaining its grip on power, society has reverted to old Soviet habits. The arrangement suits both sides, even if it benefits only the ruling clan. Creating a new social understanding will not only require a change of regime, lustration and possibly a new Constitution; it will also mean addressing the trauma that makes Russian society so readily snap into formation.

russia browderThe kleptocratic nature of the regime is one reason why Bill Browder is strongly opposed to the lifting of sanctions against Russia, not least because such a move would give Putin a “green light to do terrible things”.

Browder said that Putin gets “a cut from every crime” and that the entire state was “a facade of the normal functioning of civil society.”

A Monster of Moscow’s Making

Since taking power some 16 years ago, Putin has worked tirelessly to bring about the return of conservative and nationalist values, according to a STRATFOR analysis:

By stoking these long-dormant sentiments, Putin has managed to shore up his power base and create a moral mandate for Moscow’s domestic and foreign policy. Whereas the West could once accuse the Soviet Union of being a “godless nation,” the Russian Federation can now claim to have God on its side. This thinking has undergirded several of the Kremlin’s actions at home and abroad, including the passage of laws restricting homosexuality and pornography and the launch of interventions into Ukraine and Syria. But Putin’s ideological strategy has its drawbacks. Inflaming far-right extremism has given rise to ideologues who want to push the Kremlin further than it is willing to go.

Though the ultra-conservatives vary in their intensity and agendas, most advocate three things: an aggressive foreign policy, a crackdown on Muslims and a rooting out of competing ideologies such as communism, liberalism and fascism, STRATFOR adds:

russia duginThe last plank in the far-right platform — eliminating liberalism, communism and fascism — has gained attention in recent weeks after [Eurasianist ideologue Aleksandr] Dugin [right] launched a media blitz against Putin, criticizing him for failing to articulate a new ideology for Russia. Dugin argued that it was not enough to simply root out old ways of thinking but that the Kremlin must also craft a concrete ideology based on traditionalism, enlightenment and exceptionalism. He called his drive to formulate such an identity a “conservative revolution,” a term that has worried many in Moscow as they try to prevent revolution of any kind in the deeply divided country. 

“In the meantime, the rise of such extreme views will make it more difficult for Putin to develop a strategy for unifying his deeply fractured country,” the analysis suggests. “Those divisions will only widen in the face of economic crisis, foreign policy failure and demographic change, factors that have already fueled the Kremlin’s fears of instability.” RTWT

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