Russia Beyond Putin: Is fundamental change possible?


Is fundamental change in Russia possible? Would it overhaul the system, or modify or improve it without transforming it? And if change were to occur, will it necessarily be change Western observers would approve of? These are the questions addressed in the Spring 2017 issue of Dædalus on “Russia Beyond Putin.” 

Despite the hope of Russia evolving into a liberal democracy after the collapse of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin’s regime came to represent a “de-democratization” or authoritarian consolidation. A democratic breakthrough toward the rule of law is now seen as highly unlikely in the coming decade, says George Breslauer (University of California, Berkeley). He presents a range of alternative futures to liberal democracy (rule of law), including the possibility of continued authoritarian constitutionalism (rule by law), patronal authoritarianism (expedient use of law), or Russite or imperial fundamentalism (legal nihilism).

Putin, the person and the president, is the wild card in Russian politics. Moreover, after what could be a quarter of a century in power by 2024, Putin’s departure could be utterly destabilizing, the Brookings Institution’s Fiona Hill argues in “The Next Mr. Putin? The Question of Succession”:

Russia’s political problem is determining who or what replaces Putin as the fulcrum of the state system in the decade ahead. Hill examines whether “Putin’s Russia”—a hyper personalized presidency supported by informal elite networks—can be transformed into a depersonalized system rooted in formal institutions with clear, predictable mechanisms to mitigate the risks of a wrenching presidential transition.

Russian politics from the tsars through Vladimir Putin has been shaped by patronalism, a social equilibrium in which personal connections dominate, collective action happens primarily through individualized punishments and rewards, and trends in the political system reflect changing patterns of coordination among nationwide networks of actual acquaintances that typically cut across political parties, firms, nongovernmental organizations, and even the state, argues George Washington University’s Henry E. Hale:

The “chaotic” Yeltsin era reflects low network coordination, while the hallmark of the Putin era has been the increasingly tight coordination of these networks’ activities around the authority of a single patron. In at least the next decade, Russia is unlikely to escape the patronalist equilibrium, which has already withstood major challenges in 1917 and 1991.

“The most promising escape paths involve much longer-term transitions through diversified economic development and integration with the Western economy, though one cannot entirely rule out that a determined new ruler might accelerate the process,” adds Hale, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. RTWT

Putin’s Russia meets the classical definition of fascist state, says Maria Snegovaya, except for one factor-the Kremlin can’t yet unite the public around a clearly articulated nationalist ideology. This missing piece constrains the aggressiveness of the state. So why has the state failed to come up with a mobilizing ideology? Snegovaya asks in the World Policy Journal:

There are different explanations, including the overall weakness of civil society, which blocks any organizing, even in defense of the state. A populist can potentially marshal a strong civil society, but a passive population will remain indifferent to the bracing slogans of a demagogue. The deep social divisions within Russia also create obstacles to unifying the population. Liberals from larger cities, for instance, have little in common with conservatives from smaller towns.

Illiberal stagnation

Authoritarian leaders like Putin and supporters of “illiberal democracy” claim that they are simply more effective at getting things done, notes Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. That is certainly true when it comes to stirring nationalist sentiment and stifling dissent. They have been less effective, however, in nurturing long-term economic growth, he writes:

Once one of the world’s two superpowers, Russia’s GDP is now about 40% of Germany’s and just over 50% of France’s. Life expectancy at birth ranks 153rd in the world, just behind Honduras and Kazakhstan. In terms of per capita income, Russia now ranks 73rd (in terms of purchasing power parity) – well below the Soviet Union’s former satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. The country has deindustrialized: the vast majority of its exports now come from natural resources. It has not evolved into a “normal” market economy, but rather into a peculiar form of crony-state capitalism.

The shortcomings of earlier efforts to aid Russia’s post-communist transition, described in this detailed account, suggest that “democratization in Russia required efforts aimed at ensuring shared prosperity, not policies that led to the creation of an oligarchy,” Stiglitz adds.

But the West’s failures then should not undermine its resolve now to work to create democratic states respecting human rights and international law, he notes. RTWT

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