Experts: Russia unlikely to free itself of authoritarianism in near term

Feb 06 2018

Last Thursday (Feb. 1), the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, held a panel discussion on The Direction of Russian Politics and the Putin Factor as a part of its series on domestic Russian affairs.

The discussion explored Russia’s system of political power, the personal role of Putin and future scenarios. Looking ahead at the years to come, experts did not expect major changes in Russian politics, with some predicting harsher times for the Russian opposition.

The panel of experts included:

Dr. Yevgenia Albats, a Russian journalist and political scientist, editor-in-chief of The New Times

Andrei Kozyrev, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation

Dr. Eugene Rumer, Senior Fellow and Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, Distinguished Fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

In her assessment of Russia’s political transformation since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, Dr. Albats found that there has been a transition from “personalistic authoritarianism” to the corporatism seen in Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Francisco Franco’s Spain.

Eight years after Putin first became president, the number of key administrative positions held by the cadres from the KGB, the GRU and the military – known as the siloviki – had increased to 67%, according to Ms. Albats. By 2015, Russian government institutions had been completely overtaken by them, forming a clan with a shared background and beliefs on domestic and foreign politics.

Albats said that never before had the “political police” been completely in charge as it is now, having previously answered to the Communist Party or Tsarist power. As such, Putin has become a hostage of the system that he has helped create, but “a willing hostage” who is fully aware of his situation and will remain “a face of this corporation” for some time, said Albats.

Ms. Albats finds that corporatist authoritarianism is more predictable and stable than personalistic regimes, as it is more consolidated and governed by shared rules. In this regard, she said it is “difficult to expect positive change in Russia”.

Ms. Albats also noted a new phenomenon that has developed in Russia – “hereditary capitalism,” referring to the children of the powerful. This “new Russian nomenklatura” have taken leading positions at financial institutions, state entities, and governmental agencies. Many of these people were educated in the West and while they may not have fully adopted Western democratic values, they “may bring some change and possibilities of democratic development” in the future, said Albats. In this regard, there is a parallel with the “children of nomenklatura” of the Soviet era, who was a “sort of vehicle in opening the country”.

Mr. Kozyrev noted that authoritarianism can be traced back hundreds of years in Russian history and has become a “vicious circle”. The current regime’s domestic and foreign policies – including its “military adventures” in Syria and Ukraine – are “contrary to the national interest of Russia,” said Mr. Kozyrev. “The interest of the regime is to steal in Russia and to spend in the West”, while keeping Russia under control through propaganda, said Mr. Kozyrev. To combat this, Western governments should focus on seizing the regime’s illegitimate foreign assets, he said.

In Dr. Rumer’s view, Russian authority is more of a clan-based system than a corporatist one. Although the Kremlin is the dominant force, the system still contains different clans and interest groups that originated in the 1990s. The rivalry between these clans has been visible in uncertain periods, such as the end of Putin’s second term as president in 2007-2008. Mr. Rumer doesn’t foresee any major changes in the next six years – as he believes the system will be able to deal with uncertainty, domestic challenges and discontent – but the situation may change after 2024.

Ambassador Vershbow agreed that the regime has become more corporatist than a dictatorship with a “single strongman calling all the shots.” Still, he doesn’t see Putin being dictated by the “corporation” as “they need him as the dispenser of illicit wealth.” But it is not certain whether there would be “cohesion” among the “members of the corporation” if Putin were to go.

Mr. Vershbow said the regime has been relatively successful in marginalizing the opposition without resorting to excessive force.

“They are being careful not to make Navalny into a martyr,” said Mr. Vershbow. “But I fear if he is successful with the boycott and deprives Putin of his 70 percent turnout and 70 percent approval in the so-called elections, harsher measures could come, remembering the assassination of Boris Nemtsov has to have been signed off at senior levels of the regime”.

In terms of the future, Vershbow predicts further clashes with the West, regardless of whether Putin is in power or a successor, since “the leaders of this corporation believe in their own propaganda.”

By Valeria Jegisman

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