‘I don’t know what will happen with Putin’s daughters’ Political scientist Vladimir Gelman explains how Russia's political regime consolidated and the country became ‘badly governed’
There is little debate among experts that the Russian state, despite the preservation of its democratic Constitution, has been authoritarian in essence for several years already. A decade ago, some observers still clung to the idea that a thaw was possible, but few today anticipate any liberalization in the foreseeable future. In 2019, Vladimir Gelman (a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and the University of Helsinki) wrote a book where he characterizes Russia’s political system as “badly governed.” Meduza journalist Dmitry Kartsev spoke to Gelman about how power and politics are structured in Russia today and what we should expect going forward. A summary of that interview appears below in English.
People like to say Vladimir Putin is a populist, but he’s not a populist. He doesn’t go around offering additional social benefits to disadvantaged groups to boost his support, argues political scientist Vladimir Gelman, though Putin (like most politicians) readily manipulates public opinion using the mass media. Most importantly, he doesn’t present himself as the voice of the people in opposition to the ruling elite. If there’s anybody doing this in Russia today, it’s Alexey Navalny.
Politically speaking, the biggest development of the past decade in Russian politics was the political regime consolidating the tendencies that emerged during the first 10 years of the Putin era. Gelman says the strengthening of the regime has effectively ended speculation about a potential liberalization within the state. We’re now dealing with an unambiguously consolidated authoritarian regime — “consolidated” insofar as there are no serious internal factors that are likely to change in the foreseeable future.
The Putin regime has reached a state of equilibrium, where Putin has the role of a “veto player” whose approval is necessary for all major decisions, and he can block the initiatives he doesn’t like. Gelman says Putin can both shape and delegate state policies. Personal priorities determine where Putin engages, and while the president’s mind remains mostly a black box, it’s apparent that he directly manages Russia’s foreign policy, at least where matters concern the United States and Ukraine. Even here, he has to delegate some tasks to his foreign secretary, Russia’s Security Council, and so on, but decisions made by others that Putin ultimately rejects can always be changed or even walked back entirely. The president’s priorities, like anybody’s, also change over time.
You might wonder how Russia’s political regime has managed to grow stronger as the country’s economy has weakened, but the short-term connection between economic development and regime stability isn’t all that obvious, says Gelman. In fact, the absence of intra-elite political conflict is a better determinant of authoritarian regime stability. According to a study by Milan Svolik based on data going back to the Second World War, 70 percent of authoritarian regimes collapsed when they lost the loyalty of different segments of the elite. Mass uprisings rarely topple such regimes, and Russia’s ruling elite has made successful efforts to avoid these risks.
You may have heard speculation in Russia about an elite schism brewing, but the concept is actually rooted in transitology, which focuses on the late stages of democratization, where mass unrest pressures elites to split. Despite a couple of protest waves over the past nine years, Russia doesn’t fit this model at all, says Gelman.
The idea here, moreover, isn’t that revolutions overthrow dictators, but that grassroots pressure can fuel “ideological demarcation” that polarizes elites into hardliners bent on fighting and moderates willing to make concessions. And the schism isn’t just ideological: other conflicts within the elite can emerge along the lines of ethnicity, religion, “clique,” military bonds, and so on. When elite schisms break down along these lines, Gelman warns, a new authoritarian regime often replaces the old one. Pointing to research by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, Gelman says long-ruling dictators frequently manage to sterilize the political field so thoroughly that another autocrat comes to power, following a battle among elites.
Whoever comes to power after Putin, Gelman says authoritarian leaders are rarely eager to improve the quality of state governance. When Putin first took office, Gelman says, the president genuinely believed that Russia owed much of its troubles in the 1990s to bad governance, and he accordingly prioritized tax reform, “recentralizing the state,” fighting regional protectionism, and so on. When he realized that he could rule the country without improving Russia’s governance, however, Putin apparently “lost his enthusiasm” for the campaign.
Russians scared straight
Typical democratization, says Gelman, is the result of long, drawn-out struggles for civil rights, accompanied by the ebb and flow of protests and repressions. “It’s entirely possible that the demonstrations of 2011-2012 and what happened last summer [in Moscow] were links in this long and difficult road,” he says, but dramatic watershed moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rapid spread of protests that toppled the Eastern Bloc are rare indeed.
Gelman says the political repressions we witnessed in Russia over the past 10 years serve two functions: first, they’re punitive insofar as they punish those responsible for behavior deemed dangerous to the state (this ranges from preventative deterrence to expulsion from the country); and, second, they’re meant to scare the authorities’ potential enemies by signaling what bad things could happen if they step out of line.
The crackdown on opposition demonstrators in Moscow last summer suggests that the authorities ceased to believe that their repressive measures were fulfilling the necessary “signaling functions.” This happened before in 2012 when police targeted individuals and the means of spreading information about the protests. The 2019 crackdown, meanwhile, targeted the structures responsible for organizing protests (particularly Alexey Navalny’s headquarters). “And if we look at the situation through the eyes of the officials in the presidential administration,” says Gelman, “they’re doing everything right. They’re trying to weaken the protests’ organizational potential, thereby lowering the chances that they’ll grow in the foreseeable future.”
When people think about mass political repression in contemporary Russia, their minds often turn to memories of Stalinism and the Gulag, when the state needed cheap labor more than anything. Today, though, there’s no need to lock up those who are already frightened. The crackdown in 2012, for example, targeted just a few dozen people but managed to scare thousands into emigration, which is ultimately cheaper for the regime than sticking around and forcing the state to persecute you. “If you left the country and didn’t return, you did the regime a favor,” Gelman says.
For political repression to perform this signaling function, it has to be selective and chaotic, which is partly why someone like Alexey Navalny is still free. Ultimately, says Gelman, the public simply doesn’t know how different groups within the state perceive the threats against them, and it’s possible that Navalny is threatening to some but not to others.
Not everyone targeted in show trials is an oppositionist, of course. Over the years, several state officials have ended up behind bars for corruption, but Gelman insists that the Putin regime’s greatest priority is avoiding serious conflicts within the elite. He compares this thinking to the caution that prevailed in the USSR after 1953. “Repressions were stopped and made taboo in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death not because Khrushchev was a more humane person than Beria or Malenkov but because mass repressions within the elites present a serious threat to the regime,” Gelman explains, adding that even prosecutions like the case against former Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev are exceptions intended to perform signaling functions.
No more democratic martyrdom
When assessing the quality of governance in Russia, says Gelman, it’s important to remember that it isn’t the same as categorizing the country’s regime type. Concepts like “electoral authoritarianism” and “hybrid regime” are different kinds of measurements, and the quality of governance in a country isn’t always directly tied to the characteristics of its political regime, though Gelman acknowledges that democracies generally govern better than non-democracies. In the former Soviet Union, however, the evidence for non-democratic underperformance isn’t so clear; for example, Ukraine and Moldova are both electoral democracies, but they’re not governed much better than Russia.
Many of the problems that plague Russia’s political regime affect all post-Communist countries, where politicians with short-term planning horizons lack the motivation to build effective institutions that promote higher quality governance. Instead, they act like “roving bandits,” Gelman says, citing a phrase coined by scholar Mancur Olson. In Russia, there was nothing constraining this bad behavior, whereas the European Union’s influence created a powerful barrier to such banditry in Eastern Europe.
Gelman rejects the idea that Russian elites are positioning their children to rule in their place, citing research by Jason Brownlee who says hereditary succession in modern autocracies “depends not simply on the will to power of geriatric dictators [...] but on the reception of those ambitions by the surrounding extra-familial elite.” In Russia, Gelman says, “we’re seeing authoritarian leaders trying to provide their children and grandchildren with a prosperous future in [foreign] developed countries.” This might even apply to the two noblest children in all the land, says Gelman: “I don’t know what will happen with Putin’s daughters when their dad gets really old and leaves this world for the next, but something tells me that they have little chance of maintaining their current status, let alone consolidating it.”
This might sound like a lot of gloom and doom, but the picture here isn’t as pessimistic as it seems. Russia had democracy in the 1990s and it was consciously forfeited, he says, for the sake of market reforms. But Russian democrats won’t make this sacrifice again, and the next wave of democratization will be more gradual.
There is also hope, Gelman says, in the next generation. For all the Putin regime’s shortcomings as a government, the Russian economy has grown for the past 20 years and Russian society has managed to develop and modernize. Young people today know a wider world than ever before, and they’re adept in new technologies and skills of self-organization at the micro-level. Gelman warns, however, that more young people will stop associating their personal future with Russia’s future, the longer the country delays major political reforms. This will lead the new generation to seek its life abroad, which is a real danger for Russia.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock