You decide Is Putin running an illiberal democracy or a mafia state? Maxim Trudolyubov grapples with the many labels given to Russia today.
Thanks to numerous journalistic investigations (such as Proekt’s recent profile of Russia’s top cop, Vladimir Kolokoltsev) the private life of the Russian state has long ceased to be a secret. We see that Russian officials live a double life — they present themselves to the public as ordinary civil servants, while hiding their economic interests. We know that journalists who shed light on this, as well as opposition figures, may become victims of persecution and may even face attempts on their lives. But officially, Russia remains a democracy with separation of powers, political parties, and elections, and a government that fights against corruption and prides itself on economic stability. How does one live with the feeling that there’s a huge gap between what’s painted on the facade and what’s happening behind it? And what kind of political regime has developed in this context? Meduza “Ideas” editor Maxim Trudolyubov grapples with the many labels used to describe Russia’s political system.
An indescribable regime
Faith in the inevitable democratization of all countries is a thing of the past — even in the West. American political scientists started to suspect a long time ago that they were looking at the world in a simplistic manner and that authoritarian regimes wouldn’t necessarily transform into liberal democracies.
The Russian leadership also hasn’t thought of their political system as “in transition” for a long time. Indeed, Russia’s 2021 national security strategy gives the impression that the rest of the world is undergoing a transformation, but not Russia itself. On the contrary, Russia is presented to the world as a model of stability and an example of adherence to traditions.
In the 2000s, researchers began to search for new words to describe the “grey zone” (from a Western point of view) where countries that once appeared to be on the path to liberal democracy had found themselves. Regimes stuck “in transit” were thought of as “hybrid” and experts put forward a host of terms to describe them, such as managed democracy, illiberal democracy, competitive authoritarianism, electoral authoritarianism, semi-authoritarianism, and patronal regime, as well as newer concepts like informational dictatorship (in which the dictator convinces the public that they are competent and wise) and plebiscite democracy (where the leader periodically renews the legitimacy of their enormous power using elections).
Hungarian scholars Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics made a radical contribution to this search with their 2020 book The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes, in which they argue that the language of Western political science isn’t suitable for describing most post-communist countries. According to Magyar and Madlovics, presenting Russia as a semi-authoritarian or semi-democratic country suggests that its political system is still moving towards a democratic goal. This, in turn, leads to other tacit assumptions: for example, we assume the concepts of “politician,” “private property,” or “political party” have the same meaning in post-communist countries as in Western democracies.
A criminal regime
The key difference between post-communist states and Western democracies is the lack of a clear dividing line between political, business, and public activities. This is a holdover from communist times, when the activities of one political party permeated all structures within the state and society. In the post-Soviet period, the main interests of “politicians” in these countries aren’t political, but economic. Here, “private owners” are only the nominal owners of assets, while the real beneficiaries are “politicians.” Under this arrangement, there’s no separation between political power and ownership. All key relationships are informal, and formal institutions only serve as fronts.
In a state where political power is separate from ownership, corruption is a deviation from the norm and corrupt officials (even if they are many) are breaking the rules. Magyar and Madlovics believe that in some post-communist countries, the opposite is true. Here, state officials deliberately subjugate markets and formal institutions for the sake of their own enrichment, so this is the rule, not the exception.
In his previous book, Bálint Magyar applied the label mafia state to systems where political enrichment is centralized and monopolized by a single group. The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes offers a whole range of regime types found in the former USSR and Soviet bloc, from conservative autocracies (like Poland) to market-exploiting dictatorships (China being the prime example).
Bálint Magyar belonged to the Communist-era dissident movement in Hungary, was a Member of Hungarian Parliament (1990–2010), served as Education Minister twice (1996–1998, 2002–2006), and was a founding member of the Alliance of Free Democrats, a political party which, prior to its dissolution, was in opposition to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party. Orbán’s consolidation of political and economic power was the basis upon which Magyar formulated his thesis about the “mafia state.” Orbán calls his system an “illiberal democracy.”
Pulling back the curtain
In some cases, concepts like kleptocracy, predatory state, and the regime types described by Magyar and Madlovics aren’t accurate enough — particularly when it comes to talking about Putin’s Russia. These terms negatively assess the actions of rulers, but fail to describe the institutions upon which the state is built.
According to Magyar and Madlovics, the term “corrupt state” refers to a state with corrupt officials, where the state itself seeks to root out and punish these criminals. A “predatory state” refers to a system with patronal relations (where real power arises from the relationship between an influential “patron” and their dependent “client”), but these relations are neither monopolized, nor necessarily initiated from above. But in a “criminal” or “mafia” state, patronal relations are both centralized and monopolized.
Based on this thesis, Magyar and Madlovics criticize the Western approach to fighting corruption in the post-communist world. When European countries apply sanctions against mafia states or give them lessons in how to fight corruption, they proceed from the assumptions that politicians in these countries want to resolve this problem but don’t know how to do so correctly. In actual fact, these politicians know how to fight corruption, but only the corruption that’s outside of their control and isn’t orchestrated by them.
That said, the organized crime analogy shouldn’t be taken too far. If we can draw a general conclusion from the abundance of terms used to describe Russia (and similar political orders), it’s that this speaks to the huge discrepancy between the facade of the “Russian Federation” and what citizens, researchers, and journalists see from the inside.
In recent years, academic work and investigative journalism have enriched our understanding of what lies behind the country’s official facade significantly. Public discussion about this dichotomy is long overdue. But those who are safer adhering to the official image of power and those who are aware of the magnitude of the gap between the facade and reality have no common space or common language for discussion. There’s disagreement over the most basic facts and concepts needed for such a conversation. What some see as a measure to protect national security (for example, persecuting the opposition), others consider a crime; what some consider the law (“zeroing” Putin’s presidential terms, for instance), others see as an instrument for maintaining power; what some consider elections, others see as a performance and a fiction. Generally speaking, there are no words.
Even among those who unanimously agree that something is wrong behind the facade, there’s no consensus on what exactly. Foreign researchers, Russian scholars, and analysts from different schools of thought and approaches all have different perspectives. While some works are based on academic studies that seek to explain rather than denounce, others analyze specific data in the hopes of drawing out hypocrites.
In this context, it seems as though we’re unlikely to agree upon the name of the system under which people in Russia live. Each of the above-mentioned “theories of Russia” can only add to the picture that each person paints for themself. At the same time, the current system differs from the systems of the past in one key way — it’s heterogeneous and it’s not totalitarian. Therefore, people living in Russia today have the opportunity to choose which Russia they live in — whether to accept the statements of the informational dictatorship on faith, whether to participate in the plebiscite democracy, or whether to become part of the mafia state.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart