Authoritarian dream a la Putin
I remember well that rainy November day in 2012, when I first set foot in the Institute for Human Sciences--a beautiful building set in a quiet neighborhood of Vienna. The most recent edition of the Institute’s newsletter lay on a special stand near the entrance. The newsletter had a picture of a well-respected Russian political scientist on the cover, posing the question: “Will Putin’s Russia survive 2014?” Of course the response to the question was clearly ‘no.’ Even though much has changed since then, the Lord of the Kremlin and his position in the country and world remain the same. Today that very same question can still be heard, but with the dates changed, and with the very same response, however wrong it may be.
Perhaps now it is worth considering the validity of the argument that one extraordinary/awful day, the regime will fall and Russia will become a normal country. This scenario, however, immediately appears improbable to me for several reasons.
The economic system Putin has built in Russia is based on maximum depersonalization. In most successful countries, wealth is produced by one’s hands and intellect, with entrepreneurs as the driving force behind the economy, while in Russia wealth is generated from exploiting natural resources. Therefore, by default the most optimal economic system in the country is not one oriented towards production but rather distribution. It is a former KGB agent who has created such a system in which nothing is ever produced. By not needing individuals for its maintenance and development, the system inevitably excludes and exiles them to the periphery. In addition, the leader’s subordinates at any level of the hierarchy receive benefits at a level that does not reflect the actual results of their activity within the government. From a rational point of view, no one is interested in changing this. Therefore, any attempts to alter the nature of the economic system will always be rejected. The population, in turn, will be ready to endure more ‘difficult’ times, if it means not returning to time when one had to work instead of just being paid.
The political system Putin has built in Russia is also based on an analogous depersonalization. For the past 15 years of his rule, the personality factor in politics has been almost entirely excluded from any political discourse. The country speaks of the ‘government,’ ‘authority,’ ‘elites,’ and ‘the people,’ but not about concrete people. If the discussion touches on external politics, then statements are made such as ‘certain powers,’ ‘well-known opponents,’ and the abstract concept of ‘the West.’ Russia is not attacking Ukraine; in Crimea ‘polite people’ are in control. It all just happens autonomously, and as if by its own volition. The country itself will ‘rise from its knees,’ and note that no one is ‘lifting’ it up.
Political opposition cannot exist in a society in which the ruling power itself is not politicized but rather fills some kind of sacred function. Such a system does not encourage action; rather it survives by creating an illusion of tranquility. Many today speak of ‘mobilizing’ people around the Crimean and Ukrainian confrontations. However, to understand how genuine mobilization occurs, I would suggest looking at newsreels from the time when the Bolsheviks came to power or the initial years of the Nazi regime in Germany. The Russian people are engrossed in observing the current ‘tectonic’ processes to such a degree that they do not consider themselves to be actual participants in the process, and by default choose inaction.
While clinging to the hope that the regime will collapse, the president will be overthrown and a ‘new time will come,’ one must remember that Putin led Russia from a definite state of equilibrium, to which the country will inevitably try to return as soon as it attains exaltation. And therein is the fundamental error of those who are counting the days to a new Russian revolution.
Putin’s success is due to the fact that he did not rebuild the country according to his own ideas of what should be, which most of his critics agree on. Rather he recognized that in the minds of most of the population is inherently a ‘vision of an anticipated tomorrow,’ and therefore he tried to bring to pass exactly that. In this ‘anticipated tomorrow’ there is a place for aggressive external politics as compensation for internal systems; corruption is a natural response to adopted legislation; the arbitrary bureaucracy is deemed acceptable; and the leader is deified. All the Russian propaganda is incredibly inane and officials’ lie shamelessly and flagrantly primarily because the elites at each new ‘turn of history,’ which corresponds to the Putin’s infinite terms, adjust to first secure the same level of stupidity among the population. While there is Putin, there is Russia. This really is the case, because he did not do anything, except pretend to be part of the country that he rules. Putin’s old nickname—mole—perfectly captures this as he follows the approach of trying to blend and fade in among the masses, while doing it all to his own advantage.
In my opinion, today’s Russia has entered a paradoxical period in its history. The connection between actual events in the domestic economy and foreign policy, on the one hand, and populist power and trust in it, on the other, are completely forgone. No arguments from respectable sociologists, claiming that rankings mean nothing and sometimes fall like a house of cards, will convince me otherwise. Economists’ attempts to describe the inevitable and unpredictable in the depth of the crisis that will put an end to Putin's history do not impress me. I repeat my thought once again: the ratings could decrease dramatically only when people become disappointed in the system, as it differs from the notion of what it should be. Or when they tire of working without getting what they consider they deserve. But, in all honesty, is it worth acknowledging that Russians in recent years and even now receive a lot of more than they should count on? And if someone doesn’t agree with it, he/she should explain why the economic problems haven not provoked any protests so far? This didn’t happen precisely because an accidental prosperity should not be expected to last forever and its decline would not be perceived as a disaster. . The political failure of the authorities will also not be obvious. A hundred years ago in Russia, for that type of catastrophe to occur, a real war with almost the entire planet was needed. No one in today's Russia is going to fight in either a ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ version. Most importantly, however, Putin has retained the main achievement of the post-Soviet system, namely freedom of movement. The annual exodus of hundreds of thousands of the regime’s opponents will constantly support the consciousness of the nation on the ‘baseboard’ level, which appears higher than any power will be able to effortlessly support.
Putin is an uncommonly ‘lucky devil’ in politics. He became such not because the price of oil rose during his years in power or because the country’s opposition could not unite or the West found more important issues to confront than to ‘deal with’ Russia. He became such a politically ‘lucky devil’ because he has never been a politician; rather he reflected the will and aspirations of the people. He did not set a new trend but instead swam with the current.
What can be concluded from that stated above? In my opinion, it is obvious: it is not worth hoping that Putin's regime will collapse. The period of his life corresponds exactly to the period of a Russian president’s life, as was normal in the Soviet Union, and as is now considered the norm in the most ‘advanced’ post-Soviet countries—from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan. Only death can separate Putin from Russia. Is not this the dream of every authoritarian leader? Moreover, the current Russian president will not see the consequences of his grand experiment. And that more than anything proves that he really is a ‘lucky devil,’ in contrast to the majority of the inhabitants in the country he rules.