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Fascistoid Russia: Whither Putin’s Brittle Realm?

The massive demonstrations that rocked Russia in the aftermath of the Duma elections of December 4, 2011, surprised everyone, including most Russians. But they shouldn’t have. The conditions for such an upheaval have been ripening as a result of the growing power and decrepitude of Putinism. It is likely that popular mobilization will continue, and that the regime’s days may be numbered.

Observers generally agree that the fraudulent elections, in which the pro-regime United Russia party won 49.3 percent of the vote, sparked the countrywide demonstrations on December 10th and December 24th, in which, respectively, an estimated thirty to fifty thousand and eighty to one hundred thousand people participated in Moscow alone. They also agree that President Dmitri Medvedev’s September 24th announcement that he and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would swap places via the March 2012 presidential elections set the outrage in motion. And finally, they agree that the leading role in the demonstrations belonged to Russia’s middle class and youth.

Although this story is correct, it is incomplete. The roots of the Russian uprising are found in the nature of the regime Putin constructed and in its inherent brittleness and ineffectiveness. Too many Western and Russian observers took the regime’s claims of stability at face value, causing them to miss the fact that Putin had actually built a profoundly unstable political system, one that was likely to decay, decline, and possibly even crash. As the early warnings of the December protests suggest, this may be starting to happen.

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It was during Putin’s first run as president in 2000 that the question of whether Russia was a “managed democracy” or a “competitive authoritarianism” first arose. For those who thought it was a flawed democracy, the modifier hinted at authoritarian imperfections. For those who considered it a flawed authoritarian state, the modifier hinted at residual democracy. Either way, Russia was supposed to be a “hybrid” political system combining elements of both democracy and authoritarianism. For a while, the emphasis on hybridity made some sense—especially after Medvedev, the ostensible liberal, replaced Putin as president in 2008. Medvedev’s liberalism rapidly proved to be illusory, however, while his connivance with Putin to transform the March 2012 presidential elections into a sham put an end to notions that Putin’s Russia was anything other than an authoritarian state.

Except that that designation isn’t quite accurate either. Authoritarian states are typically ruled by faceless bureaucrats or dour generals. Putin, in contrast, has charisma and he is popular. This factor makes Russia sufficiently different from run-of-the-mill authoritarian states to qualify it as “fascistoid”—an ugly word indicating that its hybridity quickly shifted from some combination of democracy and authoritarianism in Putin’s early years in power to some combination of authoritarianism and fascism today.

Like authoritarian systems, fascist systems lack meaningful parliaments, judiciaries, parties, and elections; are highly centralized; give pride of place to soldiers and policemen; have a domineering party; restrict freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; and repress the opposition. (Consider in this light the similarities between Pinochet’s Chile and Mussolini’s Italy.) But unlike authoritarian systems, fascist systems always have supreme leaders enjoying cult-like status, exuding vigor, youthfulness, and manliness. And unlike authoritarians, fascist leaders are charismatic individuals who promote a hyper-nationalist vision that promises the population, and especially the young, a grand and glorious future—usually echoing past national glories—in exchange for their subservience. (Consider the differences between Pinochet and Il Duce.) Unsurprisingly, full-blown fascist systems, being the instruments of charismatic one-man rule, tend to be more violent than average authoritarian states.

“Fascistoid” captures nicely the hybridity of the wretched system Putin has created, in which authoritarian institutions serve as a platform for a charismatic leader who is committed to Russian greatness, hyper-nationalism, and neo-imperial revival and who serves as the primary source of regime legitimacy and stability. The term also suggests why the regime is intrinsically weak, and why Putin’s attempt to ratchet up the system’s fascistoid characteristics by manipulating both the parliamentary and presidential elections drove hundreds of thousands of Russians into the streets.

 

How and when will the regime end? Accurate predictions are impossible, but good bets are not. The regime could break down overnight or decay for years. Either way, Putin’s Russia is a terminal case.

The obvious place to start diagnosing its sickness is the supreme leader himself. The key weakness of any leader-centered system is that cults of vigor cannot be sustained as leaders inevitably grow old or become decrepit. Sooner or later, supreme leaders lose their aura of invincibility and, when they do, their fans and followers fall away. In addition to the depredations of mortality, we know from Max Weber that charisma is hard to sustain, becoming “routinized” over time. Twelve years ago, Putin appeared to be an outstanding politician who could do no wrong. Today, he looks like a crafty politician who’s trying to hang on to power by martial arts exhibitions and shirtless location pics. Even if he manages to slog through what may become two six-year terms after March 2012, his youthfulness and charisma will wither away as inexorably as did the Marxist vision of the state.

While it might seem that extreme centralization of power in the hands of a supreme leader would ensure coordination and submission among the elites, the exact opposite occurs, as elites compete for the boss’s favor, pass the buck and shirk responsibility, avoid cooperating with their colleague-competitors, and amass resources as they form mini-bureaucracies of their own. Just this happened in such hyper-centralized regimes as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China—not despite, but because of, hyper-centralization. Leader-centered regimes are thus brittle, and when supreme leaders falter—as they always do, especially during times of crisis—or leave the scene, their comrades usually embark on cutthroat power struggles to assume the mantle of authority. Succession crises are especially destabilizing in all such regimes because the pressures they create cannot be ventilated by institutional mechanisms such as elections.

Finally, supreme leaders are prone to making strategic mistakes—a point first noted by Aristotle and proved repeatedly ever since. They are responsible for everything, but physically and intellectually incapable of making the right decisions all the time. Subordinates become toadies unable to act on their own, solidifying their own positions by always passing the boss good (and therefore inaccurate) news—a point recognized by Karl Deutsch back in the 1950s. Forced to make critical decisions without accurate information, the big leader will make big mistakes, especially if he already has an obsessive ideological vision.

Putin’s involves his deeply rooted desire to achieve an in-gathering of the former Soviet territories, as manifested in the “gas wars” with Ukraine, the real war with Georgia, and the creeping takeover of Belarus. While his integrationist “Eurasian Union” project provides him and his rule with legitimacy—and many Russians, understandably distressed by the Soviet empire’s ignominious collapse and Russia’s transformation into an “Ivory Coast with the bomb,” support their country’s return to a place in the sun—it will at best distract Russia from its problems and at worst turn its non-Russian neighbors against Russia, thereby intensifying those problems. The fact is that, while neo-imperial projects serve all authoritarian and fascist leaders well at first, they invariably get them and their countries in serious trouble, as Argentina’s military leaders discovered after their ill-fated invasion of the Falkland Islands.

The global financial crisis and its impact on Russia’s economy will only intensify elite infighting and competition for scarce resources and erode Putin’s aura of omnipotence, especially if living standards continue to decline. The next few years will be particularly difficult for Russia, as Putin tries to remain firmly in control of a hybrid system while the mounting problems of the global economy challenge his claims to charismatic authority. Chances are that Putin will place the blame for his failure to modernize Russia on Medvedev, who, in turn, will blame Putin. Sooner or later, however, Putin will have to accept responsibility for the system’s failures, thereby admitting that the emperor has even fewer clothes than he wears on his topless photo ops.

 

Like every dictator, Putin hopes to make the trains run on time, but introducing marginal efficiencies will not modernize Russia. As George Soros, drawing on Karl Popper, reminds us, modernity requires open societies. Since economic change undermines political systems that cannot adapt to it, modernization and authoritarianism are incompatible—unless populations are rural, uneducated, and provincial, and thus incapable of active political involvement. If populations are urban, educated, and informed, as in Russia, authoritarian states are caught in a race against time.

They may succeed in industrializing agrarian societies—Bismarck’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s China come to mind—and they may be able to promote extensive economic growth and supervise planned economies, as in Communist states, but they cannot foster entrepreneurship, risk-taking, openness, and engagement, which are at the core of any fully modern society. Worse, if and when such entrepreneurial forces do emerge, they invariably threaten the legitimacy of the regime precisely because authoritarian regimes lack the institutions to accommodate them and their participatory aspirations. The late Samuel P. Huntington had it right when he noted, “The stability of any given polity depends upon the relationship between the level of political participation and the level of political institutionalization.”

In Russia, as in all modernizing societies, these participatory qualities are associated with the middle class. The rise of a social grouping committed to private property, rule of law, and greater involvement in the political process is thus an obvious challenge to the stability of the Putin state. Even if the Kremlin follows in China’s footsteps and succeeds in converting affluent and educated Russians to hyper-nationalism and neo-imperialism—and thereby deflecting their attention from internal problems—a self-confident entrepreneurial class is unlikely to allow itself to be bought off for long. Putin, like today’s Chinese Communists, will attempt to square the circle by trying to co-opt the middle class into existing authority structures, but that strategy will necessarily fail since authoritarian institutions are, by definition, incompatible with democratic strivings.

Complicating things for Putin, as for all autocrats, are students. It is at first glance remarkable that Russia’s many students have been so quiescent for so long. Like Americans and Europeans in the 1950s, they may have been responding to past economic insecurity and current economic prospects by focusing on their educations and careers. But they are also like their American and European counterparts in the 1960s, in that they can now take some prosperity for granted and translate their self-assurance and sophistication into critical thinking and social protest.

 

Russia is tailor-made for two types of social protest—one resulting from “relative deprivation,” or the disappointment, frustration, and anger that follow when hopes are suddenly, and unexpectedly, dashed; another resulting from a sense of injustice that boils over into anger and rage and spurs people to rebel against an illegitimate order, as during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.

Relative deprivation is generally the product of rapid economic growth followed by a sudden economic downturn. Russia’s energy-fueled economic growth may turn out to be similar to China’s and last for several decades or, rather more likely, it may—as a result of price drops, supply disruptions, regional tensions, or political crises—suddenly fall and remain low for some time. The economy is already growing less than before. If a significant downturn occurs, especially after a self-confident middle class and a vocal student body have emerged, both groups are likely to become restive.

A smoldering sense of moral outrage, at the transgressions of public trust Putin has committed in his effort to retain and expand power, is already present and was what drove the demonstrators on December 10th and 24th. Russians expected fair and free elections. Instead they got two slaps in the face: the first, when Putin and Medvedev announced that the former would be president; the second, when results of the Duma elections were falsified. They also expected Putin, whose popularity had fallen some twenty percentage points in the last few years, to act with greater self-restraint instead of greater arrogance.

Unsurprisingly, as middle-class entrepreneurs and students chafe at authoritarian controls, they insist that the state is unjustly violating their rights. Just as social science theories would lead us to expect, everyone—from entrepreneurs to students to average Russians—has become angry at the all-pervasiveness of the Russian ruling elite’s corruption and cynical indifference to popular well-being. We may expect that, as younger generations begin to ask tough questions about the Soviet Union’s criminal past, they will, like young Germans who fifty years ago were incensed about Nazism, want to know why their government has refused to complete the condemnation of Stalin’s crimes and even subtly and subliminally sought to reinforce continuities with his rule.

 

What then does the future hold for Putin’s Russia? As social protests mount, tensions within the elites will multiply. As the system becomes fragmented and ineffective, factions within the central elites will begin to look for alternatives and reach out to oppositions and “the people” for support. If and when the tide begins to turn and the democrats look stronger than the authoritarians, “people power” and “color revolutions” can gain critical mass as ever larger numbers join what appears to be a sure bet. Russia’s situation is far more volatile than the Putinists would have us believe. Democratic opposition looked marginalized and weak in the summer of 2011. It may be premature to say that it’s now on the march, but there’s no denying that it has since presented its birth certificate in the streets. Prospects for the democrats look much better now than they did in the recent past, and they will improve if the authoritarian elites continue to appear confused or weak—recall how Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s momentary show of weakness on television turned the tide against him in 1989—and if popular perceptions of stability and legitimacy continue to decline.

Putin obviously believes that Russia’s vast oil and gas reserves will save the authoritarianism he created. Energy resources have fueled Russia’s economic development, but easy money has also transformed Russia into a “petro-state” that has become an impediment—some would say the greatest impediment—to further economic development and political stability. When easy money promotes corruption and outright theft and inclines elites to use the state as a source of patronage, the state itself becomes an obstacle to modernization. The worst-case scenario for Russia would be ending up like Nigeria or the Shah’s Iran. It’s only somewhat less alarming that at best it could end up like Saudi Arabia or Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.

In a word, Putin’s Russia is in decay. Putin’s hybrid authoritarian-fascist system is intrinsically brittle, susceptible to elite fragmentation, and incapable of sustaining modernization, coexisting with the middle class, and preventing rising discontent. Like a very sick person, its condition could easily become critical—especially if some catalyzing incident hastens the disintegrative process. Putin becoming ill would be one such event; another would be some overcommitment on the part of the Kremlin to a costly misadventure in the near abroad—another quick, glorious little war, for instance, along the lines of the one with Georgia. Still another catalyst could be a sudden drop in the price of oil, a secular decline in Gazprom’s ability to produce gas, or a recession.

If things were to get out of hand and Russia’s non-Russian regional elites began claiming power, Russia could even turn into competing, if not quite warring, principalities. Whatever the outcome, the global effects of Russian turmoil would be substantial. These could include disruptions in energy production and supplies, the revival of the “loose nukes” problem, the emergence of full-fledged guerrilla and terrorist movements in Russia’s provinces, and the inability of Russia to play any kind of role in global affairs. If Russia’s problems spill over into the near abroad, some of the more fragile non-Russian states could follow in its footsteps, thereby compounding all the threats emanating from Russian instability.

What can the world do to forestall such a scenario? Very little. Russia’s well-wishers can reduce the risk of the worst kind of turmoil by encouraging Putin to fix his problems at home and not overextend himself with ill-advised, neo-imperial schemes. They can also minimize the likelihood that Russia’s turmoil will spill over into its neighbors by propping up the non-Russian states and enabling them to deal with their own sources of instability. Seen in this light, Germany’s foreign policy toward the former Soviet Union is a textbook case of what not to do. On the one hand, Berlin encourages Moscow to assert its regional primacy by means of the North Stream pipeline. On the other hand, Berlin has done little to help such pivotal states as Ukraine to strengthen their sovereignty.

Such shortsightedness also encourages Russia’s neighbors to imitate Putin’s authoritarianism. But consider this. If the scenario I have sketched out holds for Russia, then it holds no less for Lukashenko’s Belarus, Yanukovich’s Ukraine, Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan, and a score of other non-Russian states. Serial crashes cannot then be discounted, especially as both the Communist breakdowns of 1989 and the Arab Spring of 2011 suggest that even seemingly stable authoritarian states can, amazingly, crumble overnight.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University–Newark.

 

Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru

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