On the Putin System: How a Dictator Maintains His Power

Grigory Yavlinsky Considers Power and Corruption in Contemporary Russia

By  Grigory Yavlinsky

About four years have passed since the first edition of The Putin System was written and first published in Russian. Looking back, I can see that its main ideas are still valid and actual, despite changes in Russian life and the political system. Some of the judgments I made back then may look too cautious in light of the realities of 2018; some, on the contrary, may seem premature. But on the whole, the situation seems to be progressing (or maybe “regressing” would be a better word) roughly along the lines described in this book. The Russian political system is increasingly developing all the symptoms and features of an anti-mainstream, retrograde authoritarianism that is indifferent to the long-term consequences of its rule, such as stumbling economic growth, outflow of intellect and capital, waste of valuable resources, burgeoning corruption, the oppressive atmosphere of militaristic and xenophobic propaganda, and so on.

Nor have I changed my mind about the reasons why this system has evolved over the years of postcommunist “transition” and has survived in spite of worsening overall conditions. I still believe that the specific type of capitalism that resulted from flawed and unsuccessful attempts to remold the Soviet economy after the system of arbitrary centralized planning collapsed in the late 1980s gradually developed a political system to match. This specific type of capitalism rests upon a rather simple economy based on the development and export of natural resources, the domination of large public and quasi-private corporations—managed by government-appointed managers and proxy owners dependent on the goodwill of the highest authorities—and on the capability of the top bureaucracy to extract and distribute various types of rent income resulting from administrative and direct control over major resources. For such a model, autocratic rule seems to be the only political solution, and that is exactly what happened to postcommunist Russia. In the 1990s and 2000s, the state transitioned from bogus competitive democracy to mature autocracy with unconstrained power for the supreme leader to command all levels and areas of government and to distribute privileges among various layers of bureaucracy.

Because it corresponded to Russia’s newly acquired position on the periphery of the world (capitalist) economy, I called the system a “peripheral” system, referring to both its economy and its political design. What I meant was that the political system featured the interrelation between marked features of a peripheral economy—which didn’t contain built-in mechanisms to modernize competitiveness or to capture new markets through diversified innovations—and a retrograde autocracy that relied on inert bureaucracy and public employees rather than dynamic private business. Control of the proceeds from the export of oil, gas, and other resources in the era of high and rising world prices for these resources made it completely unnecessary for the top authorities to care about nurturing an alternative tax base to be imposed on booming private business activities.

Indeed, private business would inevitably have brought about an uncontrollable flow of private funds to be used for political lobbying and the sponsoring of alternative political groups. Instead, export proceeds and indirect taxes from transactions involving resources were used to establish an essentially antidemocratic and anti-modernizing coalition of beneficiaries of a patronage autocracy. A system of “feeding” large social groups and local communities through a vertical chain of distribution of funds in the name of the “national leader” made it possible to secure popular support for, or at least indifference to, the authorities’ suppression of dissenting groups and their attempts to build political opposition.

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So what did we have during the past three years? The shortest answer would be “More of the same.”

At the same time, the lack of an incentive to connect with competitive Western markets for sophisticated products and related services made it possible to isolate the country from foreign influences or attempts at political control. This enabled the authorities to protect authoritarian rule by erecting ideological walls through overt propaganda about Russia’s exceptionalism and about the need to defend national values and sovereignty from hostile foreign agents and their collaborators inside Russia, who were trying to break the tie between a “sovereign” ruler and his people.

The old trick of identifying antigovernment actions and feelings as anti-Russian and subversive of national statehood was used to its utmost, with no efforts spared and no opportunity lost to convince people of the need to support and defend their rulers from hostile attitudes, attacks, or criticism. Relations with the outside world came to be viewed as basically the age-old war between good and evil, with “them” representing evil and “us” the good, who are intentionally slandered or misinterpreted. This picture leaves absolutely no room for even well-intended dissent, let alone competition for power, thus cementing the political construction erected by the autocratic regime.

Nevertheless, I felt there was still some room for history to make corrections or even considerable alterations to this scenario.

Despite the correlation between economic and political systems in a society, I insisted that Russia’s political system was not finally and irrevocably determined in every detail and trend, and that this left some opportunities for opposing forces to work sensibly to adjust the system to actual challenges.

Indeed, I believed it possible to prevent the Russian political system from preserving its retrograde and stagnation-prone character for decades, to make it more flexible and reactive in dealing with the serious threats and difficulties it faces. As Russia’s time horizon most probably stretches beyond the lifetime of its present political system, it is important to minimize the damage done to Russia’s economy and future potential, even though this may help the system to survive longer than otherwise would be expected.

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To accomplish this, I thought it necessary to organize and maintain powerful pressure from the roots of society, through public discussions and the use of the opportunities (however small they might be) provided by the remaining elements and rudiments of a free political system in Russia. For that very reason, I decided to take part in the presidential elections of 2018, knowing quite definitely that the system was impervious to any attempts by outsiders to change the planned scenario, let alone to win a potentially dangerous percentage of the popular vote. Indeed, I didn’t even mind suffering a depressing defeat if that would make Russia’s present rulers tone down their intolerance and take a more realistic look at Russia’s present situation and future agenda. This attitude draws a line between responsible (and actually patriotic) opposition and those who are totally indifferent to the future lot of their country.

So what did we have during the past three years? The shortest answer would be “More of the same.” I must admit that my cautious optimism with regard to possible changes in the system proved to be largely unfounded. Developments in Russia in recent years have not brought it any closer to the desirable U-turn or to a visible shift in major policy areas, and that is true of foreign policy as well as most domestic policy issues. On the contrary, signs have become more pronounced that Russia’s autocracy is developing along the lines of long-term usurpation of power by a very close circle of people that see politics in terms of highly personal power play rather than as a mechanism to ensure the long-term survival of Russian statehood. Given the consequences of such a usurpation, in both the midterm and the long term the spectrum of remaining opportunities for change has become much narrower, at least for the next five to fifteen years.

Russia’s current rulers have managed to present Russia’s history as an eternal fight for its survival in a hostile, aggressive surrounding world.

Among all the recent changes since the book was originally written, I would highlight three in particular. The first is the increasingly strong reliance of Russia’s autocracy on tight ideological pressure on society. I had written that stressing an officially imposed ideology was a relatively new phenomenon for Russia’s postcommunist rulers. As recently as in the aughts, they preferred to abstain from developing a clear-cut official doctrine (or “national idea”) that would be imposed on people by a powerful propaganda machine. Instead, they preferred vague ideals of “people’s well-being,” “steady development,” and “might and prosperity,” which would blur societal divisions and broaden the social base of the ruling regime. It was only in the early 2010s that patriotic rhetoric became increasingly xenophobic and nostalgic for the days of the Soviet “great empire,” in geopolitical and cultural terms. In parallel, the regime has come to be treated as divine (God-given), indivisible from the idea of statehood, devoid of any internal divisions, and exclusive of control by laypeople.

By now these ideas have been officially codified as Russia’s “traditional values,” while the values of civil liberties, distribution of power between countervailing centers, mutual checks and balances, and the right of the governed to change their rulers have been declared alien to Russian traditions and subversive with regard to Russia’s identity and security.

What makes things worse is that the official rhetoric of recent years has incorporated many elements of traditional Russian nationalism, such as the idea of a distinctly different “Russian civilization” (Russkii mir) that is antagonistic to Atlantic European civilization; the idea of the special historical mission of the Russian people, which presumes a right and duty to guide other nations in the form of benevolent empire; and the vision of the country’s rulers as the central element and instrument of that mission rather than as a tool for maintaining daily life of its people to their benefit.

By integrating into Russian nationalism certain leftist attitudes and approaches—such as a view of private property rights as conditional and secondary to national (state) rights, which are embodied in and established by the nation’s rulers; animosity toward cosmopolitan global capital and business; and others—Russia’s current rulers have managed to present Russia’s ancient, imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet history as an eternal fight for Russia’s survival in a hostile, aggressive surrounding world that is eager to destroy Russian civilization and its intrinsic unity of the people with its rulers. In this context, the goal of raising standards of living and improving people’s well-being is naturally replaced by the idea that people’s lives are a tool in the mission of defending, “strengthening,” and expanding Russian rule, which is the highest value.

The task of bringing this message home to ordinary people has been given to government-controlled media (first and foremost, federal TV broadcasters), educational establishments, the loyalist part of the Russian Orthodox Church, and non-Orthodox religious leaders. The task has been made easier by the increasing political and military confrontation with the West and by the inevitable concomitant growth of resentment and militaristic sentiment in public debate and the general atmosphere.

I participated in the election, the plebiscite. Why, if the result was obvious from the start?

It is essential to keep in mind that these highly destructive elements of marginal thinking have been brought to the fore by the top authorities—by their conscious decision, which they falsely portray as a response to popular demand. In fact, the opposite is true: it is official and semi-official brainwashing that is poisoning the public with reactionary and obscurantist notions and attitudes, which the authorities then use to justify their rejection of European values and the modern concepts of self- ruled civil society.

The second notable change of recent years is the system’s strong advance toward ridding itself of elements intrinsically alien to autocracy, such as political party pluralism, popular elections as a means of selecting people to fill government positions, or any instruments of external control over the activities of government officials. Since the last parliamentary elections, in 2016, Russia’s media has visibly lost interest in party politics or elections to local legislative assemblies—the only venue that would give sense to political party activities, if those assemblies had any say in governing local affairs, which they seem to have lost.

The presidential election of 2018, if compared to previous elections, also marked one further step toward eliminating the air of competition among candidates. The election was designed and staged as a plebiscite, that is, as a confirmation of overwhelming public support for the only meaningful candidate worthy and capable of ruling the country, and for the system he embodies. It was planned by Putin’s people that all the other candidates would be portrayed as showmen of sorts, recruited to make the event look a little bit colorful and amusing, with almost all of the participants playing by the book written by the presidential agencies in charge of the event.

In fact, these elections turned out to be an open demonstration of the understanding that Vladimir Putin derives his legitimacy not from the free choice of Russian citizens but by making them renounce their role in making key political decisions, including the choice of policies, in favor of the supreme leader, whom they cannot change but are invited to approve without debate or deliberation.

And yet I participated in the election, the plebiscite. Why, if the result was obvious from the start? Because, after nearly thirty years in Russian politics, I felt obliged to tell 110 million Russian voters what was really going on in the country. My task was not just to inform people about what was going on (in fact, the internet can do this perfectly, at least for those who truly want to be informed) but also to present an agenda for public debate and discussion, which would include issues that could be regarded as the most important for the future of the country.

These debates could not ignore the tens of thousands of victims of the war in Eastern Ukraine; the responsibility for the downing of a passenger Boeing in July of 2014; Ramzan Kadyrov’s arbitrary rule in Chechnya, with its disrespect for human and civil rights; the annexation of Crimea; the war in Syria; or international economic sanctions.

The debates also should cover earlier events that formed Putin’s political agenda, such as the second war in Chechnya, which helped him to attain the highest power; the terrible terrorist acts in Dubrovka and Beslan, which were not subject to thorough investigation, and the unprofessional actions of the authorities, which were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of hostages; the failure to bring to justice the murderers of many independent journalists, such as Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya; and the assassination of Boris Nemtsov.

I am sure that, in time, these seeds will grow and Russia will return to the path of freedom.

Finally, public debate should not ignore the defeat of the Russian economy as a result of flaws in Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, the issue of mass poverty, or the complete nondelivery on authorities’ promises.

My participation in the presidential election campaign, despite the fake nature of the proceedings, gave me an opportunity to discuss these issues at mass meetings with voters, to make my ideas heard by millions of people during TV debates, and to present them in my campaign materials. It may very well be that this was the last opportunity to deliver on a national scale such messages about the plight of the country and to propose remedies to avert the looming crisis. I felt obliged to use this last chance. Television stations and other mass media controlled by Putin’s system were opened to opposing views for only a short period during the official election campaign, and I reasoned that this short period of open opportunity should be utilized to its fullest.

The number of votes I gathered, according to official results, was rather small. Nevertheless, I am sure that I succeeded in planting in the minds of millions of my fellow countrymen the seeds of serious deliberation on their future and the future of their children, and I am sure that, in time, these seeds will grow and Russia will return to the path of freedom.

The official results of the 2018 elections could hardly be interpreted as active support of Putin’s rule by the majority of the population, but they are and will be used by the authorities as evidence that Russia’s people see no alternative to this rule. This could become a sort of milestone on the way to transforming the current authoritarian regime into a postmodern totalitarian system, if the authorities choose to proceed in this direction.

The third marked change that we have witnessed during the past three years is the system’s increased personalism, by which I mean the elimination of any checks on the personal power of the top man in the state’s command hierarchy. As a result of years of devolution, the system now consists of no institution or position that could possibly exercise control over decisions made by the top ruler, something like the Soviet-era Communist Party Politburo. Since recovering his presidential post in 2012, Vladimir Putin not only has exercised rigid control over all branches of government, including its legislative and judicial bodies, but also has deprived consultative bodies like the Security Council of the ability to influence key decisions, which are developed and finalized at Putin’s own discretion. The process of decision-making has been closed to both the general public and the members of the political establishment, who, like the general public, seem to have few available sources of related important information. In terms of policy-making and policy debate, the bodies of the formally ruling United Russia Party have turned into the same kind of phantom institutions as the “opposition” parties represented in parliament.

Finally, it could be argued that recent developments have made it nearly impossible for external actors to influence political decision-making or political activities in Russia. On the one hand, this is the result of the actions of the Russian authorities, who strove to limit such possibilities through more far-reaching and exhaustive regulation and restriction of foreign actors in all social and public activities inside Russia. A growing number of nongovernmental organizations and media outlets with foreign participation or sponsorship have been subject to strict control, overt trolling, or outright bans on their activities. As the authorities gradually abandoned the idea of maintaining a good reputation with Western or Western-dominated international institutions, those organizations lost both direct and indirect leverage with regard to Russian activities and behavior.

The results of the March 18, 2018, plebiscite opened the way for Putin’s lifelong rule. In fact, that was its main purpose, determined by the ruling circle.

Furthermore, the Russian authorities have learned to turn attempted outside pressure to their benefit in domestic propaganda. For example, the United Kingdom’s accusation that Russian authorities were behind the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter was used to stir up support for Putin on the eve of the March 2018 elections.

At the same time, foreign powers have abandoned the idea of attempting to influence Putin’s domestic policy and have left it completely to Putin’s discretion. Western actions, which are viewed by Russia’s government as hostile, are designed either to prevent the Kremlin from using external resources and opportunities to its own ends or to prevent it from making particular steps in its foreign policy, while domestic policy has come to be regarded by the West as the Kremlin’s exclusive prerogative.

On the whole, the Putin system has acquired the features of a mature autocracy organized on the principles of Mafia-like syndicates, with personal rule, a sophisticated ideological underpinning, and steady support from below, while external threats to it have been reduced to a minimal level.

The results of the March 18, 2018, plebiscite opened the way for Putin’s lifelong rule. In fact, that was its main purpose, determined by the ruling circle. The technical details of implementing this task, including possible changes to relevant clauses of the constitution, evidently will be decided upon later, depending on the balance of different powers and groups within the Kremlin. It makes little sense to attempt to guess which scenario will finally be chosen—though, in any of them, the resources of the system will sooner or later be exhausted, if only because of the physical limits of human life.

But Putin’s system cannot last forever for a bigger reason: its built-in deficiencies will prevent it from maintaining continuous control over political and business life. Even before its lower links fly out of control, members of the ruling circle will become aware of the looming crisis and the need for change. Inevitably, that will require either a deep review of the system (which would be the minimum change needed) or a reform of political life on completely different principles, which would also invite radical changes in business life.

However, before that happens, the system will have to travel the entire road from supposed triumph to actual collapse. And Russia will have to travel the path along with the system, no matter how distressing that may be. Moreover, the question of what system would replace the current one remains open. If it is a hybrid version of the Soviet system or a techno-military dictatorship, Russia’s prospects will be dim indeed.

To prevent that outcome requires a lot of hard work. By the time Russia approaches the next fork in the road, there must be well-educated and politically acute people ready to use the moment of truth to reinstate necessary political institutions. That’s why I thought it necessary and important to take the opportunity to talk to the nation as a presidential candidate in the recent campaign. We must work for the future by cultivating the soil for a forthcoming new politics in Russia.


From The Putin System by Grigory Yavlinsky. Used with the permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2019 Columbia University Press.

Grigory Yavlinsky
Grigory Yavlinsky
Grigory Yavlinsky is a Russian economist and politician. A proponent of market-oriented reforms under Gorbachev, Yavlinsky has been a key figure of the opposition in post-Soviet Russia with the independent liberal party Yabloko, for which he was the 2018 presidential candidate. His books include Realeconomik: The Hidden Cause of the Great Recession (and How to Avert the Next One) (2011), Incentives and Institutions: The Transition to a Market Economy in Russia (2000), and 500 Days: Transition to the Market (1991). He teaches at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

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