20 years under Putin: a timeline

Last week Novaya Gazeta published a remarkable article by Liliya Shevtsova, a fellow of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. Shevtsova analyzes the nature of the Russian political regime and makes a disappointing prognosis: the regime’s failure is unavoidable.


Liliya Shevtsova, Carnegie Center in Moscow


The article has a symbolic title that reveals the meaning of the whole narrative — “Russia: The Logic of Decline.” Shevtsova looks at Russian history, focusing on the 20 years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In her assessment, unfortunately, neither the country nor the world managed to overcome the consequences of that event: “Having lost its opponent, the West sank into slumber, forgetting its mission and values, preferring occasional pragmatism instead … . The collapse of the Soviet Union and anti-communism legitimized the reproduction of the ‘Russian Matrix,’ this time in a new package.”

The “Russian Matrix” is a political triad that has been regularly reproduced in the Russian political sphere over time. It includes three factors: “Personalized power, the merger of power and property and the preservation of the sphere of geopolitical influence.”

In the face of any crisis — and it’s been going on like this for centuries — instead of making cardinal reforms to the system, the Russian elite “would offer only new forms of implementation of the old principles.” Today’s authorities follow the same path and try to extend the system’s existence, to preserve the status quo. Nevertheless, all these efforts only reinforce the death of the system.

It might seem that personalized power, which reached its height during the Soviet Union, should have been transformed into a democratic institution of leadership after 1991. But it was not: Boris Yeltsin, with the assistance of the nation’s elites, legitimized personalized power, again, by adopting the new Constitution of the Russian Federation of 1993, which justified the superpresidency. This act became a cornerstone of the political system that has by now taken shape in Russia.

A curious detail. Shevtsova writes: “Over the last 20 years and three presidencies in Russia, the adaptation of the monocracy to the new conditions took place through the imitation of Western institutions and the personal integration of the elite into the West.” In other words, the Russian political system mimicked the best Western democratic models without making any internal changes.

The practice of imitation gave a wide scope for pseudo-legitimacy through manipulated elections and through the simulation of democratic institutes and procedures. With Vladimir Putin in power, this new-old regime has taken its final shape — one that is based on security agencies and their control over property. The regime is “genetically repressive, incapable of modernization,” Shevtsova writes. “Regimes of this type are not only doomed, but they also push the state they represent toward the abyss.”

The end of the Russian intelligentsia was another serious blow to the future of Russia. “With a new monocracy taking shape, Russian intellectuals lost themselves. Most of them never risked opposing the new personalized authorities who wear the democratic masks. On the opposite end, others became advocates, technologists and experts, serving the regime. Both, together, became grave-diggers for the Russian intellectual class as a carrier of moral and reputational criteria.”

Another factor that hastens the failure of the system is the fear that a change in the status quo will result in a new collapse of the state. In Shevtsova’s opinion, this is an illusion, because the authorities are inviting this failure themselves by postponing the resolution of existential problems, i.e., the identity and legitimacy of the state. An illustration of that is the dead-end situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.

“The Kremlin’s consent to the forming of unconstitutional regimes there is a reflection of the state’s atrophy … . Today one thing is clear: as long as the problem in North Caucasus remains unresolved, there will be no transformation in Russia.”