20 years under Putin: a timeline

The 109th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) has taken place in Chicago, IL. Scholars addressed a broad spectrum of issues, including a number of topics relating to Russia. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk participated in the meeting.



As part of the discussion on the politics of communist and former communist countries, IMR Advisor Boris Bruk spoke about his research on the topic of “soft power” versus external propaganda. The term “soft power” is a relative newcomer to Russian official discourse. According to government officials, their current interest in “soft power” does not constitute an attempt to engage in Soviet-style propaganda; however, one can draw significant similarities between current “soft power” techniques and propaganda efforts undertaken during the Soviet era. Such comparisons are supported by the revived cold war rhetoric in Russia.

That said, there is an important difference: The essence of “soft power” is persuasion by means of attraction, while propaganda mostly involves persuasion through manipulation and control. Despite the existence of significant resources, it would be hard to claim that Russia holds a high level of attractiveness to the outside world. The reason for this can be traced to a range of state decisions and policies that either contradict the image Russia is trying to project, or make Russia a target of sharp criticism from audiences abroad (including those at whom the tools of persuasion are aimed). Importantly, information is not digested in a vacuum; the interpretation of information typically engages a broader context. In this regard, China’s experience is quite illustrative, as it demonstrates that state efforts to advance “soft power” can be rendered ineffective if there is a contradiction between the intended image and reality, or if the political context in the country is negative.

One of the topics explored by Timothy Frye, Director of the Harriman Institute and Political Science Professor at Columbia University, was how the political turmoil following the Russian parliamentary elections of December 4, 2011, and the ensuing mass protests, influenced firms’ investment decisions. As part of the research, over 900 managers in fifteen regions were surveyed before and after the elections. The findings suggest that in authoritarian regimes, political uncertainty does not play a significant deterrent role in investment decision-making. In fact, the opposite may be true; firms can actually demonstrate increased intentions to invest. Moreover, despite the common conception that firms are mostly apolitical, their political preferences can play an important part in this decision-making process.

State efforts to advance “soft power” can be rendered ineffective if there is a contradiction between the intended image and reality.

Alena Ledeneva, Professor of Politics and Society at the University College London, refers to the governance model shaped during the Putin administration as “the system.” This model is not exclusively based on a vertical power structure, but includes power networks, informal agreements, and unwritten rules. According to Fred Eidlin, Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph (Canada), “the system” is the major problem hindering the development of the Russian state. Referring to Ledeneva’s work, Eidlin pointed out that in many cases, in order to solve the issues faced by “the system,” the personal involvement of Vladimir Putin or his “best friends” is required. If this involvement does not occur, the mechanism does not work.

A much more pessimistic picture of today’s Russia was presented by Mikhail Molchanov, Professor of Political Science at St. Thomas University, Canada. According to Molchanov, Russia is clearly heading in the wrong direction. To support his argument, Molchanov focused on a number of specific indicators. According to the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) of the World Economic Forum, Russia has a GCI of 67, positioning it lower than such countries as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and all the Baltic states. Out of a sample of 144 countries, Russia is ranked 122nd in the category of judicial independence, 133rd in property rights, 124th in efficiency of legal framework in settling disputes, and 133rd in reliability of police services. In the Index of Economic Freedom, it is ranked 139th out of 184 countries. Freedom House currently categorizes Russia as “not free.”

Additionally, Russia is currently ranked 55th in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, below such countries as Montenegro, Uruguay, and Belarus. Russia currently holds a leading position in income inequality. In terms of safety, the situation is also very bad: fewer than 40 percent of Russians feel safe when outside at night. It is also among the top three “leaders” in homicide rates. According to Molchanov, Russia is often called “the feudal state”: an analysis of fifty Russian newspapers and magazines published between January 2000 and May 2006 showed that the current Russian regime elicited references to “feudalism” 892 times.

The quality, reliability, validity, and biases of all these research findings can be debated. It is difficult, however, to deny what has become increasingly obvious: Russia currently has a substantial number of shortcomings, and in order to solve the problems that have accumulated, systemic change is needed as soon as possible.