20 years under Putin: a timeline

December 26, 2021, will mark 30 years since the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. As such, the Institute of Modern Russia has launched a series of interviews with experts to discuss the post-Soviet decades and identify key issues of the Russian transition and their impact on Russia’s political system and society today. In the fourth installment of the series, political scientist Vladimir Gelman spoke about the reasons for the failure of democratic reforms in Russia, the emergence of a “negative equilibrium,” the propaganda of a fictional ideal of the “good” Soviet Union, and the country’s democratic potential.


According to Vladimir Gelman, there is no reason to believe that Russia is incapable of democracy. Photo from open sources.


Part I: The Authoritarian Trajectory

Part II: “Negative balance”

Part III: The “Good” Soviet Union

Part IV: The 2024 Problem


Part I: The Authoritarian Trajectory

Olga Khvostunova: Your recent book, Authoritarian Russia, tracks Russia’s political development over the past 30 years, and in this sense, it is consonant with this series of interviews. The post-Soviet period can be roughly divided into three stages, three decades, and you describe each in a separate chapter. What, in your opinion, are the key political problems for each stage and why have they not been solved?

Vladimir Gelman: Formal time boundaries are not that important here, but rather, the essence of the changes that simply coincided with the framework of the decades. The 1990s were a period of Russia living through very deep and dramatic consequences of the Soviet system’s collapse, a prolonged economic recession, and other problems resulting from the weakening and reformatting of the Russian state. By the late 1990s, the situation began to change, economic growth replaced recession, and this moment coincided with a change in Russia’s political leadership, which used the levers of power to recentralize the state, strengthen control over various political players, weaken their autonomy, and build key political institutions of authoritarianism by reforming political parties and elections. The new leadership also established control over the activities of entrepreneurs and the media. But in 2011–2012, Russia saw a wave of political upheavals across the country, and the authorities responded by tightening the screws. Following the conflict with Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the screws have been tightened even more. A period of protracted conflict with the West began, Russia’s isolationism intensified. Finally, in 2020, Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms were “zeroed out,” which signifies authoritarian consolidation against the backdrop of the Kremlin’s efforts to prolong the regime’s existence as much as possible.

OK: Was this transition to authoritarianism inevitable? Were there any crucial forks in the road when Russia could have followed a different path?

VG: I have already named some of the forks. They are the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union; the 1993 conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament; and the 1996 presidential elections, when the authorities saw the problem as follows: either hold dishonest elections or cancel them altogether. There was also the 1999 war for the Yeltsin legacy, with a group led by Putin emerging victorious; the 2011–2012 protests; the 2014 conflict with Ukraine. And the latest fork is the 2020 “zeroing-out” of Putin’s presidential terms. There were enough forks, and at each of them different options were possible, but every time Russia moved toward authoritarianism.

OK: Why is that? What prevented it from moving toward democratization?

VG: Because at every such fork, the dominant political players were not interested in democratization. Democracy is a political regime in which politicians and parties lose power if they fail in elections. No one wants to lose power, and all politicians strive to maximize power. This tendency is not unique to Russian politicians: in different countries politicians face different barriers to maximizing their power, but they do not always succeed in achieving their goals. In Russia, no such barriers existed, or they were very weak, so Russian politicians managed to pursue their interests. Russia is not an exception to the rule; rather, it illustrates the general rule in its purest form.

OK: In the preface to your book, you tell the story of your meeting with Anatoly Sobchak [the first democratically elected mayor of Saint Petersburg and mentor to both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev], who told you: “We are now in power—this is democracy.” You note that after this conversation, your hopes for a new democratic policy were dashed. In your opinion, was there any real democratization in Russia at all?

VG: Everything that happened during the years of perestroika—from 1986–1987 to 1991—was democratization. Numerous barriers to political participation were removed, and quite free elections were held. Boris Yeltsin was elected president of Russia in June 1991 in a free election with six candidates. But after the old Soviet system collapsed, democratization halted, as the new politicians simply had no incentive to further democratize. Not because they were bad people, but because politicians everywhere seek to rule with minimal restrictions. Yet, politicians in, say, the United States do not have the ability to rule without restrictions. Donald Trump really wanted to put the entire U.S. political system at his service, but he failed due to various barriers. But if Trump, hypothetically, became the president of Russia, he would face far fewer barriers. 

OK: What other factors made Russian democratization so short-term? In the book, you refer to the so-called “dilemma of simultaneity”—the challenge to carry out large-scale economic and political reforms, as well as transformations related to the construction of the nation state. In some countries, this dilemma has been resolved, but what prevented this process in Russia?

VG: The “dilemma of simultaneity” is a unique situation that emerged only once, after the collapse of communist regimes throughout the post-communist space. Each country solved it in its own way, depending on which problems were considered paramount. In the case of Russia, the incentives for democratic reform, as I said, were simply very low. Those who came to power were simply not interested in creating mechanisms to limit their own power. Public opinion was dominated by the view, which was shared by a significant part of the elites, that economic transformations had to be prioritized. Democratic reforms were sacrificed and put on the back burner. And when it became clear that it was not possible to carry out the planned reforms in a democratic way, the authorities decided to take advantage of the situation and curtail some democratic institutions: for example, by dissolving parliament, and then preventing the loss of power in the elections by various means. More and more, democracy was pushed to the periphery and, as a result, it turned out to be simply unnecessary and even harmful—running counter to the ruling groups’ interests.


Part II: “Negative balance” 

OK: How do you explain the problems facing Russia’s democratic opposition? Why is it losing its positions and support? Why is it unable to obtain political power or find more effective ways to fight the regime?

VG: The main explanation is rooted in the formation of stable and influential mechanisms of authoritarian governance in Russia—both institutional and political. On the one hand, it is very difficult for oppositionists to run for elections and establish political parties (entry barriers are simply too high). On the other hand, there is a powerful political apparatus in place, assisted by numerous actors—from employees of the presidential administration to schoolteachers who work in election commissions at the grassroots level and in every possible way obstruct any opposition. The problem, it seems to me, is not that the opposition has little public support, but that it is much hindered by the ruling groups and actors dependent on the latter. 

OK: How do you assess, in theory, the option of creating a broad democratic coalition? Will this allow these barriers to be overcome within the existing system?

VG: To begin with, such a potential coalition must have the option to participate in the political competition. The authorities are trying in every possible way to narrow down these options. Opposition candidates are refused registration, parties are not allowed to participate in elections, individual activists are pressed and forced to either abandon their activities or leave the country. Under such conditions, the emergence of a new coalition that would be able to participate in elections seems extremely difficult.

OK: A group of Russian economists recently described the current situation in Russia as “Stagnation-2.” According to the Levada Center’s latest data, trust in the president continues to decline, albeit gradually. And in opposition circles, two narratives explaining the status quo persist. One holds Putin responsible for all of Russia’s troubles, the other blames a passive society. What do you think about such assessments? To what extent do they reflect the real situation?

VG: Not quite. If Putin is to blame for everything, then let’s look at other countries that also face problems of authoritarianism. Neither Azerbaijan, nor Uzbekistan, nor Turkey have Putin as their president—they have their own personalist leaders. You can think whatever you like about Putin, but it is hardly worth attributing such a dominant influence on Russia’s situation to his personality. This view is a little naive. Besides, Putin’s alternative when he came to power was a political bloc of [former prime minister Yevgeny] Primakov and [Moscow mayor Yuri] Luzhkov who ran in the 1999 Duma elections. If they had won the struggle for the Yeltsin legacy, then, most likely, Russia would have faced the same problems as today, but much earlier and, perhaps, in a much more dramatic fashion. As for the passivity of Russian society, it seems to me that this is not the problem’s cause, but its consequence. Russians, not without reason, fear that their activism can have serious implications—from losing their jobs to charges of extremism. Many Russians do not like the current situation, and they are not satisfied with it, primarily for economic reasons, but they perceive drastic changes as a risk. I call this situation “negative equilibrium.”

OK: What do you mean by this concept?

VG: This is a fairly common phenomenon. Imagine that you have a bad job, you are paid little money, the office climate is toxic, but at the same time you know unemployment is high, and you are afraid that if you quit, you will not find another job. This kind of negative equilibrium can last for a very long time in the absence of external challenges. But this balance is unstable, as it contains a fairly strong potential for change. In this sense, the parallels with the Soviet stagnation are very revealing. Nothing changed in the Soviet Union for a long time (much effort was put into preserving the status-quo), but during perestroika, things started moving, and the government system went haywire.


Part III: The “Good” Soviet Union 

OK: In your opinion, is the nostalgia for the Soviet Union that has arisen in Russian society today due to the fact that people see these parallels between the Soviet stagnation and Putin’s stagnation, or is it the result of the regime’s propaganda?

VG: Clearly, the Russian authorities are trying really hard to construct a normative ideal—a “good” Soviet Union of its late stage, purged of its immanent shortcomings. There were many problems in the Soviet Union—shortages of even basic food products, rationed distribution, poor service quality, etc.—but these negative phenomena do not feature in the Kremlin-designed ideal. At the same time, the Soviet Union did not envisage, for example, the legalization of wealth within the elite and near-elite strata, so this aspect is also absent in the fictional ideal of a “good” Soviet Union. This ideal is thus artificially constructed by the authorities who use it to convince Russians that they should live about the same as they did in the 1970s. In reality, this is a big deception, because the problems that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union were in full bloom in the 1970s; the Soviet leadership either did not pay attention to them, or did not take them seriously, believing that the system would survive for their lifetime, and after them—le déluge. Today’s Russian leadership behaves in much the same way.

OK: That is, under Putin we have a “good” Soviet Union without a planned economy and deficits.

VG: Yes, in many ways this is true. Those aspects that caused the greatest irritation to Soviet citizens are now absent. No one is particularly keen on bringing back the Soviet economy. But many Russians would welcome the return of some other Soviet mechanisms—predictability of the future, for example, and lifelong guarantees of employment. Although such an approach to employment led to the conservation of a highly inefficient economic structure and ultimately harmed the country, an average Russian perceives these guarantees as good. A fictional, improved, and refined Soviet Union looks like an attractive model for many, especially for those who have experienced double turbulence—the Soviet collapse and the transformation of the 1990s.

OK: Amidst Soviet nostalgia, is there a demand in Russia for a “left turn”? Or a version of socialism?

VG: It’s hard to say, because the research that is being conducted shows contradictory preferences. I think many people would really like to receive certain social guarantees from the state—instead, they are being reduced. Perhaps the most striking example of the latter is the increase in the retirement age, which the authorities carried out unilaterally in 2018. The population perceived these changes extremely negatively. However, this does not necessarily testify that Russian citizens would choose socialism—actually, the problem is that they have nothing to choose from at all.


Part IV: The 2024 Problem

OK: What, in your opinion, are the strengths and weaknesses of the Putin regime?

VG: The strength of the regime lies in the fact that it was able to get rid of the current domestic political challenges that threaten the status quo, gain strong momentum and the potential to deal with the challenges posed to the status quo. The weak side is that the Russian leadership is increasingly facing problems of succession and lack of perspective. This is not a monarchical regime, where the power transfer issue is resolved though dynastic succession. This is not a one-party regime, where the leadership of the ruling party makes a collective decision on a political leadership through personnel rotation. This is a personalist regime, where things are much more complicated. It is hard to expect that Vladimir Putin will have some kind of official successor who will inherit power while Putin still lives, because then the living Putin would face serious political risks. Everyone knows that his regime will end someday, and this greatly affects long-term planning. As Putin ages, the planning horizon will only shrink.

OK: In the September elections, the United Russia party again gained a constitutional majority, and, according to some experts, the regime is now preparing to face the problem of 2024—when Putin’s presidential term expires. What do you expect in the coming years—will we see new schemes of political manipulation or will already old and tried mechanisms be employed?

VG: We have already seen one new scheme—electronic voting. This means that the results of future elections will be drawn up by the presidential administration, which then will declare that such is the will of the electorate.

OK: Beyond 2024, what are the most realistic scenarios for a change of power in Russia?

VG: Statistically, personalist regimes have two common outcomes: either a coup d’état, or the death of the leader.

OK: How big is the potential for a coup in Russia?

VG: If it is a military coup, it involves the transfer of power to a group within the ruling elite that relies on the army or other power structures. In sub-Saharan Africa, this is a fairly common scenario. For post-Soviet countries, this option is not yet very typical, but if the regime’s effectiveness weakens, the incentives for a coup will increase as the leader naturally ages. How likely this is in Russia, I cannot say.

OK: Is democracy possible in Russia? And how far is it from a democratic transition?

VG: We do not know how far it is, but there is no reason to believe that Russia is incapable of democracy. Democracy has been established over the past decades in countries as diverse as Mexico and Mongolia. Mexico, for instance, went through a very long period of authoritarianism, and Mongolia never had a democracy at all, but this has not stopped both countries from democratizing. So this path is not closed for Russia, but this does not mean that it will be chosen. 

OK: What are the conditions for democratization in Russia?

VG: There is no single condition, but creating barriers to the new monopolization of power would be a first and necessary step. Such barriers arise through the inevitability of conflicts between elites, the commitment of politicians to certain ideas, organized social and political activism, and the influence of other democratic countries. Today none of these conditions exist in Russia, but this, again, does not mean that they will never arise. They did not exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to an authoritarian trajectory. Will these barriers arise in the future? Let us wait and see.


Other interviews from the series:

• Sergei Guriev: “We may already be seeing Russia’s return to the repressive dictatorship of the 20th century”

• Ivan Kurilla: “Russia and the U.S. have defined themselves through opposing each other for almost a hundred years”

• Lev Gudkov: “The unity of the empire in Russia is maintained by three institutions: the school, the army, and the police”