On September 21, Center on Global Interests (CGI) held a discussion titled “Arrested Development: Rethinking Politics in Putin’s Russia” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. A group of distinguished panelists, including Maria Lipman, Kirill Rogov, Nikolai Petrov and Andrei Soldatov, shared their views of the current developments in Russian politics, the nature and trajectory of Putin's regime, and the specifics of the public mood in Russia. Daniel Treisman moderated the discussion. Below are the key points made by the speakers.

 

Recent reshuffling in the Kremlin's top echelons of power caused a great stir both in Russia and the West. Depicted above is Vladimir Putin with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS

 

Panelists: 

Maria Lipman, Editor-in-Chief, Counterpoint; journalist and analyst of Russian politics.

Kirill Rogov, Columnist, Vedomosti; served as Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Kommersant, and since 2007 “has held positions at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy.”

Daniel Treisman (moderator), Professor of Political Science, UCLA and Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research; “his work focuses on Russian politics… economics and comparative political economy.”

Nikolai Petrov, Professor, Higher School of Economics and former scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center; Petrov has focused on “Russia’s political regime, the post-Soviet transformation, the socioeconomic and political development of Russia’s regions, democratization, federalism, and elections.”

Andrei Soldatov, Editor, Agentura.ru and investigative journalist, formerly of Segodnya, Izvestia, Moscow News, and Novaya Gazeta; Soldatov’s work focuses on terrorism and the Russian intelligence agencies.

 

Treisman: 

  • Russia’s economic and social modernization during the 2000s defined the Putin regime from its very outset:
    • Putin’s base of support during the 2000s came primarily from people who benefited from Russia’s process of modernization.
  • But between 2008 and 2012, this process of social and economic modernization began to affect political attitudes, ultimately culminating in the protests of 2011-2012:
    • Since 2012, one of the Kremlin’s main goals has been to minimize these political costs.
  • Russia’s current political system features an uneasy balance between two opposing forces: modernization vs. the Putin regime’s desire to hold onto power:
    • As part of its power-consolidating strategy, the Putin regime has established an “information-centric” autocracy, in which manipulation of the media—not necessarily violent coercion—dominates strategy.
  • The Russian political decision-making process has been undergoing a gradual but sustained breakdown over the past few years:
    • Putin has been meeting less and less with his advisors and other government officials, instead relying more on informal “freelancers” and bypassing formal policy-vetting procedures:
      • Example of such “freelancers” include Konstantin Malofeev, who has coordinated with China on control over the internet.
    • Putin seems to be drawing from fewer and fewer sources of information
      • Putin’s statements have featured an increasing amount of factually incorrect information, and this may be a symptom of less top-down information and decision-making “filtration.”

Lipman:

  • US media coverage of Russia has been somewhat disappointing, tending to cover Putin superficially and giving him the overly broad (and somewhat inaccurate) label of “dictator.”
  • The Putin regime does not run a “brutal” dictatorship, at least not in the traditional sense:
    • There has been no mass jailing or prosecution of journalists, nor any major shutdowns of media operations via legal or extrajudicial decisions.
  • The Kremlin does, however, manipulate and control the Russian media’s agenda in an effort to demobilize the population:
    • The Putin regime has replaced independent media operatives with individuals more amenable to the Kremlin’s views;
    • Alternative media outlets are largely politically irrelevant in Russia;
    • Many Russians watch state-sponsored TV as their main source of information, but nearly half of those people say they don’t actually trust it.

Petrov: 

  • Petrov, unlike Treisman, does not believe that the Putin regime’s decision-making apparatus has broken down;
    • But the regime cannot survive permanently without well-established rules or institutions in place.
  • Putin’s personal connections determine which regional leaders have influence within Russia’s political system;
    • Ramzan Kadyrov is perhaps the most conspicuous example of a regional leader with significant influence and power.
  • Two types of centralization have occurred under Putin’s rule:
    • Dissolution of federalism;
    • State consolidation of private corporations and assets.

Rogov:

  • Russians are not necessarily politically conservative when compared with people from other countries; but Russians’ levels of political participation are below average.
  • The Putin regime, in the long tradition of authoritarian-style rule, has tried to make it seem as though it enjoys support from a supermajority (rather than just a plurality) of the Russian population:
    • This sends the message that political opposition is a fruitless endeavor;
    • This perception is further reinforced by state-run media, which tends to push narratives that make the Kremlin appear popular, while pushing aside stories that don’t bolster its public image.
  • People’s support for the Putin regime has often correlated with people’s level of interest in politics:
    • The Kremlin’s solution to this has been to “involve” people more heavily in its official, heavily stylized news agenda (i.e. by increasing public exposure to state propaganda)

Soldatov:

  • Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the FSB was tasked with creating a new Russian “national idea” and plan for the future of the country;
    • But the 2000s saw a complete failure of this concept, as the siloviki within the FSB did not share a common vision for Russia.
  • Since 2007, Putin has created new security structures, largely in response to political unrest; the FSB had failed to act as a guardian of political stability;
    • These changes have given more power to Cossacks, and created a new security agency called the “National Guard.”
  • Many key positions in the FSB are now filled by officials from the Foreign Ministry, or by people from the Federal Protective Service.
  • Putin has apparently decided to revert back to the traditional, Soviet-style relationship between the Kremlin and the security services—meaning that the agencies’ primary function is to protect the country’s political regime, not the Russian population itself.

 

Q & A: 

  1. Do Russia’s regional leaders operate on the basis of some sort of an incentive structure?

Petrov:

  • Regional government leaders are much weaker now than they were in the 1990s; many do not have many connections with regional elites, nor do they have much knowledge about their regions’ interests;
  • One of the problems is that regional leaders are essentially representatives of the federal government, rather than the other way around (i.e. representatives of their regions within the federal government itself).

 

  1. What will happen once Putin is gone? Is a power crisis inevitable? Would Russia’s authoritarian streak continue?

Treisman:

  • Centralized regimes often look more stable than they are, and it is particularly difficult to manage authoritarian systems in tough economic times;
  • Russia’s political system is not entirely dependent on Putin, but nonetheless a transfer of power would prove very difficult and tumultuous.

Petrov:

  • Russia is hostage to the Putin regime, the Putin regime is hostage to Putin, and Putin is hostage to his approval ratings—and this presents a major problem;
  • When a power transition does occur, it will be very chaotic because the Putin regime is unstable from within;
  • There are few Russian elites who operate independently of Putin because loyalty is his currency of choice;
  • By the end of this year, Putin will have to decide between two choices:
    • Full scale authoritarianism with undiscriminating violence, coercion, etc., or authoritarian modernization;
    • Both options, however, are inherently unstable;
  • There is a future after Putin, but unfortunately Russia cannot attain this future without first undergoing a large-scale political crisis.

 

  1. What is the current state of Russia’s social modernization?

Lipman:

  • Much of Russia’s social modernization—individuals communicating and associating with each other independently of the state—occurred prior to the mass protests of 2011-2012;
  • Example: independent aid organized for those affected by forest fires in central Russia;
  • Many of these “social modernites” are Russians who have benefitted from the post-industrial part of Russia’s economy;
  • What Russia demonstrates currently is “arrested” social development—the state has discouraged “social modernites” from organizing independently from the state;
  • But so long as Russia remains a “moderate” authoritarian state, there will always be people willing to follow autonomous social agendas.

 

  1. What is the Russian Orthodox Church’s role in Putin’s Russia?

Lipman:

  • The relationship between the Church and the state is a symbiotic one:
  • The Church often uses the state as a legislative tool to promote its own agenda;
  • The state, meanwhile, uses the Church to promote Russian nationalism and traditional values;
  • At the same time, the state makes sure that it is never in competition with the Church over power and influences.

 

The full video recording of the event is available below.

 

* Daniel Frey is an independent Russia analyst and writer.

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