In this week’s media highlights, Gleb Pavlovsky in Foreign Affairs reveals the key mechanisms of the Russian political system under Putin’s rule. And in Politico, Michael Crowley writes that the Kremlin has apparently picked its candidate in the current U.S. presidential campaign—Donald Trump. Meanwhile, in the Russian media, analysts discuss the possibility of Russia’s democratic transition and the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.


The construction site of a New Safe Confinement structure that will cover damaged Unit 4 of the Chernobyl power station. Photo: Pyotr Sivkov / TASS


From the West

Russian Politics Under Putin

Gleb Pavlovsky, Foreign Affairs

One of the most shrewd political scientists in Russia, Gleb Pavlovsky explains the way the Russian political system, or sistema, works under Putin. Many Russia experts in both the West and Russia strive to understand Putin’s regime by focusing mostly on his autocratic tendencies. Pavlovsky, however, argues that far from being an autocrat, Putin is only an efficient manager who has mastered sistema but has limited control over it. Even if Putin leaves office, the system will stay in place. “Sistema is a deep-seated facet of Russian culture that goes beyond politics and ideology,” Pavlovsky asserts. “[It] combines the idea that the state should enjoy unlimited access to all national resources, public or private.” Within such a system, business and the state “have merged in a union of total and seamless corruption.” Pavlovsky also points out that Putin’s so-called “managed democracy” was only his first version of sistema, one that operated through the “power vertical” and “administrative market.” In his third presidential term, however, Putin has added a new, higher level to this “power vertical” that he alone occupies: “a private penthouse.” The new governance style no longer relies on “command and control,” but rather rests on a foundation of “indirection and interpretation.” Some of the side effects of this new style include misinterpretations of Putin’s signals by sistema agents (with the most sinister examples being the assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Nemtsov) and the inability of sistema to retreat (e.g., as Pavlovsky contends, “de-escalation in eastern Ukraine meant escalation in Syria”). Pavlovsky concludes that the most critical problem Russia faces is that no one in the Kremlin knows how to rule Russia without Putin: “The only way he will be able to rule is through sistema.”


The Hollow Men

Andrew Woods, American Interest

When Vladimir Putin became president, he didn’t have to choose a “power vertical,” claims Andrew Woods, an associate fellow of Chatham House and a former British ambassador to Belgrade and Moscow, in this article from the American Interest. Rather, the “roots of such a system were there in the 1990s.” During the early years of the modern Russian state, democratic institutions were formed and began to develop, but when Putin came to power, he established a different dynamic. Under his rule, the Russian economy mostly survived on rents from natural resources that were bestowed on loyal individuals by the Kremlin. This approach benefited the country in 2000–2008—although even then it mostly enriched Putin and his acolytes—but today, as oil prices collapse, the bill needs to be paid. One of the consequences of the rentier model and the Putin regime is the “progressive degradation of the Russian state.” Woods argues that Putin can no longer rely on a “vertical of power” because this model does not provide an “orderly structure of command” anymore. Thus, the Russian president has become a “prisoner of the opaque and in the end arbitrary system that has grown.” Woods concludes that the regime doesn’t have answers to the increasing number of problems the country faces, and that higher oil prices or a lifting of Western sanctions will not make a difference. The regime is trying to prioritize the idea of the restoration of Russia as a Great Power, but it refuses “to come to terms with the realities of the Soviet past,” infusing it with myths and hoping that this pushes “the Russian people to turn against their rulers.”


The Kremlin’s Candidate

Michael Crowley, Politico

Ed Schultz, the former host of an MSNBC primetime talk show who was known for his harsh criticisms of Donald Trump (whom he once called a “racist”) and Vladimir Putin (whom he nicknamed “Putie”), has recently radically changed his stance, as Michael Crowley points out in this article in Politico. The reason is his new show with RT—the U.S. branch of the global cable network formerly known as Russia Today, which is funded by the Russian government and has been widely criticized in the West for spreading propaganda and disinformation. Now, according to Schultz, Trump is “talking about things the people care about,” and he “would easily be able to function” as president. Recently, Crowley argues, RT has turned into a retirement retreat for “past-their-prime U.S. celebrities,” such as Larry King, Jesse “the Body” Ventura, and now Schultz. The network is likely to spend a lot of money on its international operations. According to Republican senator Rob Portman (one of the co-sponsors of the Countering Information Warfare Act, aimed in part at the network), the “cost of the network’s Washington bureau alone could be $400 million.” RT denies this figure, claiming to have a global budget of only $250 million.


From Russia 

Chernobyl: Catastrophe Continues

Rashid Alimov,

Thirty years after the Chernobyl disaster, residents of the contaminated areas in Russia have almost forgotten about radiation—but that doesn’t mean that the radiation is no longer there. Rashid Alimov, coordinator of the Russian Greenpeace branch’s antinuclear program, reminds readers that there are 4,413 Russian towns and villages across the 14 contaminated regions in Russia stretching from Leningrad to Bryansk. Radiation levels in these areas are sometimes three to four times higher than the norm, but locals tend to ignore these dire numbers, going about their lives without observing safety precautions. One of the reasons for that behavior, writes Alimov, is poverty: the current compensation for Chernobyl victims does not even cover minimal living costs, and people are forced to live off the land, growing vegetables in their gardens. At the same time, the number of handicapped children in these areas is four times higher than the average in Russia, while every third person has a thyroid disease. Alimov also underscores the existence of other risks, such as fires in contaminated forests, which can produce smoke further spreading the radiation.


Is Democratic Transition Possible in Russia?

Alexander Kolesnikov,

In this commentary, Alexander Kolesnikov, chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program, discusses whether democratic transition is possible in Russia in the near future. He cites a recent report prepared by the Higher School of Economics that concludes that Russia will face a scenario of inertia in the next ten years, arguing that the authorities, the business sphere, and the public will put up with the country’s poor institutions and passive behavior models. Experts have debated the nature of the current political developments: some see them as involution (a return to the Soviet model), and others as evolution (a move toward a tougher authoritarianism). Many conclude that Russia’s democratic transition is possible, but not earlier than ten years from now, or, in other words, after Putin’s fourth presidential term. Kolesnikov writes that historical experience shows that for change to happen in Russia, demand needs to form among the elites or the public. However, there are no signs of such a demand.


Mission Impossible: Why Administration Reform Stands No Chance

Vladimir Gelman, RBC

Vladimir Gelman, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, in this report analyzes the Russian government’s recent initiative to launch a new round of administrative reforms. The irony of this initiative, argues Gel’man, is that it is almost identical to the one proposed by the government in 2004 (at the time headed by the same man leading it now—Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev). Why did the government fail to implement the reforms last time? The problem, says Gelman, is Russia’s governance system, the main goal of which is to appropriate the income acquired from rents in the country’s resource-based economy. Thus, administrations of every size at every level of the political system are only pursuing this goal and are ignoring the reforms imposed on them “from above” as a “complication.” In the Russian system, loyalties appear to be more important than efficiency, and therefore the outcome of the new initiative is already doomed, concludes Gelman.


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