Recent developments in Russia demonstrate that the society is awakening, and that the country sooner or later will face a moment of truth, as it did twice in the past century when it had to solve a dilemma: whether to de-hermetize or to reproduce its system of personalized power that can only push the nation toward disaster. In 1917 the Russian Revolution produced a new incarnation of the country's traditional matrix of personalized power, statism, and imperialism in the form of communism, which succeeded in becoming a global alternative to liberal democracy In 1991 the country's elite instituted a different model of the Russian matrix by dumping the Soviet Union and communist ideology. Personalized power in the communist disguise existed for 74 years. The new-old Russian system consolidated during the presidencies of Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Dmitri Medvedev has started to show cracks after 21 years.
The challenge the nation faces today is existential: Either the society succeeds in transforming the system of personalized rule that suffocates it, or Russia will lose its energy and end in rot or implosion. There is only one way out of this civilizational trap, and that is through pressure from below. But will the new Russian revolution be a transformational "velvet" one, or will it again create a more predatory form of rule?
To the Bitter End
Russia has always been a land of paradoxes. Is it not a paradox, after all, when democrats bring an autocrat to power and then protect him from competition, as Russia's democrats did in 1989-91 in supporting Yeltsin? And was it not a paradox when, in the 1990s, the West assisted Russia in its reforms only to discover later that in reality it had helped to remodel personalized rule as an oligarchic and corrupt capitalism still hostile to the West? Now there is yet another paradox as the middle class, tied as it is to the state, takes up the defense of the status quo, thus disproving political scientist Samuel Huntington's association of democratization with the emergence of a middle class. (The participation of some segments of this class in the protests of 2011-12 does not undermine this trend.)
The country continues to amaze with its paradoxes and to destroy models convenient to many in both Russia and the West. A good number of Russian liberals, just like the Western political establishment, would have preferred to see Medvedev stay in power, for he at least employed liberal rhetoric. But whether Medvedev or some other figure held the presidency, it would have only prolonged illusory hopes that the authoritarian system could modernize itself. Putin's return to the presidency this year leaves no doubts as to where Russia is going: It proves that Putin himself will never voluntarily give up his monopoly on power, and his team is not going to carry out either political or economic reform.
Indeed, Putin's return to the Kremlin means that Russia is starting to repeat the logic of the final Soviet years, characterized by the political system's degradation and a growing gap between the authorities and society. There are no guarantees that the country will manage to avoid fragmentation. So far, the difference between the Soviets' decline and that of Putin's Russia is that, unlike the Soviet ruling elite, which had grown too old and flabby to survive, today's authorities are ready to fight for their power until the bitter end.
It is still too early to bury the regime of Putin and his team, or the personalized power system with all of its institutions, informal rules of the game, entrenched interests, mentality, and habits. For all the mounting frustration in Russian cities and the refusal by much of the educated urban population to recognize the leadership's legitimacy, the regime still has resources to prolong its survival. It enjoys the support of a large part of the political class and of segments of society wary of any change. It can count, too, on the ruling team's (so far) monolithic nature. Still, in the event of increasing public discontent, it cannot be ruled out that the Putin regime would give way to another one with a new leader in a bid by the ruling elite to preserve the system, only without Putin. The Russian ruling elite has learned how to continue the system through a process of regime change.
Despite this year's and previous changes of wrapping, Russia's system retains its key features: personal power, a merger between power and economic assets, neo-imperial ambitions, militarism, and reliance on a commodity economy and patron-client relations. The Kremlin's neo-imperial ambitions, albeit in milder form than in the past, are pursued through efforts to preserve a sphere of interest in the post-Soviet region. These, together with its militaristic features, reflected in assertive rhetoric and in the defense-heavy federal budget, are what distinguish Russia's government from other authoritarian regimes and make its democratization more complicated.
Russia's civilizational model might be obsolete in the twenty-first century, but its leaders have learned to keep it alive by reaching out to different groups of the population while manipulating a combination of incompatible components. Russia is a nuclear petro-state that is still a great power, yet plays the role of a commodity-supplying appendage for more developed countries. The Russian political elite has integrated personally into the West, yet it views the West as an enemy. Liberals in the government help to prolong the life of a regime for which liberalism is alien.
Several other factors also help to reproduce the Russian matrix. Among them are the lack of formidable liberal opposition, the demoralization of society, the state's ability to bribe the population, the fear that any change will bring Russia's collapse, and finally the lack of serious threats from either the outside or the inside. I would emphasize two obstacles on the path to transformation.
The first is the role and mentality of the intellectual class, which in all societies has always been the engine of change. In Russia, the demoralized state of the intelligentsia has become one of the main causes of the country's failure to embark on a new path since 1991. The emergence of a new form of autocratic power during the Yeltsin presidency has left intellectuals disoriented. Most have been unwilling to take a stand in opposition to a new personalized power system disguising itself as a democracy. Some have become propagandists and experts in the service of personalized rule. Together, they are the gravediggers of the intelligentsia in its traditional role of bearer of moral criteria.
One of the most important factions of the intellectual class, the liberals, by their willingness to serve the system delivered the most crushing blow to the chances of liberal democratic change in Russia. These "systemic liberals" operate within the system and serve the government in different capacities while at the same time trying to monopolize the right to speak on behalf of liberalism and democracy. They not only reproduce a "grey zone" devoid of clear principles and direction, but also discredit liberal-democratic norms in the eyes of Russians.
A second obstacle to transformation is the role of the West, which often helps the traditional Russia to keep going. For starters, in the eyes of a significant part of the Russian population Western civilization has lost the role of alternative to the personalized system. Partly, this is a result of the current political "malaise" in the West. However, more important has been the policy of Western governments with respect to the Kremlin, which the most advanced parts of Russian society regard as one of connivance or even appeasement of the regime. For many liberal-minded Russians, the latest turns of the Western course toward Russia— America's "reset" and the European Union's "Partnership for Modernization"—provide legitimation of the country's personalized rule.
The role of Western politicians, pundits, and journalists in the Kremlin's staged "operas," such as the Valdai Club and the Yaroslavl Global Policy Forum, which have become instruments of their co-optation by the regime, is another form of legitimation that the West provides for the Russian system (hopefully unintentionally). In the eyes of Russian society, the West has turned into a laundry machine for a corrupted elite and has offered a powerful "service class" that includes politicians, bankers, and public relations agencies that help the personal integration of the Russian political class into Western society. Western acquiescence and attempts to ignore the Russian elite's brazen behavior, lack of accountability, and even criminalization give Russian society grounds to believe that no international laws could constrain the elite, and that the West will be always ready to accommodate it. No wonder that even Russian liberals have started to be openly critical of Western policy toward the regime.
The Kremlin continues its old tactic of co-opting members of the political community and the intellectual elite, intimidating those unwilling to submit, and tossing favors to the populist-oriented groups that depend on the state. Rather than forcing Putin into experimenting with liberalism, as some hoped, growing public discontent creates pretexts for the regime to turn to repression and use force (in particular by returning to the search for "enemies" and fomenting confrontation between different groups in society). Essentially, the authorities are returning to the tactic tested in the past by Stalin and Mao, who maintained society in a state of constant tension and used the "besieged fortress" idea to justify violence. The Kremlin's adoption of the Stalinist-Maoist approach, albeit without the same level of violence, indicates that the regime has run out of milder methods for sustaining its position.
The regime's very nature determines its drift toward repression. It is a praetorian regime run by people from the secret services—indeed, from these services' most archaic provincial level—and is thus predisposed toward violence. Violence has always served as a tool for perpetuating Russia's autocracy, but before the Putin period control of the institutions of repression was in civilian hands. Now, for the first time in Russian history, people from these institutions have taken power in their own hands. In this situation, the degradation of the system and the emergence of threats to entrenched interests make it only more likely that the regime will resort to force in order to protect itself.
Putin is aware that stepping up the repression would take Russia toward the status of a North Korea and into isolation, which would contradict the political class's desire for personal integration with the West. The Kremlin thus has to find the limits beyond which it cannot go if it is to avoid Western rejection of the Russian elite. The Magnitsky Bill, a measure in the US Congress named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian attorney who died in police custody, would impose sanctions on Russian officials suspected of human rights violations. If it were enacted, it could show the Kremlin the limits of Western countries' willingness to tolerate the situation in Russia. The problem is that, even if faced with a critical reaction from the West, Putin and his team have no way back. They cannot begin a liberalization process that would risk costing them their power. This leaves pressurizing society as their only survival tactic.
Meanwhile, the ruling team is trying to make use of the time still at its disposal to gain maximum profit and guarantee its assets' future protection. The Kremlin has been looking for projects that will bring huge dividends for the clans at the top. Among the ideas discussed has been a bizarre suggestion to establish a state corporation to man-age Siberia and the Far East (a corporation that would answer directly to Putin and guarantee his personal control over the main commodity flows from those regions), as well as new privatizations carried out by groups close to the authorities. The Kremlin is quite unabashedly allowing particular clans to grab hold of state assets and take over private assets in exchange for personal loyalty to Putin.
Putin has also raised another idea for self-preservation—a new wave of industrialization centered around the military-industrial complex. As he sees it, this should spur economic growth while at the same time reinforcing the state's militaristic base. This is yet another borrowing from Stalin's policy arsenal. Stalin in his time carried out forced industrialization from above, a model that can be repeated only under dictatorship. Today any such attempt is doomed to fail, and not just because forcible reindustrialization under outright dictatorship would require shedding much blood, a task for which the country's corrupt law enforcement and security services are unlikely to be prepared.
The fact is that Russia's defense industry is a closed and bureaucratic structure stuck in the 1960s and devoid of any incentive to innovate. Huge sums injected into it will only end up lining the pockets of the ruling clans. The one thing that is still not clear is whether the Kremlin actually believes in the possibility of such a Stalin-style industrialization, or whether the idea has been dreamed up just to consolidate traditionalists' support while providing the ruling team with a new source of enrichment.
Whatever the case, what is emerging in Russia today is a weird hybrid of a petro-state with nuclear weapons and neo-imperialist and militarist ambitions. True, these ambitions are only imitative: The Kremlin is not prepared either to expand national borders or to go to war with the West. Still, this hybrid regime with its eyes searching the past for ways to prolong its life is stopping Russia from becoming a modern country.
How long can these tactics prolong the current team's survival? Time is running out for Putin. Judging by the public mood he is unlikely to last longer than his current presidential term, which ends in 2018. The big issue for Russia today is to build a systemic alternative in the form of a political force capable of winning public support and of putting together a plan for transforming the system of government. If such an alternative does not emerge, the Putin regime's fall could open the way to a new authoritarian regime or even dictatorship, or Russia will enter a stage of severe degradation.
The Protesters' Problems
Russia's awakening at the end of 2011 came as a surprise not only to the authorities but also to the elite, which indicates the lack of reliable instruments for measuring and understanding what is going on in society. It also made clear that the opposition was not ready for this sudden explosion of public protest. In fact, discontent with the regime, especially among the educated urban population, had been brewing for a time; the 2011-12 election fraud was just the spark that set it off.
The protest movement has moved fast from a moral drive for dignity to political slogans such as "Russia without Putin." The different protest groups came to agreements, learned to organize themselves, and showed their ability to make use of new forms of protest, from flash mobs to protest walks or occupying public squares. But at the same time, the movement faces obvious problems. Tactical weaknesses include a lack of close coordination between old and new opposition movements, between political and civil initiatives, and between Moscow and the regions. There is no strategy with majority approval, and too strong a focus on immediate-term slogans.
An even greater problem is the difficulty in reaching understanding between the revolutionary-minded part of the protest movement and the moderates, that is, those who hope to influence the system from within and want to avoid confrontation with the authorities. "The authorities have not fulfilled any of our demands," the revolutionaries say, "and so we need to take to the streets to demand Putin's departure." The moderates, for their part, say, "We must not radicalize the situation but should seek dialogue with the authorities and refrain from demands that they are not pre-pared to accept." The problem is that the authorities are willing to imitate dialogue but are not willing to renounce their monopoly on power.
Increased social and economic discontent in Russia's provinces also poses a challenge. Until now, political dissent and socioeconomic protest have followed parallel paths. The country's future will depend greatly on whether these two roads intersect at some point, when this might take place, and what will happen if these two flows do indeed merge as one. If the political opposition can convince provincial Russia that the roots of its problems are political and that not only does Putin have to go, but the whole system has to be restructured, this would mark a turning point in Russian history, with the public realizing the need for political transformation and not just a change of leadership. But this has not happened yet.
Two circumstances open the way for the system to reproduce itself yet again. One is the authorities' attempts to tighten the screws on society, reflected in repressive legislation adopted in the summer of 2012, continued persecution of the opposition, and political trials such as the one this summer that ended in convictions for members of the Pussy Riot punk rock band. The other circumstance is moderates' attempts to engage the authorities in dialogue and convince them to behave decently.
At the same time, the impatient minority within the opposition is growing more radical and is ready for revolt. It is worth remembering in this context that the radicalization of protest movements in Russia has always followed hopes for liberalization and their subsequent disappointment. Discontent with the limited nature of the czarist government's reforms led to the emergence of terrorism in Russia in the late nineteenth century, and in 1917 unfulfilled hopes for liberalization set off what would become one of the twentieth century's bloodiest revolutions. Today, Medvedev's fake modernization has played a part in bringing protest to the surface.
It is absolutely clear now that the ruling group will never voluntarily renounce its monopoly on power so long as the personal power system is still in place. This means that only social protest can bring about change, but some preconditions are needed for the protest movement to usher in a process of peaceful transformation. The main preconditions are: consolidation and consensus among all groups opposed to the regime and the system on the need to change the rules of the game through free and fair elections; revision of the constitution so as to do away with excessive presidential power; and agreement by the main political forces to renounce the leader-based model of political life.
Leftists and Liberals
Recent events show that leftist and left-wing populist sentiments are on the increase within the protest movement. The more the discontent spreads to the provinces, the more the Kremlin will try to suppress it through force, and the stronger this trend will become. This new leftist mood rejects the old Communist Party, which has become the authorities' partner. The leftist wave worries not just the ruling team but also the liberals and technocrats working for the Kremlin. Such fears have always been typical for liberals and for the intelligentsia in general, forcing them to take the side of the personalized system, afraid as they are of popular uprisings. Today, these fears serve to justify support for the authorities by a significant section of intellectuals, who have integrated into the system and feel comfortable within it.
For the time being the desire to avoid upheaval pervades Russian society. People have been patiently hoping that the ruling class will initiate change. For all their populist slogans and even anti-Western outlook, the new left-wing movement's leaders are ready at this stage to listen to others, even to the liberals' point of view, and to work with them. So far, liberals dominate the protest movement's leadership, but they will have to make concessions to the leftists if they want to give the movement genuinely broad support.
If and when a future protest wave takes place, it will most likely be dominated by left-wing and perhaps left-liberal values. Consensus based on classical liberalism had its window of opportunity in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Yeltsin and his team wasted this chance when they carried out so-called "liberal reforms" that laid the foundations for a new authoritarianism. Liberals during Putin's time have failed to get in tune with mass public feeling and remain the voice of an urban minority. Ironically, the longer that liberals serve Putin's regime, the more the general public will be suspicious of the liberal agenda.
Liberals who oppose the regime will find it increasingly difficult to resist this process. As during the Yeltsin period, liberal-minded intellectuals and politicians could once again find themselves facing the dilemma of choosing between a corrupt regime that is damaging for the country, and left-wing forces that would inevitably raise the issue of re-nationalizing privatized assets and reviewing the property rights that have emerged. During Yeltsin's time, many democratically minded people, fearing a communist return to power, supported the corrupt ruling team and closed their eyes to election fraud that secured a second victory for a sick Yeltsin, thus paving the way for today's authoritarian regime. The time is coming when the liberal minority could face a similar choice between supporting the regime, out of fear that illiberal forces might gain power, and endorsing the democratic process, that is, free and fair elections. If the liberal minority once again takes the authorities' side, this would sound the death knell for liberalism in contemporary Russia and make its re-emergence in the near future almost impossible.
What is it about Russian nationalism that the country's liberals and the West fear? Recent events show that nationalism is not the dominant force in the country. At least, not yet. Russian nationalism has undergone an evolution from an imperial version, based on the notion of the empire-state and personalized rule, to one that openly opposes the Putin regime and the system in general with its neo-imperial ambitions. Russian nationalists were among the first to raise the question of transforming Russia into a nation-state and renouncing the Caucasus. Moderate nationalists have begun discussing the need for constitutional reform to transform Russia into a parliamentary republic at a time when constitutional reform is not yet a priority on the liberals' agenda.
In short, Russian nationalism is turning into a force opposing the regime, but it is not yet clear how influential it might become, and whether the moderate or aggressive elements will end up dominating. Polish, Baltic, and Ukrainian nationalism had a pro-Western and European dimension during post-communist transformation, while Russian nationalism is still anti-Western. At the same time, however, moderates among Russian nationalists support the rule of law and competition. The future development of Russian nationalism is thus likely to be full of contradictions. One thing is clear: It will work at undermining the Putin regime, but its radical currents will complicate efforts to build a liberal democratic system and continue Russia's integration into Europe.
Crisis or Decay
If the current trends continue, Russia will inevitably head into economic, social, and geopolitical decline. A country cannot renew itself, after all, if the authorities are intent on maintaining the status quo indefinitely and stamping out dissent. But exactly how this decline will take place is still uncertain. Will it be a lengthy process of decay that goes beyond any time frame we can adequately measure today? Or will it be interrupted by social and political explosion, and if so, when and with what consequences? Would this explosion lead to the continuation of the authoritarian system under a new guise, or would it transform Russia into a liberal democracy?
Socioeconomic and political crisis is the key factor that will determine whether Russia takes the road of endless stagnation or whether the society attempts to stop this process and finds the strength to look for new forms of political life. With an elite that seeks only to protect its own interests, and without any alternative force in society, crisis is the only thing capable of stirring the swamp. So far, crisis is producing ripples that rock the Russian boat but it seems there are not yet waves sufficiently large to threaten the status quo.
What could set off a full-scale crisis, and what would this mean for the country? Russia could head into such a crisis if, for example, oil prices fall to $70 a barrel, public sector workers dependent on the state see their living standards take a steep downturn, the urban population becomes increasingly politicized and the gap between it and the authorities widens, local conflicts build up, signs of splits emerge within the political class, and executive power ends up paralyzed. Setting all of these exacerbating factors into motion and making them converge in time would require a tipping point, perhaps a stupid act on the authorities' part, such as back in 2005, when a decision to replace social benefits with cash payments brought pensioners into the streets.
Other tipping points could be the unjustified use of violence against the population and clashes in the streets, electricity blackouts in Moscow that would paralyze the capital, corruption scandals in government, growing student activism, and so on. In a full-scale crisis we could see executive power become immobilized, underscoring the authorities' inability to keep the situation under control. The mass protest movement could swell and law enforcement agencies could refuse to use force against citizens. Crisis could cause dissension within the political class and erode the authorities' support base.
The mood in Moscow is of crucial importance for Russia's future. But if an explosion does take place, a set of conditions is needed to channel it in a peaceful direction and ensure that liberal transformation begins. Anti-regime and anti-system forces would need to consolidate. Pragmatists among the authorities would need to ally themselves with the non-systemic opposition. New laws would have to ensure free and fair elections, which would need to be immediately organized. And either the parliament or a constitutional conference would have to enact constitutional amendments curtailing excessive presidential power.
All this would inevitably be followed by a new stage during which the anti-system coalition would fall apart and a new round of drawing up the political boundaries would begin, only this time it would take place under new rules of the game. This is the optimistic scenario. It would require not just the convergence of several trends but also consistent effort by the opposition forces to prepare for transformation on the basis of political competition.
Just as important is a favorable international environment for Russia's transformation. This is not about outdated Western assistance and democracy promotion policies. Rather, at some point, the old system's collapse might require the West to help in other ways, for example by warning the failing regime not to resort to violence, or by helping to smooth the way for its representatives to leave Russia for abroad.
Unfortunately, Russia is moving in a dangerous direction. The authorities still have enough resources at their disposal to keep the country in a state of indefinite "controlled decline." What is more, the ruling class has deliberately chosen to deepen demoralization in society, hoping in this way to prevent the emergence of an alternative that would threaten its survival. This atmosphere of continued decay, in which moral principles and taboos that act as restraints are eroded, and total mistrust and cynicism spread through society, could push the country down a path of slow collapse. In this situation, popular protests could end up turning into ruthless and destructive mutiny.
No matter what form Russia's trajectory takes— crisis, implosion, or transformation—its territorial integrity will be a serious problem. It will be very difficult to maintain within a single country regions that belong to different civilizations. One only needs to look at the North Caucasus, for example. The future of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan is also unclear, though their lack of external borders would make it harder for these regions to secede from Russia. In any case, we need to be prepared for a new spiral in the collapse of the still partially intact old empire.
The most likely scenarios I have outlined for Russia over the coming five to ten years would see the country become a zone of turbulence whose ripples could jeopardize stability across Eurasia and Europe. The country's future will say a lot, too, about the role of a Western civilization that so far has failed to answer Russia's challenge.
This article originally appeared in Current History.