Defining The Putinocracy

Petrocrat, gerontocrat, kleptocrat.  The nomenclature used in this week’s op-eds to describe Putin’s specific brand of leadership seem to have drawn upon almost every possible type of dictatorship in modern history.  An interesting point raised by many analysts is that whilst his return is seen as inevitable, it is out of step with modern times.  Putin’s recapturing of the presidency may be quite literally a throwback to the beginning of the decade, but in addition to this seems almost an anachronism in a world which just witnessed a wave of ‘crats’ of varying forms swept away in North Africa.  Reuter’s Chrystia Freeland defines her view of the new Russia order under Putin, one that despite his best efforts, is not necessarily designed to last:

Russia’s transformation into what political scientists call a sultanistic or neo-patrimonial regime is a break both with Russian history and with the global trend. The Kremlin has been home to plenty of murderous dictators. But the czars drew their legitimacy from their blood and their faith. The general secretaries owed their power to their party and their ideology. Mr. Putin’s rule is based solely on the man himself.

Russia’s shift to sultanism is out of step with the rest of the world, too. The Arab Spring was a revolt against some of the world’s most powerful neo-sultans; it is no accident that most of the remaining Middle Eastern dictatorships are ruled by dynastic monarchs, not strongmen. And among the world’s great powers — a group to which Russia is desperate to belong — only the Kremlin’s ruler need say l’état, c’est moi. China is certainly authoritarian, but it is a one-party state of precisely the sort Mr. Putin has failed to build.

One characteristic of paternalistic regimes is that they rule through fear and humiliation — remember the refrains from the streets of Tunisia and Egypt about people protesting to regain their dignity. That is being lost in Russia. One analyst, who has always spoken to me freely before, asked not to be quoted. When I asked a Russian businessman who was traveling in Europe what his friends back home thought, he was shocked by my naïveté: Kremlin politics, he explained, was no longer an issue it was safe to discuss on Russian telephones.

The sense of humiliation is even greater. “A lot of my friends are very disappointed that the private decision of two friends can determine the fate of their great and huge country,” one oligarch from the former Soviet Union told me.

Most humiliated of all was President Medvedev, who was required to announce his abdication from the Kremlin himself. “Medvedev is now the ultimate symbol of weakness,” Mr. Krastev said. “The liberals now hate him more than they hate Putin.”

Don’t, however, expect Western business to complain. When it comes to dealing with governments, especially foreign ones, chief executives love one-stop shopping, and that’s one thing a personalistic dictatorship provides. As one European chief executive told me, “We applaud this candidacy. Putin has been supporting industry in a way that is remarkable.”

Another thing Western chief executives like about dealing with dictators is presumed stability. That’s not entirely a myth — look at Ukraine to see how turbulent a post-Soviet state can be when it experiments with democracy — but it isn’t totally true either.

Paternalistic regimes can be very strong, but they are also very brittle. They have two great vulnerabilities. The first is money. Fear and humiliation are important tools for a neo-patrimonial strongman, but he needs cash, too. A Russian economist I spoke to calculated that if the price of oil were to fall below $60 a barrel, and stay there, Mr. Putin’s reign could soon be imperiled.