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Princeton Prof on Dictatorship 101

I came across some chatter in the blogosphere which led me to a interesting lecture recently given by Stephen Kotkin, a major Princeton figure on Russia and author of books such as Armageddon Averted and Magnetic Mountain. The text of the lecture, which was given on Feb. 15, 2007 in Philadelphia, has been posted by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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Prof. Stephen Kotkin of Princeton

Kotkin delivers some great and not uncontroversial material, covering a lot of ground in a very short period of time, so I will probably break this into two posts, each worthy of further exploration. To summarize, his main points are the following: – Russia is in political stasis – not in transition toward democracy nor dictatorship. – Western media is singularly obsessed with Vladimir Putin, and fails to capture the current Russian reality and instead contributes to false assumptions. – False assumption #1: that the Kremlin is controlled by one united group. Quite the contrary – instead of managed democracy, Putin has arranged “managed fragmentation”, which is integral part of Dictatorship 101. – False assumption #2: that Russian society is wasting away. Not true – Russia is second in the world (behind the USA) in accepting immigrants, 20-25% of the population is solidly middle class and mostly apolitical, and the dynamicism of these groups contributes to Russia’s under-appreciated stability. – False assumption #3: Russia’s assertive and resentful foreign policy is threat. Not exactly – Russia is notoriously clumsy and ineffectual in achieving its foreign policy objectives, Russia is friendless, and Russia is really only threatening to itself. In this section, Kotkin discusses the illusion of Kremlin Inc.:

Kremlin Inc.

“Kremlin Inc.” is something that anyone can readily understand. It signifies that a KGB-dominated Putin group has taken over Russia and controls the country politically and economically. It’s a wonderfully simple story, now perhaps the dominate view among U.S. commentators on Russia. But Kremlin Inc. is one of those pernicious half truths.

The Russian political system lacks functioning political parties or other institutionalized mechanisms of elite recruitment. Instead it has an extremely personalistic system. Russian leaders appoint to positions of authority those people they went to school with, those from their home town, those from the places where they used to work. Vladimir Putin came from St. Petersburg. Moreover, he was at the top levels in Moscow for only a short period before he became president. To assert operative control over central state institutions and state-owned corporations, he seeks to appoint people who are loyal to him (sometimes he gets lucky and get both competence and loyalty, but often it’s just loyalty). Such people naturally will come from his hometown and former places of work, which happened to be the Leningrad KGB and the St. Petersburg city government.

(Note: There are two main public contenders to succeed Putin as president in 2008. One, Sergei Ivanov, comes from the Leningrad KGB, while the other, Dimitrii Medvedev, comes from the St. Petersburg city government. Most insiders suspect there will be a last-minute stealth candidate, in keeping with how Putin himself emerged and how he operates; others suspect that any Putin step-aside in 2008 will be more apparent than real. Only one person knows—if he in fact knows—whom he will be put forward as his successor.)

The popular idea of a KGB takeover of the Russian political system makes a certain amount of sense. The Soviet KGB was a huge institution, with massive personnel, and so, inevitably, a lot of today’s movers and shakers used to work there. But if Putin had worked in the defense ministry, the defense ministry would be “taking over” Russia. If he had worked in the gas industry, those who have made their careers in gas would be “taking over” Russia. It’s wrong to assume that because Putin comes from the KGB, and because that’s where his loyalists come from, the whole system is moving in the direction of a security regime by design. There is an element of that. Many of Putin’s colleagues sometimes do share a certain mentality—distrust of the West—but even more significantly, they belong to competing factions.

And that’s the key point. Whereas “Kremlin Inc.” implies a team, united in a collective enterprise, most high Russian officials despise each other. They’re rivals, in charge of competing fiefdoms with overlapping jurisdictions, and they’re trying to destroy each other. Dictatorship 101 teaches that a dictator needs officials to distrust each other, so that they’ll tattle to him about each other. The ruler will say “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him, he won’t bother you anymore.” Sometimes the ruler will impose a temporary truce. Often, though, the ruler will instigate still more conflict, pitting already antagonistic interests against each other, so that they’ll run to him for protection and become dependent on him.

Putin’s regime falls far short of being a dictatorship—in the chaotic conditions of the dysfunctional Russian state and of Russia’s relatively open society—but Putin’s ruling strategy comes straight out of Dictatorship 101. To outsiders, the strategy looks like centralization of all power in a disciplined pyramid, but on the inside the strategy looks like making sure that the ruling “team,” far from being united, is at each other’s throats. Thus, “Kremlin Inc.” is a political system of surface stability but turmoil underneath. Its members compete incessantly, and in Russian politics, offense is the best defense, so they proactively go after each other’s property and people (in a so-called naezd) before waiting for rivals to go after them.

What keeps this divided, turbulent, unstable, misnamed Kremlin Inc. from spinning violently out of control is dependence on Putin. Remove that one piece and pandemonium breaks loose in full view, rather than remaining mostly hidden. But Putin has promised, many times, that he will not seek a third consecutive term as president, which the 1993 Constitution prohibits. Putin has made this frequent promise even though he could have kept quiet. He has done it inside and outside the country, in public and in private. Many talking head commentators speculate that Putin is going to create a crisis and then use the crisis to remain in power. In truth, he doesn’t need a crisis. He has something like an 80 percent approval rating—as elected officials go across the world, that’s mind-blowing this deep into a governing cycle. Putin can essentially do whatever he wants. He doesn’t need to violate the constitution. If he wants, the Duma will change the constitution in a heartbeat and he can have his third term, with broad public support. But he keeps saying publicly that he doesn’t want a third term.

Putin’s insistence that he is stepping down has been frightening Russian business, international business, and even many international politicians. These people are sincerely afraid that the president is actually going to step aside in March 2008. If he does, the factions of the supposed Kremlin Inc.—a bunch of scorpions in a bottle—will go at each other publicly. Some of them will refuse to be subordinated to a new person. Some will want to be the new person. Many insiders want Putin to remain, to avoid the uncertainty of a struggle to establish a new primus inter pares, or leading figure. To be sure, far from everyone hopes the president will stay, but Putin has gotten an enormous swath of Russia’s population to pray, literally, that he engineers a smooth “transition.” Because Russia’s political system is so fractious and dependent on a single person, however, anything can happen in March 2008. Anything except democracy and rule of law.

From the point of view of many Russian insiders, the issue is, how does Putin manage a transition in which he has exacerbated animosities as a method of rule but, when he removes himself, does not allow those animosities to get out of hand? Posing the question this way should not be taken as an argument for Putin to remain in power or against Russia holding a genuine election. This is simply an observation about the state of play: the regime is unstable because all authoritarian regimes are ultimately unstable, and because the president keeps insisting publicly that he will abide by the Constitution and step down, thereby exposing the tremendous instability that lies at the heart of his outwardly stable regime.

The entire speech can be read at FPRI. We will probably weigh in with some critiques if time permits.