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Retro- Authoritarianism….So Old, it’s New

TIME magazine, as most are no doubt aware, named Russian President Vladimir Putin as it’s 2007 “Man of the Year.  The editors explained their choice in a way that also attempted to  articulate Putin’s stabilitarian “siloviki ideology”:

“But all this has a dark side. To achieve stability, Putin and his administration have dramatically curtailed freedoms. His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin’s hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule. Yet this grand bargain-of freedom for security-appeals to his Russian subjects, who had grown cynical over earlier regimes’ promises of the magical fruits of Western-style democracy. Putin’s popularity ratings are routinely around 70%. “He is emerging as an elected emperor, whom many people compare to Peter the Great,” says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center and a well-connected expert on contemporary Russia.

Putin’s global ambitions seem straightforward. He certainly wants a seat at the table on the big international issues. But more important, he wants free rein inside Russia, without foreign interference, to run the political system as he sees fit, to use whatever force he needs to quiet seething outlying republics, to exert influence over Russia’s former Soviet neighbors. What he’s given up is Yeltsin’s calculation that Russia’s future requires broad acceptance on the West’s terms. That means that on big global issues, says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former point man on Russia policy for the Clinton Administration, “sometimes Russia will  be helpful to Western interests, and sometimes it will be the spoiler.”

Putin’s rule can ( and typically has been) analyzed from the perspective of Sovietology and Russian history. Articles feature the usual, superficial, observations that Russians like a strong vozhd (supreme leader) in the tradition of StalinAlexander III, Nicholas I, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible; that Putin’s regime is a Cheka-KGB front (  actually, KGB veterans are among the most competent and least ideological technocrats of the Soviet era officials – who would YOU hire ? The guys who ran Soviet agriculture ?); that Russians yearn for a return to the Cold War and so on.  While there is some truth to these statements regarding the Russian national character and unhappy history, to use them as a fundamental explanation of Russia’s current political system is mostly rubbish.  The truth is that Russia’s liberal and democratic parties self-destructed and discredited themselves among Russian voters in the waning years of Yeltsin’s tenure and that Putin enacted a moderately nationalist  and anti-oligarchical agenda that catered to the tastes of the vast majority of his countrymen. When Putin centralized power in his hands as a quasi-dictator, he did so in a political vacuum.

This pattern is hardly uniquely Russian. We have seen populist, plebiscitary yet police state regimes long before Vladimir Putin’s New Russia. Napoleon Bonaparte was the modern innovator, abolishing the decrepit Directorate and constructing a regime that offered a little something for everybody who wanted a glorious France; his cabinet included Jacobin Terrorists, Monarchists, Girondins, aristocracy, bourgeosie and the chameleon-like Talleyrand. Napleon made use of “new men” and flattered the old nobility even as he created a broad class of “notables” and answered the desire of the French for both greatness and order. Propaganda was used liberally but so to were the police-spies of Fouche to cadge Napoleon’s impressive plebescitary majorities out of the electorate. How different, functionally speaking, is Vladimir Putin? Or for that matter, Hugo Chavez ?

We  could go back still further to the Caesars – Julius and his canny heir Augustus. Both men understood well that truly revolutionary changes in a political system were most placidly accepted when cloaked in the guise of adhering to old forms and restoring order and normality ( it must be said though, that Octavian understood this better than his martial Uncle). After periods of disorder, want or uncertainty there has always been many people who are all too willing to trade liberty for economic security.

Whenever authoriarianism has the added attraction of marshalling competence and cultural values behind it’s standard, democrats should beware.


Thomas P.M. Barnett – “Putin Positions himself as Russia’s Lee Kwan Yew

The Guardian – “Putin, the Kremlin power struggle and the $ 40 bn fortune

The Russia Blog – “Why Russia Loves Putin

Michael Barone – “Putin: Odd Choice for Person of the Year

6 Responses to “Retro- Authoritarianism….So Old, it’s New”

  1. CKR Says:

    So much that could be said and so little time!

    We need only to go back to recent history: Russia’s humiliations of the nineties, which the US helped to exacerbate. Russia would probably blame the US for much of this anyway, but the US made some mistakes that should have been avoided. And those mistakes have been compounded and expanded during the early years of the twenty-first century.

    And that contrasts with China, which decided to put economics temporally before politics, in contrast to Gorbachev’s program. So Putin is reverting to a China model.

    I would like to think that the electronic openness that no country can any longer avoid (although North Korea and Turkmenistan seem to be having some success here), plus improving economics, will open up politics in both China and Russia. But it will take some time.

  2. zen Says:

    I agree that U.S. policy toward Russia quite shortsighted played a role here, much to the dismay of Richard Nxon and not a few Soviet/Russia experts across the political spectrum at the time. The old Soviet nomenklatura and the oligarchs looted Russia to the tune of some $ 220 billion but that cash did not end up in mattresses in Minsk but primarily in Western bank accounts and both we and the Euros looked the other way.

    The fault for Russia’s parlous state in the 90’s was primarily that of the Russians themselves, predominantly from the accumulated damage inflicted by the Communists coming home to roost, secondarily by Yeltsin’s administration and corrupt clan. We however, missed an historic opportunity to try to help integrate Russia, warts and all, into the West and instead favored the short term interests of special pleaders in crafting Russia policy.  An epic waste of a historical moment.

  3. Larry Says:

    "And that contrasts with China, which decided to put economics temporally before politics, in contrast to Gorbachev’s program. So Putin is reverting to a China model."

    But more than the China model, isn’t Putin just conforming to the Globalization model? As Barnett has said, Globalization will not look American. Isn’t Putin just going with what looks like globalization: don’t judge countries just trade deals, don’t judge leaders only non-zero sum partnerships, and don’t judge other governments value sets only their ability to stabilize global relationships?

    If that is what he is basing his governing on, then it doesn’t look like a real problem in the global market place. Are there some explicit rules that he is violating, which would exclude him from the global economy, or do you even think, by his action, that he is starting to exclude himself from the global market? In that case, is he using his advantage as a energy exporter to keep his economy afloat?

    In other words, other than possibility energy blackmail, in the context of globalization is there anything about his political actions that would exclude him or his country from the globalized world? China seems to be doing OK.

    " How different, functionally speaking, is Vladimir Putin? Or for that matter, Hugo Chavez ?"

    They have kept the Internet open? They enable their people to Observe and therefore believe their observations? Of course that in itself has made some rich and has lifted many out of poverty.

  4. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Retro-Authoritarianism in Russia Says:

    […] Cross-posted at Zenpundit […]

  5. Michael Says:

    Another article on the same subject:

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