Can Putinism solve its contradictions?


Russia today is a hybrid state, combining democratic institutions with authoritarian practices, which coexist in a continual state of tension. Richard Sakwa analyses its contradictions and suggests how the constitutional state can re-assert itself against the arbitrariness of the regime.

Richard Sakwa
27 December 2013

The dual state

The process of change in Russia, in its extraordinary depth and intensity, while outwardly conforming to principles of normality and regularity, remains contradictory. This has given rise to a distinctive type of dual state. Freedom has been granted to the nation, but this freedom can only be exercised within the constraints of the logic of the transformative process itself. In other words, while a typical array of democratic institutions has been created within a constitutional framework, a parallel system has emerged that claims certain prerogatives that transcend the rules and constraints of the constitutional state.

In Russia, there is no clear line where legality and constitutionalism end and the arbitrariness of the administrative regime begins.

This ‘prerogative state’, or as I call it, administrative regime (Verwaltungsstaat), represents a distinctive case of ‘domain democracy’, where the rules applied to the rest of society do not apply to itself. The distinction between the two wings of the ‘dual state’, the constitutional state and the administrative regime, is central to my understanding of the contradictions of the Putin system.[1] This duality is even more pronounced in Russia than even, for example, in Turkey, where journalists and generals are regularly imprisoned, parties closed down by the order of government controlled courts, and major restrictions imposed on various communities, notably the Kurds.


Recently Putinism has taken a 'neo-traditionalist' turn which has seen the Kremlin adopt such controversial policies as the 'anti-gay' laws. Photo cc: Kasya Shahovskaya

In Russia, the gap between the regime and the state is apparent, but it is fluid and constantly changing. There is no clear line where legality and constitutionalism end and the arbitrariness of the administrative regime begins. Indeed, the regime uses the law to achieve its own aims, thus undermining public respect for the law. At the same time, the regime is skilful enough not to subvert the constitutional order entirely, as this would undermine its own legitimacy. It has managed, for example, to avoid political blunders like declaring a state of emergency, which would immediately change the character of the system completely. However, elements of emergency rule are embedded in the daily practices of governance, where certain actors can undermine the autonomy of the judicial system and the impartial application of regulatory systems.

Russian politics is thus characterised by the dominance of a powerful yet diffuse administrative regime that recognises its subordination to the constitutional state on the one side and its formal accountability to the institutions of mass representative democracy on the other. However, it is not effectively constrained by either, hence the ‘regime’ character of the dominant power system. At the same time it would be an exaggeration to suggest that a full-blown ‘prerogative state’ has emerged in Russia, ruling through emergency decrees and sustained repression (which would define Russia as a full-blown authoritarian state); but at the same time democratic institutions are subordinate to the regime and vulnerable to its arbitrary rule.

Putinism at 15

This makes the study of contemporary politics in Russia both frustrating and challenging. Putinism has an elusive quality that embodies the contradictions of Russian society itself. The recent ‘cultural turn’ in politics, for example, was prefigured by various conservative measures enacted by regional assemblies. On 29 February 2012 the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly was one of the first to adopt ‘anti-gay’ laws – prohibiting ‘public actions aimed at propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, transgenderism amongst minors’, as Article 7.1 of the law put it. This conservative turn prefigured the more general trend towards a neo-traditionalist view of public policy that characterises Putin’s third term.

Putinism has an elusive quality that embodies the contradictions of Russian society itself.

Putin has dominated Russian politics for a decade and a half, since he was first appointed prime minister by Boris Yeltsin in August 1999. Putinism has undergone notable changes since then, in both its domestic and foreign policy stance, yet at a deep level there is substantial continuity. In the UK there is still discussion about whether ‘Thatcherism’ existed as such; in the same way, in Russia it can be questioned whether Putin deserves to become an ‘ism’.

In my view, with some qualifications, we have now come to the point where it has to be recognised that Putin’s dominance in Russia has meta-historical significance. Liberal critics will no doubt turn up their noses at this, and say that he is little more than a jumped up mediocre security official, whose stifling rule has put an end to Russia’s historic opportunity to develop a vibrant civil society, democratic government and dynamic economy, and extinguished all hope that the country could cast aside its imperial legacy to join the liberal international order as a respected democratic state.


In 2013 Putinism came of age as a phenomenon in global politics: Russia averted a US attack on Syria and helped broker a deal over Iranian nuclear weapons.

This argument has some validity, but it is distorted by the failure of Putin’s critics to recognise the hegemonic character of the present international order; the systemic inadequacies of neo-liberal political economy; and the structural demands placed upon Russia by its geopolitical location and history. Liberals are typically only too happy to throw all this on the bonfire of traditionalism, and so become by default unwitting accomplices of hegemonic power, while at the same time denying Russia any right to have ‘national interests’ of its own. It is these interests that Putin has been able to substantiate, however partially, inadequately, and contradictorily, and despite never clearly enunciating what precisely they are. But then he is not the first world leader whose rhetorical promise exceeds his philosophical grasp.

The third term

The project of Eurasian integration has become the big idea of Putin’s third term, accompanied by the assertion of Russia’s autonomy in international affairs, the articulation of conservative values at home and abroad, and elements of a ‘regime reset’ in domestic politics that allows a degree of decentralisation. Putin talked about this in his annual address to the Federal Assembly on 12th December, where he put a new emphasis on local government. He quoted the Russian political and religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev’s belief that ‘the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state’ -  sentiments that the Kremlin now evidently shares with the Vatican.

In 2013 Russia averted another American blunder of historic proportions in Syria, helped broker a deal over Iranian nuclear weapons, and in general announced its return as a major player on the global stage.

After a traumatic start to his third term, Putin has not only been able to consolidate his position at the head of the Russian power system, but has made all his peers at home and abroad, including most major world leaders, look like pygmies. The protest movement that swept through Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Prospekt has dwindled into insignificance, but the reforms inspired by the demonstrations in large part remain. These include easier party and electoral registration rules, direct elections of regional governors and much more. Of course, the regime has no intention of giving up its regulatory role over the free exercise of the institutions of the constitutional state but, unlike Egypt or Turkey, it has been able to do this without widespread repression. And the display of magnanimity that has seen an amnesty for the Greenpeace activists, Pussy Riot and Bolotnaya Square detainees, and most spectacularly of all, a pardon for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has also cleared the ground for a less controversial Sochi Winter Olympics.

With most political prisoners released, Russia could play a more convincing and authoritative role in international affairs. In 2013 Putinism finally came of age as a phenomenon in global politics. Russia averted another American blunder of historic proportions in Syria, helped broker a deal over Iranian nuclear weapons, and in general announced its return as a major player on the global stage. The Achilles heel of all this, of course, was its sharply declining economic performance, with growth of around 1.5% in 2013, far lower than an ‘emerging’ economy like Russia should be posting at this stage in its development.


This is where the contradictions of the dual state reveal their negative side. One result of the dual system is that the two orders are locked in stalemate. Symptoms  of this include the marginalisation of autonomous public participation in the management of its affairs; a continuing dependence on energy revenue; lack of diversity and dynamism in the economy, above all in the small and medium sector; and a repeated failure to integrate into the international community as ‘one of us’. In domestic affairs the ‘regime’ type entity (usually referred to by Russians as vlast’: literally, ‘power’) remains external to the operation of the constitutional order, while internationally Russia remains not so much a ‘constitutive other’ as something alien and indigestible.


Putin experienced a traumatic start to his third term with mass protests sweeping through Moscow. The demonstrations inspired reforms such as easier party and electoral registration rules and the reinstatement of direct elections for regional governors. Photo cc: Evgeniy Isaev

There is a clash of two political orders: the forms of order associated with the constitutional state, on the one hand and, on the other, the neo-patrimonial features of the administrative regime. Elements of both are present in most countries, but in Russia the combination of the two constitutes a distinctive order of its own. The two types of rules interact on a daily basis, leaving observers to clutch at every small signal as evidence of the predominance of one or the other.

Paradoxically, the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 1993 Constitution is being used as an opportunity to undermine its very real achievements.

The fundamental question today is whether Russia has rejected the liberal separation of powers formally enshrined in the 1993 constitution. Has it evolved into an authoritarian system, operating according to a neo-patrimonial logic of patronage-based inclusion, accompanied by the exclusion of political threats to the power system by the application of procedural restrictions? Or is there still the evolutionary potential for the constitutional state to re-assert itself against the arbitrariness of the regime? In other words, can the regime be ‘constitutionalised’?

Democracy is seldom handed down from above, but requires popular pressure from below. The wave of protest activity around the Parliamentary and Presidential elections in 2011-12 can be seen as a return to the agenda of 1991 – not just the consolidation of Russian statehood but the establishment of free and equal citizenship. Under both Yeltsin and Putin the regime has claimed authority over the people in the name of various supra-political tasks – above all the creation of market capitalism and the institutions of statehood and the defence of the territorial integrity of the state – and this gave rise to the dual state.

The protests, which began in December 2011, represented the single greatest challenge to the entrenched powers of the administrative regime. The most productive means of maintaining the dynamic of renewal would be:

  • i. focus in both official and oppositional politics on strengthening the constitutional state, namely the rule of law;
  • ii. free, fair and competitive elections;
  • iii. property rights to be effectively defended against raiders and marauders; and
  • iv. the strengthening of political institutions to allow them to work as intended by the constitution, and so to breathe new life into the political system as a whole.

Pressure from a mature and mobilised political nation could revive the institutions of the constitutional state.

Paradoxically, the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 1993 Constitution is being used as an opportunity to undermine its very real achievements. Just as the poll tax proved to be the downfall of Mrs Thatcher, ill-considered constitutional reform may be the hurdle at which Putinism finally stumbles and falls.



[1] See Richard Sakwa, ‘The Dual State in Russia’, Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 3, July-September 2010, pp. 185-206.

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